Solving the Right Problems
29 November, 2020
Head of Product at Permutive
Startups don’t typically have a long runway and are pressured to generate profit quickly. They often try to solve and get easily excited about too many things. This often leads them astray. Failing to focus on solving the right problems they misuse already scarce resources and lost sparse opportunities. If you are a startup of only three people you will have to choose and solve only a small number of problems, so make sure that those would bring the highest value.
Solving the right problems can be summarized as the ability to grasp the entirety of the problem space, dissect all the existing -- and emerging -- problems, and decide what problems need to be solved as you put the rest aside.
Fly on a wall
The first action would be not to take any action. Instead, I would be behaving as a fly on a wall. I would be there almost unnoticeable, patiently observing, and refraining from commenting and taking any actions. By quietly observing I would learn a great deal about the industry, company, market, customers, employees, etc. Gradually, I would be able to identify opportunities and the contours of the problems would start to appear. I would study the problem meticulously since without a solid understanding of the problem itself I would not be able to solve it.
Defining the problem
Before concentrating on solving the problem, one should be able to describe it in a single sentence. Defining the problem also includes identifying who has the problem and why they want to solve it. The explanation should be succinct, clear, and comprehensible to a layperson.
I would validate the problem using two criteria: the number of people affected by it and the value it brings to the company. If one of your customers struggles with the problem, but most don’t, you should rethink if that is the problem worthy of your effort and resources. To determine the impact of the problem, I would conduct surveys and measure the number of people affected by it. Also, I would have to estimate the value of the problem and calculate how much my company would gain from it if I would manage to solve it.
Is there alignment?
Someone may want to solve a problem that is the most interesting, helpful, and even profitable problem ever. However, it is far from what the company wants to get involved in and that aligns with its mission. Having technology and resources to make customers happy is not enough if there is a lack of alignment with the company’s vision and goals.
Bringing people on board
People within the company often have conflicting goals and bringing them together and having them agree to solve the problem can be a daunting task. To secure company-wide buy-in, start with securing an agreement that solving the problem is good for the company. Only once that is assured propose how you would plan to solve it.
- The role of a leader is to enable the undisturbed flow of thoughts. That means creating an environment where everyone is encouraged to speak up and share their ideas. People who feel secure will proliferate more ideas and more ideas will bring to a better solution. Be a platform, not a leader -- pull, not push.
- Keep an open mind. People are biased. They have their own opinions and their own ideas that they consider better than anyone else’s. Don’t be surprised how false those opinions/ideas could be. Speak to your customers and validate your ideas before rushing to announce the brilliance of your solution.
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