The Goldilocks Effect: How to get innovation Challenge design ‘just right’

By Alice McGee

Posted on

The strengths of the innovations you develop largely depend on the quality of the questions you ask. Considering that 85% of organizations confess to being bad at problem diagnosis, there’s a lot riding on getting your Challenge design ‘just right’. In this blog, we’ll share some key tips on three elements of Challenge design, and how to ensure you find the sweet spot for each.

Time spent designing a Challenge:

Hot porridge – too little time

One of the benefits of Challenge Driven Innovation® is that resources are not wasted on solving issues that don’t fit with your business strategy. Launching poorly thought-out Challenges wastes resources and damages the credibility of your innovation program. There’s also a risk of falling for the sunk cost fallacy and pursuing ideas that answer the wrong problems.

This, in turn, pushes you even further away from solving the true issues you are facing. Problem diagnosis doesn’t have to be a long deep dive, but investing appropriate time at this stage will save resources in the long run.

A hand holding a small, white, analogue alarm clock.

Cold porridge – too much time

Spending excessive lengths of time breaking down problems and reframing Challenges can lead to ‘paralysis by analysis’. You can reframe a Challenge dozens of times and have different opinions on what the ‘correct’ wording should be. There will come a point where refining your Challenge has diminishing returns and you lose sight of requirements that will change over time.

If this sounds familiar, you should consider increasing the frequency of Challenge launches to gather new data which, in turn, better informs Challenge design in the future.

Just right:

  • You’ve considered how frequently you want to launch Challenges.
  • You’re using past Challenges to inform future Challenge design.
  • You’re only making incremental changes to your Challenge each time you reframe.
  • You’re still willing to embrace failure – despite careful design, some Challenges may not deliver any ideas worth pursuing.
  • You’ve allowed enough time to consider the Challenge scope and language (see below)


Challenge Scope:

Hot porridge – the Challenge has been overly specified

It’s very easy to slip into problem-solving mode when designing a Challenge. This often leads us to specify what the outcome of a Challenge must look like. Law of the hammer, a phenomenon in which we are biased to draw on the skills we have, is seen everywhere.

For instance, when writing a blog about Challenge design, someone with a background in Psychology may include information about cognitive biases in each paragraph. If a Challenge designer makes any assumptions around the correct solution before launching the Challenge, the framing will depend on the experience of the Challenge designer.

For example, if the problem is a need to increase sales, a Challenge designed by a Marketing manager would likely read: How can we reach out to different sales channels? Whereas, a Challenge designed by a Product manager is more likely to read: How can we release more features to make our product more attractive?

Another common trap that Challenge designers fall into is holding onto existing beliefs. The confirmation bias explains our motivation to have our opinions validated. For example, if you believe that pets end up in shelters because their owners are selfish, you may seek solutions to encourage pet owners to care more about their pets.

However, if you tested this assumption, you may find that most families are forced to give up their pets due to financial pressures. Reliance on experience and beliefs rather than tried-and-tested hypothesises should be identified and resolved before the Challenge is launched.

Proximal vs distal goals

Large, abstract goals such as ‘increasing sales’ can be thought of as ‘distal’ goals. These are met by achieving ‘proximal’ goals, i.e. immediate goals or ‘stepping stones’, such as running a successful social media campaign. To optimize Challenge design, you should identify proximal goals contained in Challenge statements and ask important questions, such as:

Do we know this is the best way to get to the distal goal?
Do we even know what the distal goal is?

After all, proximal goals are just a means to an end.


Real-world problems present themselves in context rather than in neatly, de-constructed statements. For example, a vascular surgeon may be challenged with mending a small hole in an artery and a mechanical engineer may be tasked with fixing a crack in a deep-sea pipeline. The context is wildly different, but in essence, they are dealing with very similar problems.

Restricting the Challenge scope can prevent Solvers from identifying ‘bright spots’ – scenarios where the problem does not exist or has been overcome. Pumps & Pipes, a collection of innovators in aerospace, medicine, and energy are a brilliant example of what can be achieved when you remove unnecessary context and encourage people to ‘explore their neighbour’s toolbox’.

Pipes under the water.

Many successful Challenges run on the Wazoku Crowd have relied on Solvers identifying these ‘bright spots’ and deploying their unique experience to solve issues for some of the world’s biggest organizations.

Cold porridge – the Challenge is too broad

Functional fixedness is a phenomenon found in problem-solving Psychology that affects an individual’s ability to innovate and be creative when solving Challenges. Humans can struggle with solving broad problems because our brains are wired to focus on specific details and patterns, rather than broader concepts.

When we’re told to ‘think outside the box’, we gravitate towards building on what we already know and will struggle to consider alternative perspectives and multiple factors at once. Challenges that are too broad can harm Solver engagement, lead to ideas that address symptoms rather than root causes, or are too close to current ways of working to be impactful.

 Just right

“To engage the largest number of Solvers from the widest variety of fields, a problem statement must meet the twin goals of being extremely specific but not unnecessarily technical.”
Dwayne Spradlin, President and CEO of InnoCentive

Getting the scope of Challenge design right means that you’re doing all the following things:

You are using people’s skills and experience to your advantage – you have involved people that have less in common with you professionally, as well as people that are not close to the problem you are solving.

You are including contextual information wisely – any information that ‘steers’ outcomes are tested and documented. This information may be included as a Challenge description but should be excluded from the Challenge title as much as possible.

You have not specified what the solution should look like – when a Challenge is reframed correctly, it should produce a range of ideas, rather than variations on a theme. Some contextual restraints can’t be ignored. However, these restraints should only be included when you have validated that they are necessary.

Final Checks:

Before launching a Challenge, it’s a good idea to dissect the language used in your Challenge statement. This is a good way to bring together everything you have learned so far. Ideally, these checks would be performed by someone not previously involved in the Challenge design process to pick up on any issues with fresh eyes.

Some key points to consider at this stage would be:

  • Words like ‘who’, ‘when’, and ‘can’ assume a certain direction. The famous opener ‘How might we’ is preferable.
  • Technical language is limited and only included if properly validated.
  • Restrictions, such as who the Challenge is designed for and the end goals of the stakeholders are also properly validated.
  • Don’t lose sight of the distal goal. Adding the phrase ‘in order to’ in your Challenge description will focus Solvers on the goal and ensure Challenge designers have questioned proximal goals.
  • Use emotionally charged language with care. Once people are feeling defensive, it becomes difficult to solve any problem on a logical level, so it is best to avoid negative language. On the other hand, aspirational language may boost engagement.


In this blog, we’ve looked at how to ensure you get Challenge design just right. We’ve outlined the elements of time spent creating a Challenge and the scope of a Challenge. We’ve also shared some key final checks for you to consult before launching a Challenge, to ensure that your Challenge is optimized.

To learn more about Challenge design optimization, take a look at our three-part series on Challenge planning here!

By Alice McGee

Alice spends her time at Wazoku tending to our customer's platform needs. In her spare time, she's a keen cellist and you should hit her up if you're in need of a great 70s Rock playlist!