Entrepreneur Toolkit: Defining Problems.

How we define problems matters. We offer tools that help designers get clear and specific about the problem they are trying to solve, which leads to better solutions.

Define Problems and Articulate a Theory of Change

After designers deepen their understanding through empathy research, an important next step in the process is to define the problem they are trying to solve. Two tools CityBridge program participants use to equitably define problems include a humble “mad lib” statement, and a more detailed “theory of change.”

Problem Definition Mad Libs

A combination of “mad lib”-style templates and deliberate equity pauses can help designers get clear and specific about the problem they are trying to solve. In turn, this allows for better alignment of possible solutions—an important step on the way to building a pilot to test a potential solution.

Problem statements should:

  • Be grounded in empathy data and insights.
  • Be written with user-centered language
  • Be written with inclusive, asset-based language
  • Not include a solution within the problem definition.

Problem Statement Mad Libs

This tool illustrates two approaches to crafting and revising equitable problem statements. Alumni of the Design Studio program will recognize elements of this “mad lib” approach from the problem statement work in the Studio workbook.

Theories of Change

A Theory of Change is a process and a product for strategic planning and thinking. A Theory of Change (TOC) helps designers, leaders, and educators explain the causal links between the actions they take and the outcomes they’re aiming for. It serves as a “roadmap” that helps teams understand whether the work they are doing is contributing to achieving their goals, or whether there might be alternative pathways to follow on the way to a goal.

Building and refining a Theory of Change within Design Fellowship or another CityBridge program allows teams to accomplish several important goals. For teams transforming existing schools, it helps to make sense of what they currently do about a particular challenge, and then evaluate the current approach. For teams building new schools or ventures, the TOC is a tool to clarify how a team will aim to solve a problem. In addition, it helps a team:

  • Explain their thinking to other stakeholders, get feedback, and co-design solutions.
  • Stimulate productive dialogue among team members about exactly how the school, organization, or project goes about achieving its aims. This helps build an inspiring vision for a coalition of supporters within your organization.
  • Clarify differences between the resources and efforts that go into addressing the challenge (inputs and actions) and what happens as a result (the outcomes).
  • Identify ways to gather evidence that can help determine whether or not the Theory of Change is working as planned.
  • Identify important risks and assumptions to test through piloting or testing. Piloting allows you to test assumptions or causal links between components of your TOC.

A clear problem statement is a key component of a Theory of Change, so the two methods are complementary.

Theory of Change Overview

To simplify the core ideas of a Theory of Change, we developed an overview tool that explains jargon and offers several different kinds of examples based on ventures and school models.

Theory of Change Template

This template builds on the Overview, offering a simple graphic organizer for design teams to articulate the problem statement, inputs, actions, and outcomes related to a challenge.


social justice school theory of change

This example is based on the work of an educator team at Social Justice School and their partners at Gray Matter Educational Consulting. They wove social-emotional learning strategies into literacy instruction for middle school students during Design Fellowship, Spring 2022.

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