Defining a good problem

When we start scouting for good problems, we use a set of criteria to help us structure the research and set priorities. Here is our list of criteria for what makes a good problem.

  • A good problem identifies a real obstacle to be overcome. The challenge here is being able to make a distinction between the root-cause of a problem and what is merely a symptom. Focusing on a symptom brings limited value as it ultimately fails to solve the underlying issue. A good problem will identify an actual barrier that, if addressed, can enable progress.

  • A good problem is worthwhile. A good problem, when solved, will unlock the type and scale of impact sought by a funder. This can be anything from a positive impact on a specific group of people, to a significant advancement of scientific knowledge. Desired impact will be tightly linked to the vision or mission of a funding organisation.

  • A good problem is timely and solvable. Problems are not defined in isolation. A good problem is one where current external factors – political, economic, legal, social, and most importantly, technical – are not barriers, but are conducive to innovation and positive change. A good problem will be solvable in the chosen context and within the intended timeframe.

  • A good problem draws together a community of solvers. A good problem should provoke and incite curiosity. Regardless of the topic, a good problem will have some aspect that will entice an existing or new community of solvers to come up with new ideas and work on refining them into viable solutions.

  • A good problem is one that a funder can do something about. Even though a problem may be ‘good’ according to the above criteria, it is important that funding organisations appreciate whether the problem is good for them and whether they are best placed to do something about it. This means making sure that they have the relevant funding, capacity, networks, or convening power necessary to support and incentivise problem-solving.

While the above are a good starting point for defining a good problem, these criteria will need to be adjusted and expanded on to match the vision, ambitions, and resources of specific funders.

Other useful frameworks:

  • Open Philanthropy look for a combination of importance, neglectedness, and tractability when they’re scoping focus areas (more about their process here).

Looking for a good problem?

We are a close team of designers and researchers who are passionate about tackling ambitious and important problems. If you’re looking to grow your impact, we’d love to hear from you!