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The Innovation Process
Activity 1.2 C

Identify your outstanding questions (and how to answer them)

The exercise in this activity will help you to identify and prioritise your outstanding questions – your known unknowns – and the best way to rapidly gather reliable information on each of them.

You have now identified what you and your team know, as well as outstanding questions that you need to answer in order for you to understand the problem better. Now is the time to prioritise them, and figure out how to answer them.

Things to consider

  • Ensure that consent is obtained in an appropriate manner from anyone who is the subject of your research.
  • Any time that you are engaging in research with affected, vulnerable and sometimes traumatised people there are profound power dynamics and potential for harm. It is therefore critical that you adhere to best practice regarding human subjects research and humanitarian principles.
  • Check whether any communities have recently been involved in research by humanitarian agencies, such as assessments or evaluations. You should not be overburdening people with requests to participate in information gathering exercises.
  • In the early days after an emergency response people have little if any time to participate in research activities; if they are working for humanitarian organisations they will be overstretched, while affected people are often trying to find relatives and friends, salvage possessions and are trying to work out how they can obtain basic goods and services, shelter and even food. Be respectful of time as it is in very short supply for most people in these circumstances.
  • If you are carrying out any research on a sector, ensure that you have a good understanding of the standards for that sector.

Known Unknowns


Take off the sticky notes that have answers on them, and place them in their groups on another Knowledge Map, or under relevant Knowledge Area headings (problem, context, and past and current efforts).

Give each participant three sticky dots and ask them to use these to ‘vote’ for the most important questions that remain by sticking a dot on the relevant question/note. This will provide you with the priority questions to answer (choose a manageable number from the top-ranked questions).

As a group, propose and discuss how you might answer each question based on the types of research – desk review, interview, or observation – and write their suggestions down on coloured sticky notes, or using different coloured pens (eg, orange for desk review, green for interview or focus group discussion (FGD) and red for observation).

Remember that it is unlikely that any one type of research will provide you with information about all three Knowledge Areas. But through a combination of desk research, interviews and direct observations (and various activities), you should be able to uncover relevant information pertaining to all three areas.

Next, come together as a group and go through each sticky note, getting specific on the what and the how.

  • Desk Review: try to identify the website, portal, repository, publication, author, research institute, etc, that you would consult to acquire relevant materials. Note that a desk review can be comprised of publicly available materials published online, as well as the review of internal materials, such as strategy documents or internal audits.
  • Interview and Focus Group Discussion: try to make note of who you would like to interview or engage in an FDG (eg, users of a product or service, crisis-affected populations, humanitarian practitioners or managers, thematic experts) and why you would like to speak with them.
  • Observation: try to make note of where you like to undertake a site visit (eg, a particular office environment, or a distribution point) and what you expect to learn.

Finally, map it out! Take the coloured sticky notes and lay them out on your Knowledge Map.

  • What does it look like?
  • Are any colours overly represented in some areas?
  • Why do you think that is?
  • Do some activities generate knowledge in more than one area? Do some areas look bare?
  • What will you do about that?

You should now have two Knowledge Maps, one with your known knowns and the other with your known unknowns, along with the research questions that you will answer by carrying out interviews and focus group discussions, desk research or observational activities.