Need Statements vs. Challenge Statements - What's the Difference?

March 18, 2019
Andrew DiMeo

The difference between Need Statements and Challenge Statements.

I’m not sure why it came up in our weekly team meeting, but it did. Pineapple on pizza. Without hesitation, my opinion was on the table. I don’t like pineapple on pizza. The Trig team all jumped in, taking sides on this tangent to the meeting.  Before we got back to business, a few of the team members challenged me to include my opinion in a blog post. Gauntlet thrown.

That night, I couldn’t sleep, wondering how to incorporate an opinion on Hawaiian Pizza into a blog post. Their challenge had me thinking.  Their CHALLENGE. The title of the blog post came to mind, and I fell fast asleep.

What a great way to start a post on the difference between Need Statements and Challenge Statements. For the record, I’m not going to spend time in this post talking about the criteria for something to be considered an unmet need. That’s a whole different topic to unpack. This is about creative concept development. Need Statements and Challenge Statements are both statements. Boom! That’s one thing they have in common. Another similarity: They are both tools used to launch ideation sessions intended to generate a maximum number of solutions to a given problem.

Let’s start with a simplified explanation, then unpack from there:

“Need Statements are about defining what the problem is, without including a solution. Challenge Statements are intended to provoke perspectives of the unmet need.”

The Unmet Need Statement

Economist and Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt is credited with stating, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” In this classic example, the “hole” is the need and the “drill” is the solution. A few thought leaders on the topic, most notably Clayton Christensen used this quote to help describe his “Jobs to be Done (JTBD)” approach. There are several nuances of JTBD, and I’m not going to unpack those here either. But I do think it is worth noting other takes on JTBD, such as innovation models that are Outcomes Driven, Market Driven, and other voice of customer approaches.

Nuance aside, from Levitt to Christensen, and everyone else I’ve explored; there is a shared foundation of “What” not “How” or otherwise described as “Solution Free.”

The drill is a solution. The drill is a “how.”

Examples of acceptable forms of pizza, in case you are ever confused.
Examples of acceptable forms of pizza, in case you are ever confused.

The hole is:

  • What people want
  • The desired outcome
  • The job to be done
  • The unmet need

What = Outcome = Job = Need  (All solution free.)

There is another nuance I’m also not going to unpack here, and that’s Levels of Abstraction. I’ll just say this, Simon Sinek will tell us to start with “Why” (not “What”).  I agree with Simon. But, I also disagree. That’s a “versus” post for another day. The bottom line is this: The unmet need statement is the phrase that describes the what/outcome/job without including solutions.

Here are a few ways I’ve been known to define the Unmet Need Statement:

  • “It’s the Creative Brief in one concise, elegant sentence”
  • “It’s the What … not the How”
  • “It’s an enduring statement that drives commercial potential”
  • “It’s the DNA of solutions”
  • “It’s a solution free, scoped, specific, verified statement that’s pleasant to the ear and in best practice includes a metric for success”

I’d say that Professor Levitt does a pretty good job with, “People … want a quarter-inch hole.”

The Challenge Statement

So I was challenged by the Trig team to share my opinion regarding pineapple as a pizza topping. That is a challenge. Besides being a fun way to get in a jab at my clearly misguided colleagues, it does demonstrate the notion of a Challenge.

The challenge statement is a tactic to re-state the need, or sub-needs, into challenges intended to provoke a response. The team’s provocation clearly worked, because I ended up brainstorming this post in an almost obsessive way once challenged.

Note that it is important to define the unmet need statement first (before generating challenge statements). Also, another thing I’m not going to unpack today, but just say: defining an unmet need statement isn’t done behind a desk.  A ton of primary and secondary research goes into the process.  But let’s assume you’ve done all that hard work and you have defined the need.

Pineapple exactly where it belongs: Not on pizza.
Pineapple exactly where it belongs: Not on pizza.

Here are some ways to generate challenge statements:

  • Pose the challenge statement in the form of a question, such as, “How might we … ?” or “What are all the ways …?”
  • Consider the need in a different industry or setting
  • How might we make quarter-inch holes in the military?
  • How might animals make quarter-inch holes?
  • Consider an alternate universe, such as a negative world
  • What are all the ways we can fill in quarter-inch holes?
  • Consider breaking down the need into smaller components
  • How might we make the quarter-inch hole round?
  • What are all the ways to make a quarter inch hole in wood?

Note: The challenge is also a solution free (what/job/outcome) statement intended to elicit as many solutions as possible.

Both Need Statements and Challenge Statements are tools used to define problems and generate novel solutions.

So, here’s a challenge statement for you, “how can we make pineapple on pizza good?”
My solution: Don’t order it.

I’m sorry I can’t say the same for some of my team members here at Trig that challenged me to write this post.

Andrew DiMeo
Innovation & Design Coach

Dr. Andrew DiMeo is a 20 year seasoned expert in the Biomedical Engineering industry. He is founder and former executive director of the NC Medical Device Organization, which became an NC Biotech Center of Innovation. He also co-founded and became VP of Business Development for the design and manufacturing company EG-Gilero.


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