Finding The Right Problem

By Martha Rush, Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front

After an entrepreneur has invented something cool—like the Keurig coffee maker, the car cup holder, the Yeti mug, or Uber—it seems impossible that no one had thought of it before.

Didn’t we realize how much leftover coffee was getting wasted in large carafes? Didn’t we spill all over ourselves while driving? Didn’t we complain about taxis?

Didn’t we realize how much leftover coffee was getting wasted in large carafes? Didn’t we spill all over ourselves while driving? didn’t we complain about taxis?

The answer to all of these questions is yes. We did notice. We did complain. and we were aware of the problems. 

But we dismissed these problems as mere inconveniences, the hassles of daily living—not problems worth actually solving, let alone problems that could launch billion-dollar businesses!

This is one of the key stumbling blocks for students learning to be entrepreneurs: They need to learn how to pay closer attention to the problems around them—and see themselves in the role of problem solvers

Running a traditional brainstorming session won’t help, which is why problem generation activities too often end in frustration, resignation, and cliched ideas like, “let’s just make beaded bracelets” or “let’s just offer dog-walking services.” 

There’s a bunch of reasons for this:

  • It’s intimidating (especially for introverts)

  • It’s usually dominated by a few loud voices

  • The ideas conform to a few major themes

  • It’s too easy to criticize ideas, even when “no criticism” is a ground rule

  • Students are not used to having their ideas heard or valued

So, how do we get kids to generate ideas? How can we help them find meaningful problems to tackle without doing it for them?

Getting ideas on the table is one thing, but finding good ideas—problems worth solving—is the real objective here.

#1 Keep It Simple

In our startup club, we talk to students about surfacing and studying problems from the trivial to the titanic. We ask them easy survey questions like:

What annoyed you today?

What wasted your time?

What worried you?

And, if a fairy godmother could change one thing for you, what would it be?

#2 Talk to Real People

Then we send them out to ask these same questions of their friends, their siblings, their parents, their neighbors, their teachers, and their social media followers.

#3 Narrow It Down

When they come back, they meet in randomly assigned small groups and share their ideas whilst distilling the responses to find the top three or four.

They come up with ideas like:

  • No pockets on women’s clothing

  • Too much time wasted on electronics

  • Plastic waste

  • Disposable diapers

#4 Bucket Themes

Then the students write their top problems on large posters and each group explains their list. We combine ones that seem similar—three groups this year identified the “pocket problem”—and then, students vote with Post-its for the most interesting problems—ones they might want to work on. Each student gets three votes and they can put all of their votes on one problem or spread them out.

We look at which problems got the most votes, then we give students a few more days to percolate on the problems—and conduct more interviews—before choosing the most promising ones to tackle.

But this is just the beginning…

Once we have selected the top 2-3 problems, and students have grouped themselves into small teams based on the problems they want to tackle, they move on to problem validation.

That’s right—we’re not done yet. Getting ideas on the table is one thing, but finding good ideas—problems worth solving—is the real objective here. 

That means taking those problems back to the larger community and interviewing folks (again), to verify that the problem is really a problem. In other words, it’s a problem for so many people that you can identify a market.

This year, our teams started out testing these problems:

  • Disposable diaper waste in landfills

  • Long headphone wires that get tangled

  • Disposable makeup wipe waste

Only the “makeup wipe” problem survived validation. (Another team switched from the diaper problem to the waste generated by coffee cups.) 

The makeup team is going strong, with a minimum viable product in the works and more than 100 customer interviews in hand.

So, once we’ve gone through this process, what makes a problem “the right problem”? 

It’s not a matter of scope—we’ve had students successfully take on problems as large as plastic waste and problems as small as better, cheaper pencil cases.

It’s also not a matter of novelty —our students are usually not the first or last entrepreneurs to tackle a particular problem.

Finding the right problem comes down to just three things:

  • Finding a problem students are interested in

  • Finding a problem that affects a lot of people, that they don’t already have a good solution for

  • Finding a problem that students can tackle without putting themselves in danger

That’s it. If you can coach students through the problem generation and validation process and end up with something that meets these three criteria, they are ready for the next step.


Martha Rush

Martha, founder and CEO of NeverBore Education Consulting and author of Beat Boredom (Stenhouse, 2018), is a nationally recognized teacher with 25 years of classroom experience. She has worked as a professional curriculum writer since 2011 and a workshop consultant since 2013. She founded NeverBore in 2015 with a mission to provide teachers nationwide with hands-on strategies to overcome boredom and improve student engagement and motivation. She now serves as Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero and has compiled the QØ Teen Startup Handbook.