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Frame and Scope the Challenge

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, you’ll be able to:

  • Define challenge framing and scoping and when to use it.
  • Explain why challenge framing is integral to the strategy design process.
  • Describe elements of scoping a challenge.
  • Explain key planning considerations for challenge framing and scoping.
  • Explain common trade-offs in challenge framing and strategies for how to navigate them.

Challenge Framing and Its Importance to the Strategy Design Process

Challenges are a normal part of life. But when it comes to the strategy design process, a challenge means something very specific. In this case, a challenge is a problem you’re trying to solve that considers the users of what you’re creating—specifically in how they think, feel, and act. 

Every good solution starts with understanding your users and their context. And every good challenge statement articulates a compelling need that matters to your business and team. Your focus can be on customers, partners, stakeholders, suppliers, or employees. In many cases, they can be the customers of your customers, partners, and stakeholders. To solve the problem, you begin by framing the challenge.

Challenge framing is the first alignment moment in a successful initiative or project. It defines the focus of the problem you’re trying to solve and clarifies what your team is setting out to do. Challenge framing:

  • Informs scoping, in terms of the time and skills required to solve a challenge.
  • Provides clarity and direction for the team.
  • Sets expectations of decision-makers and other stakeholders on what they will and won’t solve within a project (and provides the opportunity to negotiate these).
  • Creates a shared definition of success for the project.
  • Ensures the team is working on something of value to the organization.

Good challenge framing creates empathy for your users and leaves room for discovery and exploration in problem-solving. You start the framing process by asking questions like:

  • What’s wrong with the status quo?
  • Who does the solution stand to impact?
  • What are the desired outcomes?
  • What adjacent areas should be excluded from this focus?

As you answer these questions (and others particular to your specific challenge), you’ll begin to better understand what’s involved in solving the problem. But not every challenge needs to be framed. Frame a challenge if you’re:

  • Working on an ambiguous or complex problem.
  • Driving for significant change from existing work or products/services.
  • Aligning a new team around goals, roles, and expectations.
  • Proposing a new initiative that needs funding or leadership buy-in.
  • Trying to create enduring advantage (a strategy that will create value for customers today while laying the groundwork for growth and value in the future).
  • Trying to determine who is best suited to solve your problem (for instance, is it a UX problem, an org design problem, a strategy problem, a tech problem, and so on).

But there’s no need to frame a challenge if:

  • There’s a clear path forward to fix the problem.
  • It represents an evolutionary change to an existing product/service.
  • Your team is working effectively and efficiently, delivering measurable improvements at predictable intervals.
  • Your team is addressing short-term problems, and you need them to focus on the next release.

Once you’ve completed your challenge framing, it’s time to scope the project in terms of time, team, and deliverables.

The Cloud Kicks Challenge

Meet Cloud Kicks, a sneaker company with under 200 employees headquartered in Oakland, CA, that values sustainability, innovation, diversity, and quality customer service. Its sneakers are popular with West Coast influencers, such as celebrities, professional athletes, and tech professionals who seek stylish, exclusive, and comfortable footwear. Like most companies during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cloud Kicks has been struggling with supply chain delays. Its CEO is concerned about a decline in brand loyalty and reputation. Because the supply chain problem is both ambiguous and complex, the strategy designer is taking the lead on a project to solve this challenge.

To clearly frame the challenge in alignment with the CEO’s vision, the strategy designer begins by surfacing the CEO’s concern. While the root cause of the problem is supply chain disruptions, the ultimate impact of any solution will be on Cloud Kicks users and the customer service team. Therefore, the project will need to explore the full value chain of delivering sneakers to customers. 

Challenge Scoping

While challenge framing is about inspiring solutioning, the scoping process is the logistical plan for how the project will be structured. Scoping should be intentionally designed to allow for both discovery and exploration. Scoping allows you to plan, organize, and manage the time, people, and other resources needed to solve the framed challenge. It outlines the work to be done, how it will be completed and by whom, and the expected outcomes. 

It helps your team understand what a project does and doesn’t cover. Because you don’t yet know what solution or type of solution will be most effective, scoping means having the team, time, and resources to understand how users think and act and test and refine solutions. So consider if you’re seeking evolution or revolution with your project.

When the strategy designer started to plan for how to solve Cloud Kicks’s challenge, they used these five key elements to scope the process. Each element was considered carefully because each can drastically change the project. 

  1. Understand the need.
    • Need: What is the problem you’re solving?
    • Audience: Who is the audience your solution will serve?
    • Context: What important factors are known about this problem?
  2. Articulate the opportunity for design.
    • Challenge Statement: What is the opportunity for design?
    • Value: Why is this important?
    • Assumptions: What are the hunches about the opportunity? Be explicit. What must be true about our users for this to work? What hypothesis leads us into this project that we need to test?
    • Goals: What business, customer, and social outcomes will your solution drive?
  3. Establish the problem-solving approach.
    • Design: What strategy design process will you use to solve this challenge?
    • Rationale: Why is this approach right for this challenge?
    • Team: What expertise and life experiences do you need on your team to problem solve?
    • External stakeholders: What users do you need for discovery and exploration?
  4. Create a project plan.
    • Time: What timeframe do you need?
    • Milestones: What are important milestones to share progress and review work?
    • Resources: What budget and resources do you need to be successful?
  5. Identify measures of success and potential risks.
    • Success: How do you know if you’ve been successful?
    • Tracking: What user, business, and society metrics can you use to measure?
    • Risks: What risks or consequences should be considered?

Key Planning Considerations

Keep these planning considerations in mind during the challenge framing and scoping process.


  • Constraining the challenge framing helps you be more precise about understanding the need and the opportunity for design (the problem, audience, context, and challenge statement).
  • Broadening the solution space by establishing the approach and creating a plan allows for greater opportunities to discover and explore.


  • Keeping the scope broad before the project allows for a more human-centered process to find the most impactful solution.
  • Narrowing the scope prevents wide exploration. You can always narrow throughout the process at key convergence milestones—the moments when your team narrows options and decides what to prioritize in the next phase of work.

Trade-offs (or giving up something in return for another) are inevitable in the challenge framing process. They are especially common when diverse disciplines are coming together to problem solve. Common trade-offs, called the Triple Constraint, balance scope (what’s included), time allotted, and cost (project budget). 

For instance, take the project team. A five-person team can usually achieve more in a shorter time than a three-person team, but a larger team incurs financial implications. And while a smaller team might be more budget-friendly, trimming the team size could mean trade-offs in the scope of what can be done.

The role of the strategy designer is to make compromises, not sacrifices. Be realistic about what you can do when trade-offs happen, and essentialize what you need versus what you want. Take into account these questions.

  • How lean can you work?
  • When do you need key team members throughout the entire project?
  • Do you have multiple touchpoints with users, or can you change it to one?

Whenever possible, maintain a “yes, if” mindset instead of a “no” mindset. It’s better to tell stakeholders, “You can have what you’re asking for, if we can find the budget for it” or “...if we can extend the project timeline.” Think of what would need to be true for you to say yes to a request, rather than no. The stakeholder will appreciate that you’re trying to make their request work, instead of seeing you as the blocker preventing them from getting what they want.

It’s also important to get the right set of trade-offs in front of the right people. For example, discussing reduced scope would be better received if it came from a stakeholder rather than you, the strategy designer. It’s always better to have the stakeholder put limits on things or provide context as to why something is not possible. In addition, you may learn something vital and new.

See why it’s so important to frame and scope your design challenge? In the next unit, explore one of the most effective methods to help you solve your challenge—How Might We (HMW) statements.


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