This magical phrase has completely changed the way I look at a problem! The single greatest mind shift in all of the methods, tools, and processes I’ve learned about resides in these three words, “How Might We…”. The words aren’t “How Can We…” or “How Should we…”, these words are specifically selected to inspire creativity and innovative solutions. “How Might We…” implies whatever you come up with… might not work… and that’s OK! The phrasing helps guide the team into asking the Right questions to tackle their greatest challenges.


A Bit of History,

Historical image of a tan sandstone staircase leading up a mountain.

Developed by Proctor & Gamble in the 1970s, popularized by IDEO (The prolific innovation and design firm), and now you see it mentioned in SPRINT by Jake Knapp (Brilliant process & Highly recommend!) and the Harvard Business Review in “The Secret Phrase Top Innovators Use“. IDEO breaks the phrase down: “HOW” assumes there are solutions out there, “MIGHT” means when we test ideas they might work and they might not, and the “WE” says we’re going to build it together. The “we” may be you and the customer, or it may be the full team, but innovation is a journey best traveled as a group.

Here are some Great Additional Resources,


Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

So How Does This Work?

The psychology within the phrase is intentional and is best used after developing an initial problem statement. Next, collect empathy feedback from people impacted by the challenge. (Achieved from employing the “Voice of the Customer” tool). Once you’ve built a notebook of insights on the challenge, begin asking “How Might We…” to various aspects of the insights towards generating many problem statements.

This tool was successfully deployed in defining and solving a problem in the “The Flipping Finance Challenge“. The following example is the results of the challenge.

three colorful sticky notes each with downward pointing arrows connecting to a large orange rectangle with the words "How Might we..." in the middle.  A teal sticky note reads "becoming a smart region and national transportation hub".  A purple sticky note reads "Matching housing stock with targeted populations".   A green sticky note reads manage preserve and maintain nature ecology while growing.

Gary, IN provided various challenges and the below three led into my “How Might We…”

  • Becoming a “Smart Region” & National Transportation Hub
  • Matching Housing Stock with Targeted Populations
  • Manager Preserve & Maintain Nature Ecology While Growing

Developing How Might We Statements,

When developing a “How Might We…”, I am a BIG fan of utilizing white boards and sticky notes. To make the process easier, abbreviate the phrase with “HMW” placed in the top left corner of each brainstormed problem statement. Therefore, you will save lots of time and ink, because you will be writing a lot! The below photo illustrates my thought process on building problem statements using HMW.

Three large pieces of white paper each with many yellow brainstorming sticky notes.  Each sticky note has been organized into families and grouped with arrows pointing to create a flow diagram
Sticky Note Storm – Understand Any of This?

The process begins with the poster on the left. Through researching your challenge, generate insights and opportunities phrased as a HMW. As you begin to work your challenge, it will be helpful to map the process or system under consideration.

Below are a few example HMW,

HMW reduce the barrier to entry for tech startups?HMW utilize abandoned properties as a “carrot” to attract aspiring tech startups?
HMW transform Gary, IN into a team of regulatory entrepreneurs?HMW utilize Colorado-like resources & Chicago proximity to drive millennial tech growth?
HMW deploy a culture of permission-less innovation?HMW reduce barriers for new company adoption? (Housing cost, attracting talent, technological freedom, evasive entrepreneurs, risk taking, tech-enabled taxing)

Once a pile of stickies has been generated, the next step is to affinitize the stickies (This means identify common categories or families to form groups). In this example, the stickies are affinitized to “Gary = Proving Ground”, “Government Enablement”, and “Attracting “Things” & “People””.

All this work leads to the creation of a redefined problem statement! In this case, the problem statement became,

“How Might We Enable Gary’s Ecosystem To Attract Talent Utilizing Natural Resources (National Park, Dunes, Lake Michigan, Proximity To Chicago) to Become a Tech Start-up Proving Ground?”

NOTE: None of the above steps included ANY solutions or problem solving. In this phase, we only care about defining what challenge the team will be solving. A great thing about redefining the problem this way, is it forces the team to re-examine what really matters to the customer and determining the appropriate customer.


Steps & Supplies,

A small pile of colorful sticky notes with various colored dry erase markers and sharpies laying on a black table top

Supplies

Every person should have a stack of sticky notes (I prefer 3″ x 3″, but 3″ x 5″ work great) and a thick marker (Sharpie/dry erase). The thick marker forces the team to write clearly and succinct.

Steps

  • Write HMW in the upper left corner of a sticky note
  • Read, listen, or watch research on problem and challenge (Must include feedback from the customer’s perspective)
  • Hear something interesting? Form that thought into a question using HMW and write it on your sticky note.
  • Peel the note off and stick it somewhere
  • Repeat!

So What?

So you don’t to use this method, it is perfectly acceptable to approach a challenge the traditional way. The traditional method comes with a lot of assumptions including,

large question mark written in chalk on a black chalk board
  • The customer actually knows what their problem is… (Rarely the case)
  • The customer and team solving the challenge has NO preconditioned solution or expected output from the exercise. (If you already know the solution, why are we here?)
  • The problem presented is the correct problem to be solved and not just a symptom of a much larger issue.

Using HMW and other tools to redefine the problem helps ensure the team is driving in the right direction and most closely identifies the root cause of the issue.

From experience at pitch competitions and mentoring six-sigma projects, people and teams often approach a challenge with a solution predefined. In many cases, the solution is defined prior to the problem. How do you know this solution will work for your organization? Has the most effective solution given the requirements? Do you know the requirements and what it takes to implement the solution? How might we identify additional stakeholders to ensure we’re solving the right issue and/or quickly receive feedback on the predetermined solution to gain an idea if this would actually work?

Next Steps,

With your selected problem statements in hand, dive into ideation mode to generate innovative solutions to address your customers challenges.

Effective methods to generate solutions are,

Finally, take your best ideas and test them with your customers for quick feedback and iteration. Generate your MVPs (Minimum Viable Products utilizing fast prototyping methods.


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