Reducing Complexity in Conceptual Thinking
Using Challenge Mapping
Dr. Min Basadur
Professor of Organizational Behavior and Innovation
McMaster University DeGroote School of Business
1280 Main Street West
Hamilton, Ontario L8S 4M4
Dr. Min Basadur, B.A. Sc, MBA, Ph.D., P.Eng.
Min Basadur is a world leading expert in the implementation of innovative thinking processes for
tangible business results, the founder of the Basadur Applied Creativity Center for Research, and
Professor of Organizational Behavior at McMaster University. Dr. Basadur consults
internationally with many large and small organizations including PepsiCo, Kimball
International, Stelco, Magna, Goodrich, Frito Lay and Procter & Gamble.
Upon completing Engineering Physics at the University of Toronto, Dr. Basadur joined Procter
& Gamble in Research and Development. Soon after, he began developing and practicing on-
the-job creative problem solving skills within the organization and involving others. As his
experience in implementing creativity and innovation organization-wide expanded, he was
awarded three U.S. patents and helped bring several new products to market.
While at Procter & Gamble, Dr. Basadur integrated his practical experience in applied creativity
with doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati. This combined research and
implementation program culminated in his dissertation being selected by the American
Psychological Association as the best doctoral research in Industrial and Organizational
Psychology in 1980. The following year he joined McMaster University's School of Business,
and began to build a strong applied research and consulting program with business and industry.
His extensive publications include two books, The Power of Innovation and Simplex: A Flight to
Creativity, numerous scientific journals articles, training manuals, creativity and innovation
assessment instruments like the Basadur Creative Problem Solving Profile Inventory and
Ideation-Evaluation Preference Scale. He also makes key-note speeches and presentations
Reducing Complexity in Conceptual Thinking
Using Challenge Mapping
It is often difficult for groups of people to think together innovatively, especially in
situations which are ill-defined and involve complex issues. A unique conceptual thinking
method for reducing complexity and identifying strategic and tactical challenges (goals) and
relating them to one another is introduced. The method, Challenge Mapping, can be deliberately
applied to help individuals, groups and whole organizations think through, clarify and
conceptualize complex, ambiguous, and strategic issues and increase understanding of fuzzy
situations both from big picture and specific standpoints. Challenge Mapping is a special tool of
the Simplex system of applied creativity which synergizes analytical and imaginative thinking
through four stages, emphasizing problem generation and conceptualization prior to solution
development and implementation. Such emphasis is not taught in formal education. On the
contrary, most students leave school totally immersed in the solutions they have learned, then
find that in every day work these solutions don’t often match the ill-structured problems they
encounter. The most important skill needed seems to be finding and defining the right problems
to work on. Examples of real world applications of Challenge Mapping are shared.
Reducing Complexity in Conceptual Thinking
Using Challenge Mapping
Why Problem Definition is So Important
Asked what he would do with only one hour to save the world, Albert Einstein said, “I
would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and then five minutes solving it”. He believed
that the best problem solvers were those who could define problems in new ways. The same
belief has been expressed by many famous problem solvers such as Polaroid inventor Edwin
Land who said “If a problem can be defined, it can be solved” and the famous educational
psychologist John Dewey who wrote “A problem well stated is half solved”.
There are two very different kinds of problems and decisions people encounter in their
work and personal lives. The first kind is of a more “programmed” nature. Solutions to this first
kind are based on rigorous training on the job or in school, experience, analytical skills and
knowledge of rules and procedures pre-designed to handle similar situations. The second kind
are of a more “non-programmed” nature. Non-programmed problems usually have never been
encountered before and have no pre-set rules and procedures to guide their handling. They are
sometimes caused by changing circumstances. Such problems are typically less structured,
unpredictable, and ambiguous as to “what is wanted”. The main challenge is to discover and
define “what is wanted” because nobody really knows. Often sensing, anticipating and defining
the problem is more difficult than solving it. Non-programmed problems require additional
skills such as problem and opportunity sensing, fact gathering, problem defining, creating and
evaluating diverse options, and implementing new things that have never been tried before.
They require the use of imagination, non-linear thinking and some risk-taking.
Skills in both of the above kinds of problems are vital for effective work performance and
personal happiness. However, our traditional formal training and education addresses primarily
the former, the more “programmed” kind of problems. We tend to learn formulas, problem
“types”, and rules and procedures. In a more stable world of the past, this was tolerable.
However, it is no longer sufficient. In business – and in industry, government, and institutions –
in the world outside of school, nobody defines your assignment. And you almost never get a
grade. In fact, what is needed most is the ability to operate independently. That’s another
matter. The challenge becomes to somehow teach ourselves and others how to live with the
anxiety of not knowing what we are “supposed” to do and how to begin to find out what to do by
ourselves – when there are no assignments and no signposts and the territory is uncharted.
The main purpose of this paper is to share a learnable, deliberate process of conceptual
thinking which is designed not so much for creating good answers and solutions but rather more
for discovering good questions and challenges, working through an ill-structured situation,
turning a sudden crisis into an opportunity, or scoping out a complex project. This process is
called Challenge Mapping and employs the Basadur “Why - What’s Stopping?” Analysis
(Basadur, Ellspermann and Evans, 1994) to uncover specific challenges being faced then relate
them to one another. This process increases understanding of the situation both from a big
picture and a specific standpoint. By applying Challenge Mapping, an individual or group can
think through, clarify and define a complex, ambiguous, or strategic issue in a much more
efficient and less frustrating way to identify specific problems and challenges within a milieu of
vague, global issues and convert philosophical motherhood statements into precisely targeted
For example, relatively vague statements such as “morale is bad here”; “communication
is our biggest problem”; “we need more employee involvement”; “we are a customer focused
organization”; and “innovation is our first priority” are transformed into more specific, simply
worded challenges such as “how might we help our employees take pride in their every day
work?”; “how might we increase the amount of face to face contact every employee experiences
with employees from other departments?”; “how might we make it easier for every employee to
create and implement improvements to our procedures, products and services?”; “how might we
reward our employees for trying to increase customer satisfaction?”; and “how might we make
sure we bring to market at least one successful new product each year?” The success of
Challenge Mapping and Why - What’s Stopping? depends on the skill of the participants in
applying them. This skill includes being able to use simple and specific words in asking
questions and providing answers. Challenge Mapping and Why – What’s Stopping? are part of
the Simplex system for applied creativity which is more fully described in Basadur (1995) and
whose effectiveness has been scientifically evaluated (Basadur, Graen, and Green, 1982;
Kabanoff and Rossiter, 1994).
Problem Definition from an Organizational Perspective
The word “problem” has been defined in many ways. One way is as a gap between the
present and some desired state of affairs (Evans, 1991). However, the word “gap” can carry a
positive, negative or unknown connotation, providing three different views. A positive gap
exists when a fine opportunity is sensed for an innovative product or procedure which will move
the state of affairs upward, higher than the present baseline even when the present baseline is
satisfactory or the best seemingly possible. For example, Land (1972) attributed his Polaroid
camera invention to his ability to discover and define a problem where seemingly no problem
existed. A negative gap exists when there has been a drop in performance below a baseline that
needs to be corrected. An unknown gap exists when our base state of affairs has been or soon
will be wiped out by environmental changes beyond our control.
Of these three connotations of ‘problem’, the tendency in organizations has been to
consider mostly the second (negative). The Kepner and Tregoe (K-T) Method (1965) for
problem defining explicitly recognizes the concept of a ‘gap’ as a deviation or drop from a
formerly satisfactory level of performance. It provides a methodology for determining the root
cause of this deviation and the person or persons associated with the root cause. One typical
technique for determining root cause is to use a cause and effect diagram in which potential
causes of a deviation are brainstormed within predetermined categories. Another approach is
stairstepping which involves determining the cause of a situation and then the cause of the cause,
and repeating until the lowest, most basic cause has been reached (Huge, 1990). Brightman
(1988) extends these approaches by involving groups to explore different possible causes for a
problem in a method called the Alternative Worldview Method. Brightman states that the
method is successful “because it helps us do what we naturally do best – seek causes”.
Each of the techniques described above are reasonable to try to use to define problems.
However, Brightman, Elrod and Ramakrishma (1988) notes that few of these are actually used
by managers. One of the reasons is that these tools do not always fit the problems faced by
people in day-to-day work. Only a small proportion of the problems require finding the root
cause to enable returning to a well defined baseline performance level. Furthermore, people
sometimes waste time determining the root cause of a problem that is entirely the wrong problem
to be considered. A classic example is the one involving “slow elevators”, in which the more
accurate problem definition was not that the riders were waiting too long for the elevators, but
that they perceived themselves as waiting too long (Hesse and Woolsey, 1980). Finding the root
cause of slow elevators is a waste of time when the real objective is to find a way to help people
enjoy their waiting time more. A larger proportion of everyday problems require setting higher
goals above the baseline performance level or inventing new products with new base levels or,
finding entirely new goals in new directions to take advantage of environmental change. These
types are less structured and do not lend themselves to strictly sequential, logical reasoning from
a predetermined base point.
A second reason for lack of use of these techniques is that there are human behavioral
deficiencies that prevent people from following such systematic procedures even for problems
that call for them. Managers’ propensity to spend most of their time acting in haste to correct
situations rather than taking the time to think them through is documented by Mintzberg (1973).
The following section describes problem definition from a behavioral perspective taking into
account these human deficiencies. These behavioral deficiencies can be perceptual, attitudinal or
cognitive in nature.
Problem Definition from a Behavioral Perspective
Elbing (1978) identifies the following perceptual biases that interfere with problem
analysis and that often cause managers and other organizational members to act hastily and to
handle problems ineffectively. They tend to: evaluate before investigating, thus precluding
inquiry and a fuller understanding of the situation; equate new and old experiences, searching for
the familiar rather than the unique in a new problem; approach problems at fact\e value, rather
than ask questions to unearth reasons underlying the problem’s more obvious aspects; direct
decisions toward a single goal, not recognizing that most problems really involve multiple goals
that need simultaneous handling; confuse symptoms and problems; overlook ‘unsolvable’
problems and concentrate instead on simpler concerns; and respond automatically or act before
thinking (sometimes called the ‘knee jerk’ effect).
Basadur, (1994b) identifies the following attitudinal, behavioral, perceptual, and
cognitive shortcomings. People wait for others to find problems for them to solve rather than
take the initiative to seek them out. Important problems that cross organizational, functional and
departmental lines are often avoided: “That’s not our problem”. People often make the
premature assumption that “it can’t be done”. Too much knowledge of the particular field causes
them to experience ‘tunnel vision’ and to lose childlike inquiry and challenging of custom.
Unsubstantiated assumptions are accepted as facts. People are unwilling to take the time to
discover the real facts, which might lead them to refreshing new ways to define the problem.
They emphasize problem solutions rather than problem definitions, believing tat “I already know
what the problem is”. Failure to observe and consider trivia and to investigate the obvious
prevents individuals from finding a balance between narrowing the problem too much (missing
the ‘big picture’) and broadening the problem too much (not breaking it down into small enough
subproblems). This shortcoming can be further fuelled by people’s inability to sufficiently use
imagination to connect seemingly unrelated matters.
Harnessing the Imagination
The methodology for problem formulation provided in this paper encourages the use of a
systematic thinking process that overcomes such perceptual, behavioral, attitudinal and cognitive
inadequacies. This process incorporates logic, sequencing and imagination. One of the keys to
imagination is often expressed as divergent thinking (Guilford, 1967). Another key is deferral of
judgment. Divergent thinking is the nonevaluative generation of information from a given
source with an emphasis on variety (Roe, 1976). The imagination is used to generate multiple
alternatives while deferring judgment (i.e. evaluative thinking) until this generative thinking is
completed. In the earlier elevator example, the imaginative problem definition statement “How
might we make the people enjoy their waiting time more?” served as an alternative to “How
might we make the elevators go faster?” A third key, convergent thinking, is important in
choosing and focusing in on important and leverageable issues, facts and problem formulations.
Basadur and Finkbeiner (1985) identify deferral of judgment, active divergence and active
convergence as three separate behavioral skills required to harness the imagination in
Divergent thinking consists of two parts, deferral of judgment and active divergence.
Deferral of judgment is the skill of separating divergent thinking from convergent thinking. By
resisting the tendency to prematurely evaluate options, deferral of judgment sets the stage for
active divergence. Active divergence is the skill of aggressively thinking of a wide range of
options no matter how ‘wacky’; appreciating new, different points of view and thoughts not only
as possible endpoints but as building blocks to create more new thoughts; and believing that
generating novel options is not a mysterious process confined to a few unusual, ‘offbeat’ people
but a normal process that should involve everyone in the organization.
While deferral of judgment and active divergence are necessary, they are less than
sufficient for harnessing the imagination. Active convergence is a skill that resists the tendency
to loiter in divergent thinking. Active convergence decisively selects and acts upon good options
and leads to the ultimate implementation of change.
The Process Approach to Creativity
Attempts to categorize the study of creativity (e.g. Murdock and Puccio, 1993) frequently
emphasize the four “Ps”: product, person, press (environment) and process. The focus on the
fourth P is apparent in research that models creativity as a process. For example, Basadur (1979,
1982, 1992) portrayed individual, team and organizational creativity as a dynamic, circular four
stage process (Figure 1) of continuously finding good problems, (generating), defining them
(conceptualizing), solving them (optimizing), and putting good solutions into practice
[Insert Figure 1 about here]
Generating means continuously and deliberately discovering and surfacing new and
useful problems to be solved. In organizations, this includes generating new products or services
by anticipating new customer needs, by discovering ways to improve existing products, services,
procedures and processes, or by identifying opportunities to improve the satisfaction and well-
being of organizational members and pertinent groups outside the organization. Conceptualizing
means keeping an open mind and defining such new problems and opportunities (regarding them
as “fuzzy situations”) accurately and creatively to clearly visualize the big picture and to identify
more specific challenges and insights and relate them to one another. Optimizing means
developing new, useful, imaginative solutions to these challenges. Implementing means
successfully putting such new solutions into action. Each implemented solution leads to new,
useful problems to be discovered -- hence the circular process. Research shows that effective
organizations do what it takes to mainstream such a process (make it an everyday habit among its
members) for continuous innovation and for intrinsic motivation (Basadur, 1992; 1993; 1997).
Research also shows that skills in such a process can be deliberately developed (Basadur, 1979,
1994a). To make the process work, skills in sequential diverging and converging thinking are
necessary within and between the stages. In practice, the process is represented as eight
diverging-converging steps within the four stages as follows:
• Generating: problem finding and fact finding
• Conceptualizing: problem definition and idea finding
• Optimizing: idea evaluation and action planning
• Implementing: gaining acceptance and implementation
These eight steps make up the complete circular Simplex innovative thinking process
shown in Figure 2.
Basadur, Graen and Green (1982) identified a two-step mini-process called ideation-
evaluation in which diverging and converging thinking occur sequentially separated by deferral
of judgment in each of the eight steps of the Simplex process, also shown in Figure 2.
[Insert Figure 2 about here]
Skills in Problem Formulation
This paper concerns itself with the thinking skills needed to work through only the first
two stages, and primarily the problem definition step in Figure 2. Rather than try to find
answers, the goal is to clearly isolate the right questions. These two stages constitute problem
formulation rather than solution formulation.
For optimal results a process leader should be used to facilitate and synchronize a group
in its flow of sequential diverging thinking and converging thinking (Basadur, 1995). The leader
models these thinking skills (and the supporting attitudes and behaviors) and builds the group’s
own capability to use the process. Participants are encouraged to remain open to and seek out
fresh points of view while diverging, and to apply objectivity and good judgment while
converging. Tables 1, 2 and 3 list the attitudinal and behavioral skills required for good
diverging and converging thinking and for the separation of the two in the problem formulation
phase of the creative process.
[Insert Tables 1, 2 and 3 about here]
There are three steps in this problem formulation phase. Once a problem, trend or
opportunity has been sensed (Step 1), it is deliberately viewed as a “fuzzy situation”, merely a
starting point. Fact finding follows (Step 2). Participants are prompted to share perspectives and
stretch their thinking to generate information and different perspectives about what they know or
think they know, what they don’t know but wish they knew, what they may be needlessly
assuming, what would be different if the situation were resolved, and what they have already
thought of or tried.
The participants then reach consensus on their most important (“key”) facts (active
convergence). These key facts are used in turn to divergently generate as many concrete,
specific and optimistic challenges as possible, listed as questions beginning with the words,
“How might we...”. Participants defer judgment and avoid prematurely assuming that any
specific challenge is the “correct” one. Each “How might we?” represents a unique challenge.
By discussion and consensus, the group chooses a small number of challenge statements they
consider as the more important ones. This completes the initial divergence-convergence portion
of the problem definition step.
The Why - What’s Stopping? Analysis and Challenge Mapping
Next, a secondary divergence-convergence in problem definition is performed employing
the “Why - What’s Stopping? Analysis”. Using the selected challenges as a starting point, the
group creates a Challenge Map, with broader challenges placed higher and more specific
challenges placed lower. When moving down the map from the top, the questions “What’s
stopping us?” and “What else is stopping us?” are used to elicit specific impediments and create
narrower challenges. Conversely, when moving up the map, the questions “Why?” and “Why
else?” are asked to identify potential benefits and create broader challenges. Judgment and
analysis are deferred while the map is being built, permitting new and sometimes hidden or
unexpected challenges to be discovered in both directions. The simple four-step questioning
process in Table 4 is used to create and place each new challenge and an example follows.
[Insert Table 4 about here]
A Manufacturing Example
In a situation where a manufacturing department was faced with numerable product
defects here is how the method was applied.
(1) Ask “Why” of What’s Stopping us... from the starting point problem definition. For
example, if the original challenge is “How might we decrease the number of defects in
Product X?”, the “why” question then becomes “Why would we want to decrease the
number of defects in Product X?” The “What’s stopping” question becomes “What is
stopping us from decreasing the number of defects in Product X?”
(2) Answer the question in a complete sentence. The answer to the “why” question might be
that “We have too many returns of Product X from our customers.” An answer to the
“what’s stopping” question might be “We reward employees only for high quantity of
output, not high quality.” Optional answers are produced in one of two ways, either by
simple extended effort or by deliberate use of the word “else” as in “Why else would we
want to decrease the number of defects in Product X?” and “What else is stopping us
from reducing the number of defects in Product X?”
(3) The answer to the question is then transformed imaginatively into another problem
formulation. For example, the answer to the “why” question above might become
transformed into “How might we reduce the number of Product X returns from
customers?” or “How might we make our customers more satisfied with the Product X
they are receiving?” The answer to the “what’s stopping” question might become
transformed into “How might we get our employees excited about improving the quality
of Product X?” or “How might we reward our employees for reducing the number of
defects in Product X?” or “How might we get our employees to give high attention to
both quantity and quality when making Product X?”
(4) Each new challenge is placed according to the question it answers. Figure 3 shows the
theoretical placement of the problem statements. The placement can be checked by
reversing the question to the newly formulated challenge. For instance, in the example
above, the answer to “What is stopping us from decreasing the number of defects in
Product X?” is that “We reward employees only for high quantity of output, not high
quality” resulting in a new problem statement of “How might we reward our employees
for reducing the number of defects in Product X?” To check if this problem statement
meets the “why-what’s stopping” logic, we can reverse it by asking, “Why would we
want to reward our employees for reducing the number of defects in Product X?” If one
answer is “We want to decrease the number of defects in Product X” we can see that we
can easily transform this fact into the original problem statement “How might we
decrease the number of defects in Product X?”
[Insert Figure 3 about here]
Once the new statement is checked via the reversal question, an arrow is drawn from the
lower challenge to the higher challenge. Optional problem definitions are placed side-by-side
and checked in the same way with arrows always connecting the lower challenge, a subproblem,
to the higher challenge, a broader problem. Figure 4 shows a step-by-step visual example.
[Insert Figure 4 about here]
If the new problem statement does not “fit” when the reversal question is asked, it is
recommended that the card be placed to the side temporarily and go back to step 1 in the 4-step
process. It is likely that the fact or problem formulation was not well-stated as discussed in the
next section or that the answer provided to the why or what’s stopping? question was “off target”
(did not answer the question actually asked, but in fact, answered a different, unasked question).
It is vital to provide answers to the ‘why’ and ‘what’s stopping’ questions which are
simple, clear and specific. Suppose the original starting point challenge was “How might we
decrease the number of defects in Product X?” (as in Figure 4) and the question “why else
(would we want to reduce the number of Product X defects)?” were asked. If one knew another
accurate answer to be “our employees feel badly about so many rejects being made” but one
chose to answer more vaguely instead that “morale is low”, this could result in the new challenge
“How might we improve morale?” being placed above the original challenge. Now suppose the
question “what else is stopping us?” were offered to the same original challenge. If one knew
another accurate answer to be “people are not paying much attention to quality” but chose
instead to answer more vaguely, “morale is low”, this would result in the new challenge “How
might we improve morale?” below the original challenge. Then the same challenge would
appear both above and below the original as shown in Figure 5. Such circularity violates the rule
that ‘why?’ broadens the problem and ‘what’s stopping?’ narrows it.
[Insert Figure 5 about here]
If the more specific, clear and simple answer had been provided instead, the three
challenges could be ordered hierarchically without ambiguity as shown in Figure 4.
A Product Development Example
A research team at Procter and Gamble was given the directive to develop a bath soap
which could compete in a superior way against the newly launched competitor product ‘Irish
Spring’. The team had prematurely defined the problem in the following way: ‘How might we
produce a better green striped bar of soap?’ After several months of solution generation they
were unable to design a green striped bar of soap which tested superior to Irish Spring. They had
rushed into solving a poorly defined problem. By asking some good fact finding questions,
creating a divergent list of “How might we” challenge statements and deliberately applying the
“Why-What’s stopping” analysis, a new, broader and more creative problem definition was
developed. This powerful statement of the problem was “How might we produce a more
refreshing bar?” One team member immediately pictured freshness in the form of fluffy clouds
in a blue sky while another member said freshness made him think of the sea coast. In a very
short time frame a new and very successful product was conceived: Coast bath soap. The key to
the team’s success was a less restrictive, broader problem definition. The “pie” was made
bigger: better green stripes was only one way of achieving better refreshment. The refreshment
pie was bigger than the green-striped pie.
An Interfunctional Team Example
Another example of broadening the problem, increasing the pie and increasing the
amount of total satisfaction available is a Frito-Lay packaging dilemma. An interfunctional team
had been formed to reduce costs and was bogged down solving the challenge “How might we
reduce packaging department costs?” The team’s manufacturing members had identified a new
packaging system which saved enormous amounts of time and money. The individual bags of
potato chips were being packaged standing upright in larger boxes for delivery to customers.
The new idea involved laying the bags on their sides in the boxes. The sales department team
members were not at all satisfied with this solution because on delivery, customers open each
box and count the bags before signing the receiving documents. Thus the new idea would result
in extra time and frustration for the customer and slow down the salesperson who would make
fewer sales calls per day. Obviously, an important challenge for sales was “How might we
continue to make our required quota of sales calls per day?” By working together with the
attitude of achieving full satisfaction for both sides, and by following the discipline of the
Simplex creative process, a new problem definition was identified. “How might we lay the bags
flat yet still allow the customer to quickly know how many bags are inside the box?” Several
solutions immediately became evident, including providing each customer with a weigh scale so
that opening the box and counting was unnecessary. Rather than argue and disagree over
solutions which appear to conflict because they address two different challenges, the creative
process resulted in a new expanded challenge that encompassed both original challenges. In the
union-management bargaining context this would be an example of making the pie bigger, where
many more and more creative solutions could be generated to the expanded problem definition.
Some of these solutions would be capable of providing complete satisfaction to both parties.
Completing the Challenge Map
The “Challenge Mapping” and “Why - What’s Stopping? Analysis” thinking techniques
are integral to the Simplex system of applied creativity. Challenges are always stated in “How
might...?” format. The questions “Why?” and “Why else?” and “What?” and “What else is
stopping?” are asked of a selected challenge to begin and then repeated with the new challenges
resulting. During the group’s extensive Why - What’s Stopping? Analysis, some of the “How
might we?” challenges from the initial divergence-convergence portion of the problem definition
step find their way back onto the map, and many new ones are created to fill in crucial links.
The group then selects the challenges that are believed especially critical and merit either
further fact finding and more detailed exploration or solutions and action plans. If further fact
finding and exploration is decided, for each of the selected challenges the major impediments
preventing its solution are identified by asking the questions repeatedly: “What’s stopping us?”
and “What else is stopping us?”. This results in additional challenges to add to the challenge
map. The top challenges are then selected from the final map.
The Extent of the Challenge Map
The extent of a Challenge Map is limited by two considerations: “Happiness and Bliss”
and “Do it”. “Happiness and Bliss” is the theoretically broadest challenge. In a business this
might equate to “How might we increase the long term profitability and viability of our
Company?” “Do it” occurs when, by asking “what’s stopping” takes us so low on the hierarchy
that the problem statement is so well defined it is itself a solution which can be easily executed,
thus “do it”. For example, “How might we telephone our customer and invite him/her to lunch?”
It is not necessary to reach these limits on maps developed. The intent of the map is to
develop a better problem formulation, that is, understand how different problems and sub-
problems relate to one another and to help the stakeholder(s) choose the best problem definition
or angle on the problem. The following heuristic is recommended in the development of the
(1) Ask “why” and “why else” of the original problem statement until all slightly
broader problem statements are uncovered. This will usually result in 2-5 broader
(2) Ask “what’s stopping” and “what else is stopping” of the original problem
statement until all sub-problems are uncovered. This will usually result in 1-10
(3) Review the map for challenges the stakeholder(s) wish to explore further either to
break sub-problems down even further or to explore broader “purposes”. Do not
forget to check for “what else is stopping...” or “why else...”.
(4) Have stakeholder(s) review the map for “points of maximum leverage”, i.e., the
problem statement(s) they believe best define their problem. If this convergence
cannot be achieved, return to step 3 to explore the map further on those challenges
the stakeholder(s) believes have most merit.
A Strategic Planning Example
Here’s how a strategic plan was developed by a division of a major oil company. A team
of managers met for a day and were given some training in the Simplex creative problem solving
process, particularly fact finding and problem defining, including the “why - what’s stopping”
analysis. After doing some fact finding together, the members were urged to put aside
preconceived notions about what was meant by words like mission, goals or objectives. Then
they were asked to put aside their judgment and free-wheel in order to generate as many
challenges as they could that might be important for the company to resolve. From a lengthy list,
they identified a small number that they agreed were the most critical challenges.
A facilitator wrote these challenges on index cards and stuck them on a large white sheet
of paper on the wall. The team could then move challenges from one place to another and re-
word a challenge or even discard one challenge and make another. The team members clustered
in a semi-circle facing the sheet in order to involve everyone as fully as possible in this mapping
process. The team placed these most critical challenges in a hierarchical map using the “why -
what’s stopping” process (Figure 6). Then the members began to identify additional challenges
by asking why various critical challenges should be resolved (what would be the intent or
benefit?) and what was stopping them from resolving various critical challenges. Each answer
became a new challenge; all the challenges were stated in “How might we?” form and placed
either above or below the previous challenge in the map. Beside these new challenges or beside
the original challenges, the team placed yet further challenges that it identified by asking “why
else?” and “what else is stopping us?” of any challenge.
[Insert Figure 6 about here]
As this process continued, the team found that the challenges began to fall naturally into
five separate levels in the hierarchy. The facilitator asked the team to label each level in their
own terms, such as “mission”, “vision”, “strategy”, “goal”, etc. The group decided to label the
top challenge in the map as their vision. The next four levels were labeled mission, objectives,
strategies and programs. The group agreed that the word “programs” incorporated processes,
projects, products, tactics and actions. This approach meant the group didn’t have to bother
arguing over definitions for these terms. The members assigned “definitions” that made sense to
them, and were able to focus on what critical challenges the company had to meet.
More important, the action-oriented tactical programs at the bottom of the hierarchy were
now clearly linked to the more broad, strategically oriented challenges at the top – something
that many organizations find difficult to do. In the latter organizations, the top and bottom levels
are often divorced: people at the top set out the important goals and objectives, but people at
lower levels take actions that might not even lead to those goals and objectives.
Building Ownership, Understanding and Empowerment
If groups of employees at all the company’s levels undertake similar exercises – creating
their own strategic maps and plugging them into the “corporate map” – then they acquire more
ownership for their tasks. They better understand how what they do helps the company meet its
overall strategic objectives. They can then make much more accurate or useful decisions about
which of their own challenges to tackle, and can even create better challenges to address. This
strategic mapping process also becomes an excellent tool for empowering people. Instead of
simply being given standard solutions to implement without knowing why, employees now have
to discover for themselves their own critical challenges and tailor their own innovative solutions
to meet them.
This mapping process allows a company to compress a huge amount of knowledge into
one page as in Figure 6. Each department can distribute to its employees a single-page copy of
the “corporate” map integrated with its own departmental map. This document then is easily
reviewed and updated. Individuals can set goals for themselves – create their own maps – that
are aligned with department goals and guides their daily activities accordingly. As an even more
powerful alternative, any employee from the president down can display on his or her computer
terminal the company’s current strategic map and a particular department’s map to see the most
important challenges and how they link together, and easily revise maps.
In a chaotic climate of constant change, challenge mapping not only permits the
involvement of all employees in innovative and strategic thinking that is “on the money”, it is
also a powerful method to involve customers as partners and to align innovation efforts with
customers’ key challenges. Similarly, it is a hands-on method of connecting and aligning upper
management visions and goals with ground floor operations in a way that everyone can
understand, contribute to, and become excited about.
Another Example: Sorting Out Management of Technology Issues
The upper levels of a Challenge Map represent the more strategic challenges (the main
goals). A group of senior managers wrestling with difficulties in the management of technology
(MOT) created the Challenge Map in Figure 7 (Basadur, Potworowski, Pollice and Fedorowicz,
2001). The ultimate strategic challenges identified concerned gaining market advantage over
competition by lowering costs and introducing better product features faster (challenges # 1, 2, 3,
4, 5, and 6). The four most important tactical challenges identified are shown in Table 5 and are
highlighted in the dashed ovals on the Challenge Map as #’s 30, 33, 35, and 36.
[Insert Figure 7 and Table 5 about here]
The next highest levels of the Challenge Map represent somewhat more operational
challenges that support the ultimate aims. The managers identified the following five challenges
right beneath the top ones: selecting the right technology from options (#7); getting people to
put new technology into use more quickly (#9); promoting cross-fertilization of new technology
from one part of the company to another (#10); moving ideas faster from R&D to the customer
and vice versa (#11); and minimizing product introduction intervals (#15). Of these, promoting
better cross-fertilization from one part of the company to another was selected as the most
Seven challenges at the next level down were identified as how to: better relate customer
needs to technologies available (#13); pin down the right criteria to rank technology options
(#12); implement a cohesive business planning process (#8); base the corporate culture on
change (#14); get different locations, divisions and functions to work together as a cohesive team
(#16); get a business process in place to minimize product introduction intervals (#21); get a
technical process in place to minimize product introduction intervals (#22). Of these, #13, how
to better relate customer needs to technologies available, and #8, how to implement a cohesive
business planning process, were selected as the most critical.
The middle and lower parts of the Challenge Map include more tactical challenges which
support the challenges in the upper parts. The challenges near the middle of the Challenge Map
were how to: get a technology strategy established in the company (#18); increase one’s
knowledge of technological choices available for products (#19); know one’s customers' needs
better (#20); get various groups within the same unit to place the same importance on its
objectives (#28); ensure that individuals’ priorities are the same as their unit’s priorities (#29);
ensure that the technical and financial people share the same decision making criteria (#30); and
encourage groups to accept sub-optimization if it contributes to company objectives (#31).
Challenges just below these included how to get more consensus on the internal criteria for
ranking technology options (#17); how to ensure that different divisions share the same concerns
regarding customers, products and features (#33); and how to ensure that different divisions
share the same organizational culture and level of technical sophistication (#34). Of all of these
middle level challenges, the two most critical selected were: how to ensure that the technical and
financial people share the same decision making criteria (#30), and how to ensure that different
divisions share the same concerns regarding customers, products and features (#33).
The lowest levels on the Challenge Map contain the most tactical challenges that support
all of the higher level challenges. The two selected as most critical were: how to ensure that the
people who know the technology and the people who know the customers communicate better
(#35), and how to understand better the customers’ needs and markets (#36). Six additional
tactical challenges identified were how to: help key decision makers in the company to better
understand both the technology and the customer (#37); participate in customers' planning
processes to understand their needs better (#38); encourage different groups in the company to
share the same vision of the future of the company and share common business objectives (#23);
install a planning process to develop a shared vision and common business objectives (#26); get
a forecast of the probable results that will be obtained from current plans (#27); and, encourage
face to face contact among employees working in different locations (#32).
Summary and Discussion
Challenge Mapping is a powerful tool for reducing complexity and identifying clearly
defined problems for solving across a wide range of applications. Just as the diverse group of
senior managers (above) was able to agree on the critical challenges about MOT among them, so
too can any diverse group within a company, or even between a company and its suppliers or
customers working as a team. Challenge Mapping is also an excellent tool for empowering
people. When groups of employees create their own strategic challenge maps and plug them into
the corporate challenge map, they acquire more ownership for their goals and tasks, better
understand how their activities help the company meet its strategic objectives, and make more
accurate or useful decisions about which challenges to tackle. In addition, this mapping process
allows an organization to compress a huge amount of knowledge onto one page that can easily be
copied, viewed, reviewed and updated.
The construction of the challenge map is a combined creative and analytical exercise.
Divergent thinking is required to generate both the multiple ‘why else’ and ‘what else is topping’
problem statements. In addition, divergent thinking is required to transform the answers into
meaningful new challenges. Analytically, the methodology requires a disciplined approach
using ‘why’ to broaden and ‘what’s stopping’ to narrow so that problem statements ‘fit’ into a
The process of mapping often leads the stakeholder(s) to an ‘aha’ experience. If, for
instance, the stakeholder originally defined as a symptom as the problem, upon asking ‘what’s
stopping?’ the ‘real problem’ will emerge. In addition, some stakeholders narrow the problem
too much in the beginning (they cannot see the forest for the trees), so that by broadening the
problem, they gain a perspective and a better, more leveragable problem definition. Or, the
stakeholder’s try to ‘eat the elephant’ instead of breaking the problem down into ‘bite size
Problem definition is particularly difficult on ill-structured problems. Stakeholders do
not know when they initially try to define the problem whether they have a ‘good’ problem
statement or not. The ‘why-what’s stopping’ analysis does not choose the correct problem
statement for the stakeholder(s). It does create a meaningful visual representation of the problem
so that the stakeholder(s) can consider how to strategically approach the ill-structured ‘mess’.
The stakeholders must then consider which problem definition(s) they believe will best lead to an
improvement of the ‘mess’.
Implications and Future Research
There are many implications suggested for this analysis. It is currently being utilized in
industry as a strategic planning tool to link strategic goals with operational objectives where the
stakeholders ask “what’s stopping us from attaining (goal)?” In production facilities, this tool
assists direct employees and technicians in understanding how their tasks and projects ‘fit’ into
the bigger picture in their company. In research and development, it helps identify the correct
objectives to be pursued to create a new product. By asking ‘why?’, the real intent of a new
product initiative is often revealed, opening up room for novel solutions. Importantly, this tool
also assists multifunctional teams in understanding the complete ‘mess’, not just their portion
and helps these teams choose more leveragable problem definitions to solve.
A significant implication is that the challenge map, once constructed, can become an
ongoing tool in addressing and solving large problems. Some organizations post the ‘why-
what’s stopping’ analysis on a conference room wall with checks by the subproblems solved and
names/dates by other subproblems which others are in the midst of solving.
The person who first asks the right question or restates the problem in an exciting,
insightful way is invaluable. Even more valuable are Process Leaders who can facilitate others
to do so. Skilled problem definers use key facts to create many different challenges. They can
break large problems into smaller components, and see the bigger picture into which smaller
components fit. And by deferring convergence, they can continue to reformulate the problem to
develop a clearly superior “angle”, which then stimulates creative solution generation.
Research (Basadur and Gelade, 2001) shows that the majority of people in organizations
favor the implementation and optimization stages of applied creativity over the conceptualization
and generation stages. Perhaps the most important line of future research to pursue is how to
increase understanding of the importance and willingness to develop appreciation of and skills in
conceptualization and generation in organizations. At a minimum, ways to develop a greater
awareness of the conceptualization and generation stages as complementary partners to
implementation and optimization need to be developed. Finally, finding ways to introduce
complexity reducing creative thinking tools such as the why-what’s stopping? Analysis and
Challenge Mapping into school, college and university curricula is likely the most important
challenge ahead – to give young people concrete tools to handle the increasing complexity of the
world into which they are being immersed.
Basadur, M.S. (1997), “Organizational Development Interventions for Enhancing Creativity in
the Workplace,” Journal of Creative Behavior, 31 (1), 59-72.
Basadur, M.S. (1995), The Power of Innovation, London, UK: Pitman Professional Publishing.
Basadur, M.S. (1994a), Simplex: A Flight to Creativity, Buffalo, NY: Creative Education
Foundation Press. Spanish title: Simplex: Un Viaje Hacia la Creatividad.
Basadur, M.S. (1994b), “Managing the Creative Process in Organizations,” In Problem Finding,
Problem Solving, and Creativity, Runco, MJ, ed., Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Basadur, M.S. (1993), “Impacts and Outcomes of Creativity in Organizational Settings,” In
Nurturing and Developing Creativity: The Emergence of a Discipline, Isaksen, S.G.,
Murdock, M.C., Firestein, R.L., and Treffinger, D.J., eds., Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 278-
Basadur, M.S. (1992), “Managing Creativity: A Japanese Model,” Academy of Management
Executive, 6 (2), 29-42.
Basadur, M.S. (1982), “Research in Creative Problem Solving Training in Business and
Industry,” Proceedings of Creativity Week 4, Greensboro, N.C. Center for Creative
Basadur, M.S. (1979), Training in Creative Problem Solving: Effects on Deferred Judgment and
Problem Finding and Solving in an Industrial Research Organization, Doctoral
Dissertation, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio, December.
Basadur, M.S., Ellspermann, S.J., and Evans, G.W. (1994), “A New Methodology for
Formulating Ill-structured Problems,” OMEGA: The International Journal of
Management Science, 22 (6), 627-645.
Basadur, M.S., and Finkbeiner, C.T. (1985), “Measuring Preference for Ideation in Creative
Problem Solving Training,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 21, 37-49.
Basadur, M.S., and Gelade, G. (2002), “Knowing and Thinking: A New Theory of Creativity,”
Management of Innovation and New Technology Research Centre Working Paper No.
105, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada L8S 4M4 (December).
Basadur, M.S., Graen, G.B., and Green, S.G. (1982), “Training in Creative Problem Solving:
Effects on Ideation and Problem Finding in an Applied Research Organization,”
Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 30, 41-70.
Basadur, M.S., and Paton, B.R. (1993), “Using Creativity to Boost Profits in Recessionary
Times,” Industrial Management, 35 (1), 14-19.
Basadur, M.S., Potworowski, A., Pollice, N., and Fedorowicz, J. (2001), “Increasing
Understanding of Technology Management through Challenge Mapping,” Creativity and
Innovation Management, 9 (4), 245-258.
Basadur, M.S., Pringle, P., Speranzini, G., and Bacot, M. (2000), “Collaborative Problem
Solving through Creativity in Problem Definition: Expanding the Pie,” Creativity and
Innovation Management, 9 (1) (March), 54-76.
Brightman, H.J. (1988), Group Problem Solving: An Improved Managerial Approach, Atlanta,
GA: Business Publishing Division, College of Business Administration, Georgia State
Brightman, H.J., Elrod, R., and Ramakrishma, H. (1988), “Matching Problem Diagnostic Tools
to Manager’s Decision Styles: A Contingency Approach,” Omega, 16, 1-10.
Elbing, A. (1978), Behavioral Decisions in Organizations, Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.
Evans, J.R. (1991), Creative Thinking in the Decision and Management Sciences, Cincinnati,
Ohio: South-Western Publishing Co.
Guilford, J.P. (1967), The Nature of Human Intelligence, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hesse, R., and Woolsey, G. (1980), Applied Management Science, Chicago: Science Research
Huge, E.C. (1990), Total Quality: An Executive Guide for the 1990’s, Business One.
Homewood, Ill: Irwin.
Kabanoff, B. & Rossiter, J.R. (1994), “Recent Developments in Applied Creativity,”
International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 9, 283-324.
Kepner C., and Tregoe B. (1965), The Rational Manager, New York: McGraw-Hill.
Land, E. (1972), From Sean Callahan’s article “Dr. Land’s Magic Camera,” Life Magazine, 27
Mintzberg, H. (1973), The Nature of Managerial Work, New York: Harper & Row.
Murdock, M.C. and Puccio, G.J. (1993), “A contextual organizer for conducting creativity
research. In S.G. Isaksen, M.C. Murdock, R.L. Firestein, and D.J. Treffinger (Eds.),
Nurturing and developing creativity: The emergence of a discipline (249-280).
Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Roe, A. (1976). Psychological Approaches to Creativity in Science,” In The Creativity Question,
Rothenberg, A. and Hausman, C.R., eds., Durham, NC: Duke University.
Behavioral Skill in Deferral of Judgment
in Problem Formulation
• Avoid making premature, negative judgments of fledgling thoughts (both when working
alone and with others)
• Visibly value, appreciate, and welcome other points of view as opportunities to strengthen
thinking, rather than as a threat to one’s ego
• Patiently maintain an awareness that some facts are more difficult to perceive (more
invisible) than others
• Question assumptions for validity and search out hidden, unconscious assumptions which
may be unwarranted
• Tackle problems with an optimistic “can do” attitude rather than prematurely concluding that
it “cannot be done” because “I can’t see how”
• Tend not to jump prematurely to a conclusion as to what the “real problem is” in a situation
• Avoid attaching negative connotations to problems; such prejudgment may bias fact finding
• Visibly stay open-minded to others’ versions of the facts
• Often pause deliberately to try an unusual approach to define a problem instead of
automatically relying on an old approach
• React positively to new radical thoughts as opportunities to build fresh new thinking
Behavioral Skill in Active Divergence
in Problem Formulation
• Search out many different facts and points of view before attempting to define a problem
• Define problems in multiple and novel ways to get a variety of insights
• Clarify problems by breaking them down into smaller, more specific subproblems and also
by opening them up into broader, less limiting challenges
• Deliberately extend effort to create additional unusual, thought provoking potential ways of
defining a problem
• Give credit for divergent thinking by others; praise others for alternative viewpoints and try
to build upon and strengthen such alternatives to increase variety of choice
• Turn premature, negative evaluations of ideas into positive challenges to keep the creative
process flowing; that is, change negative “We can’t because...” thoughts into positive “How
might we...?” thoughts
• Share information and ideas freely with other people and departments hoping to build
understanding of problems
• Get teams to formulate problems in ways which transcend individual and departmental
Behavioral Skill in Active Convergence
in Problem Formulation
• Take the time to select, clarify and focus upon the most significant facts available prior to
attempting to define a problem
• Recognize and accept the critical few best problem definition options in terms of “broadness”
vs “narrowness” of focus and insight provided
• Open-mindedly develop and use multiple, unbiased criteria for selecting from among
problem formulation options, rather than letting preconceptions or hidden motives sway
• Take the risk of failing or being criticized for being different for selecting novel problem
• Be willing to accept and participate in consensus decisions about problem formulation and
move on decisively in the problem solving process
• Do not wait for the “perfect” option to emerge; instead take reasonable risks to finish the
problem formulation stage
The Simplex® “Why – What’s Stopping?” Creative Analysis™
Step 1. Ask the complete question: “Why...?” or “What’s
Stopping...?” of the selected challenge. (Also, ask “Why
else...?” and “What else is stopping...?”).
Step 2. Answer in a complete simple sentence.
Step 3. Transform the answer into a new challenge.
Step 4. Place the new challenge on the map and validate its broader/narrower
relationship to the challenge in Step 1.
The Four Most Important Additional Challenges
Derived by Probing the Three Most Critical Challenges
How might we...
30. ... ensure that the technical and financial people share the same decision-
33. ... ensure that different divisions share the same concerns regarding
customers, products, and features?
35. ... ensure that the people who know the technology and the people who know
the customer communicate better?
36. ... better understand the customer’s needs, strategies, and markets?
Creating options in the
form of actions that get
results and gain acceptance
for implementing a change
or a new idea
Creating options in the form
of new possibilities –new
problems that might be
solved and new
opportunities that might be
Creating options in the
form of ways to get an idea
to work in practice and
uncovering all the factors
that go into a successful
plan for implementation.
Creating options in the form
of alternate ways to
understand and define a
problem or opportunity and
good ideas that help solve it.
The Four Stages of the Simplex Innovative Thinking Process
How the Four Stages Correspond to the Eight Steps of the Simplex Process
“What’s stopping …?”
Placing of Problem Statements
c4. How might we get our
employees excited about
about improving the
quality of Product X?
a1. How might we decrease
the number of defects in
b2. How might we make our
customers more satisfied
with the Product X they are
b3. How might we reduce the
number of Product X
returns from our customers?
c6. How might we
get our employees
to give high
attention to both
quantity and quality
c5. How might we reward
our employees for
reducing the number
of defects in
Me/Us? aStarting point challenge.
bOptional challenges created by asking “why?”
of starting point challenge.
cOptional challenges created by asking “what’s
stopping us?” of starting point challenge.
Visual Example of How the Three-Step Thinking Process Works
bHow might we improve
aHow might we decrease the number
of defects in Product X?
cHow might we improve
aStarting point challenge.
bOptional challenge created by asking
“why?” of the starting point challenge but
answering vaguely (‘morale is low’).
cOptional challenge created by asking
“what’s stopping us?” of the starting point
challenge but answering vaguely (‘morale
What Happens When Answers to Why? and
What’s Stopping? are Stated Too Vaguely
Understand & meet
the first time, every time
Consistently provide services
products & attitudes that meet our
Provide world class
to our customers
Use inventory as
change by promoting
Employ the state of
the art tools to
carry out our
Expand our used
Improve the order
Implement the new
Complete the bar
Note: Each challenge statement was
originally expressed as
“How Might We…?”
Example of a Division’s Strategic Plan as a Challenge Map
28. HMI get various
groups within the
unit to place the
same importance on
29. HMI ensure
priorities are the
same as their
b30. HMI ensure
that the technical
people share the
31. HMI encourage
groups to accept
contributes to company
23. HMI encourage different groups in the
company to share the same vision of the
future of the company and share common
26. HMI install a planning process to
develop a shared vision and common
27. HMI get a forecast of the probable
results that will be obtained from our
1. HMI gain a market advantage over my competition?
2. HMI introduce better product features faster?3. HMI lower my costs?
6. HMI implement more cost
savings and better ideas faster? 4. HMI introduce new product
features more quickly? 5. HMI introduce better product
21. HMI get a
business process in
place to minimize
22. HMI get the
technical process in
place to minimize
a13. HMI better
needs to the
available to me?
12. HMI pin
down the right
criteria to rank
14. HMI base
16. HMI get different
locations, divisions &
functions to work
together as a cohesive
7. HMI select the
from my options?
9. HMI get people to put
new technology into use
a10. HMI promote better cross-
fertilization of new technology from
one part of the company to another?
11. HMI move ideas faster
from R&D to the customer and
15. HMI minimize
18. HMI get a
19. HMI increase
my knowledge of
for my product?
nature of my
17. HMI get more consensus on the
internal criteria for ranking technology
b33. HMI ensure that different divisions
share the same concerns regarding
customers, products, and features?
34. HMI ensure that different divisions share
the same organizational culture and level of
32. HMI encourage face-to-face contact among
employees working in different locations?
1. Challenges #28-38 were added upon probing HMI's #8, 10 and 13
2. a Selected as Most Critical Higher Level, More Strategic Challenges
3. bSelected as Most Critical Lower Level, More Tactical Challenges
4. HMI = "How might I...?"
37. HMI help key decision-makers in the
company to better understand both the
technology and the customer?
b36. HMI better understand the customer's
needs, strategies, and markets?
38. HMI participate in our customer's
planning processes to understand their
b35. HMI ensure that the people who know the
technology and the people who know the
customer communicate better?
The Challenge Map