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“We imagine we move through the world with spotlights on our heads, illuminating “truth” wherever we choose to look / focus. Actually, we move through the world with projectors, and wherever we turn our gaze, we bring our own experiences, perspectives as a lens on what we see.”

– Adam Kahane, partner at Reos Partners consulting firm and author of Solving Tough Problems.

Based on our experience in developing the Civic Accelerator, tackling a challenge – whether it’s getting citizens to reduce their water consumption or determining the best way to configure municipal parking – is complicated at the best of times. Once you’ve figured out what the problem is you’ll be impatient to get going. 


But checking what you think you know about the problem you’re setting out to solve can avoid costly missteps down the road. This post will take you through why it’s necessary, the different things that can go wrong, and how you can make sure you're working on the "right" challenge to begin with.


Good project management practices suggest it’s important to have a project plan, but why spend time framing or reframing challenges? There are four main reasons: tracking your learning, deepening your understanding of the challenge,  guarding against confirmation bias and avoiding unintended consequences.

Track your learning 

Developing a challenge statement puts a boundary around the work you will need to do including what your outcome will be (or what success looks like) and where you’re starting from (your baseline). This way, you can measure what you’re learning and how successful you are at the end of the project.


Take the Guelph water challenge. We needed to track our learnings because at the outset, there wasn’t a clearcut solution. Under the Civic Accelerator process, a purchase may or may not be made, but there is a great deal of learning achieved around the issue and possible solutions. 


For example, one of the biggest positives to come out of our work was how easy the resulting technology was to install – a bonus that wasn’t identified initially. 

Deepen your understanding

By framing or reframing the challenge, we found that we got a deeper understanding of its different aspects. Getting input from data, people and research produces a more robust picture, which gives you a better sense of what works, for whom, and under what conditions. Ultimately this leads to better decisions. 


For example, we developed the internal communications challenge – in which the city wanted to improve communication with staff who don’t always have access to technology (parks workers, sidewalk cleaners). By conducting user research, we obtained a much better understanding of what kinds of information were most valuable to these staffers. 


Later, when we’re developing and testing a solution, this feedback will shape decisions about design features as well as our strategy for rolling out the solution. 


Avoiding confirmation bias

People are busy, and research has shown that with so much information being presented to us all the time, our brains take shortcuts to reach decisions. We tend to filter the information that we gather so that it confirms what we already know or believe. This is especially so if we have a lot of expertise and have thought deeply about the topic. It’s called confirmation bias


HINT: try having someone else from outside your team (or even your organization) work with you to revise the original description of the challenge you’re working on. This is one role the Guelph Lab has played in Guelph. Research suggests we tend to think more critically when we’re being held accountable by others. In other words, if we need to back up our beliefs and ideas, we’re less likely to fall victim to our biases.  

“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact”

– Warren Buffett

Anticipating Unintended Consequences

We’ve all done it. Made a decision or taken an action that was “guaranteed” to work out the way we planned. And they backfired. Or had ripple effects that were completely unforeseen. We fell victim to the law of unintended consequences


While doing research for the City of Guelph roads challenge, for example, we found out that relying solely on resident data can increase inequality in delivering public services. In Toronto, higher income households were more likely to make service requests related to fixing potholes in 2018. The three wards that made the most pothole complaints via the 311 application made $53,000 to $70,000 more than the city’s average. 


Combining the application data with other approaches – like the city’s own analysis and reporting system – should mitigate this concern. 

Triangulation – the way forward

So how do you effectively frame a challenge that contains a broad understanding of the elements, and reduces the effects of confirmation bias and unintended consequences?


First, you need to develop an initial statement from whoever is most involved in dealing with the challenge. In the Guelph Lab’s experience, we use that statement to ask questions, work collaboratively with city staff to determine as many aspects of the challenge as possible and come up with a revised statement. Then, we revisit the statement and test it again, until everyone is satisfied with the result.  


Triangulation validates and tests the consistency of your challenge statement. It’s about looking at the challenge from a number of different perspectives. 


Ideally, you use a mix of methods, tailored to your questions/needs:

  • Talk to users

  • Talk with stakeholders 

  • Talk to experts 

  • Review documents - strategic plans, past reports – often a source of additional data (surveys etc.)

  • Internet scans – compare to other municipalities

  • Review academic literature – help with theory, case studies, etc. 


Taking a couple of months to properly frame your challenge statement can save a lot of time, money, false starts and unsatisfactory outcomes down the road. It can also build credibility with the people involved who will champion and work on it and the vendors who will apply to find a resolution to it.

What can go wrong…

With the pilot Civic Accelerator in Guelph, we had set three challenges, and only two were carried out because the scope of one challenge was not fully understood. We learned too late that the transportation department felt that the parking challenge was to efficiently move people around downtown and collect fees while the economic development staff saw it as a way to draw people to the downtown. By the time the economic perspective was realized, the project was well on its way, competing priorities took precedence and unfortunately the project had to be wrapped up. 

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