A nomenclature for time framing challenge discussions

I find myself frequently involved in conversations that have a high degree of viscosity. Surprise. Those are usually discussions about new business ideas, innovation processes, social impact initiatives and so on.

The important details come up slowly during these conversations. As we hear more and more, we naturally gain supporting levels of understanding upon which we lever the following question. It’s hard, fuzzy and usually slow.

The questions we use to untangle the knot are common: what’s the problem you are trying to solve? Or who is the intended audience? We all know that. But one of the hardest aspects to grasp is time. The time horizons of the problem and being able to find solutions are key to hold a fruitful conversation from the beginning.

I’ve recently come up with a tool for that. Start by simplifying a challenge into two parts: the problem and the solution. Yeah, I know, this is cheating. Challenges are polymorphic, non-static and they are basically Schrodinger cat’s favorite toy from hell. But let’s give it a try.

To start, take a problem and assume that you already know its nature. Research and framing are done, we have a candidate problem to work on.  A simple question you should be able to answer at this point is: does the problem exists today or it will exist tomorrow? The rise of overweight population in developed countries is a public health problem that exists today. The occurrence of a worldwide killing pandemic from a new Influenza strain is a problem that could bang tomorrow.

Communicating this aspect is something that you frequently see at the beginning of startup pitches or TED talks:  “Today, there’s X million of people that…”, or “by 2050 the percentage of X will rise by Y”.

We can differentiate problems into two categories:

Current Problem (CP) versus Future Problem (FP).

For solutions, on the other hand, I see further degrees of classification. Again, what interests me is the time frame. And for that, I classify the solutions along three successive horizons: 5, 10 and 25 years.

These horizons declare the approximate date by when we believe a solution will be ready. Stating this can help us understand if we are currently working on a challenge that is technically feasible today or if we are pushing the boundaries of what’s known.

With enough resources, you might be able to shrink the length of an endeavour by a factor of X years. That’s totally fine. The aim is to communicate today’s perception about the feasibility of this solution, following these guides:

5 years Future Solution (5S): it’s a solution that we think can be built today or in the very near future with the available knowledge and tools out there and that can be delivered in within 5 years.

10 years Future Solution (10S): it’s probably a solution that requires deeper research and development of some basic components. And it has some identified dependencies on third-party discoveries and developments.

25 years Future Solution (25S): a solution that has unidentified dependencies, requires deep work on fundamental science and technology.

So the tool would work like this. In the same way, we say B2B or B2C we could explain the nature of our challenge in these combinations:

Some practical examples:

Most startup VCs are interested in startups working in the range that goes from current problems and current solutions (CP-5S) to current problems and 10 years future solution (CP-10S). Keep in mind that the timeframe has nothing to do with the P&L of the company. A startup might or not break even or achieve market power after 10 years of running operations but it will still be a CP-5S or CP-5S challenge under this system.

It’s fair to say that what car manufacturers release when they show a concept car in trade fairs is usually a FP-10S. Some examples of philanthropy and governments long term plan commonly support the type of FP-25S challenges.

Another example is that being able to transform a CP-10S challenge into a CP-5S means a very strong competitive advantage. Or companies solving a CP-5S might have a FP-10S under the hood of their roadmaps.

On purpose, I force dependency of occurrence between future problems and future solutions. I assume that inside this labelling system you can’t build a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. In reality, you can build on a hypothesis of different scenarios, of course. But for the sake of simplification if you say this has a 10S solution it means that you believe the problem will be in place by then.

I’m aware that using unknown acronyms make conversations impossible and being the macho in the room saying “this is a VUCA situation” makes you look funny. So avoid dropping it here and there if people are not familiar with it.

The structure is what’s important. There are current vs future problems that you can identify. And you can use three different time horizons for solutions. Just ask and reflect on challenges using this scheme and let me know if it’s being useful for you.