Identifying Viable ‘Need-Solution Pairs’: Problem Solving Without Problem Formulation

15 Pages Posted: 17 Nov 2013 Last revised: 6 Jul 2022

See all articles by Eric A. von Hippel

Eric A. von Hippel

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management

Georg von Krogh

ETH Zurich

Date Written: November 16, 2013


Problem-solving research and formal problem-solving practice begin with the assumption that a problem has been identified or formulated for solving. The problem-solving process then involves a search for a satisfactory or optimal solution to that problem. In contrast, we propose that, in informal problem solving, a need and a solution are often discovered together and tested for viability as a “need–solution pair.’’ For example, one may serendipitously discover anew solution and assess it to be worth adopting although the “problem” it would address had not previously been in mind as an object of search or even awareness. In such a case, problem identification and formulation, if done at all, come only after the discovery of the need–solution pair.We propose the identification of need–solution pairs as an approach to problem solving in which problem formulation isnot required. We argue that discovery of viable need–solution pairs without problem formulation may have advantages over problem-initiated problem-solving methods under some conditions. First, it removes the often considerable costs associated with problem formulation. Second, it eliminates the constraints on possible solutions that any problem formulation will inevitably apply

Keywords: organizational economics, economics and organization, managerial and organizational cognition, organizationand management theory, decision making and theory of the firm, knowledge production, innovation, information transfer costs

Suggested Citation

von Hippel, Eric and von Krogh, Georg, Identifying Viable ‘Need-Solution Pairs’: Problem Solving Without Problem Formulation (November 16, 2013). MIT Sloan Research Paper No. 5071-13, Available at SSRN: or

Eric Von Hippel (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management ( email )

Cambridge, MA 02142
United States
617-253-7155 (Phone)
617-253-2660 (Fax)

Georg Von Krogh

ETH Zurich ( email )

Weinbergstrasse 56/58
Zurich, 8092
+41 44 632 88 50 (Phone)

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