Noticing that a problem exists is a matter of perception. But solving that problem requires a suite of skills that go far beyond perception. (And cheers to the problem-solvers of the world, because if they didn’t keep asking “why are we still doing things inefficiently,” we’d still be hunting food and living in caves.)

But there’s also a problem with problem-solving.

The risk in trying to fix something is that you can get stuck between two competing urges: your desire to fix what’s broken, and your desire to be recognized as the person who correctly identified the issue and built the solution.

The first desire is fueled by altruism — wanting to improve a situation so no one has to deal with the obvious downsides. The second is fueled by ego — wanting to be appreciated for your insight and exceptionalism.

“This is broken. How do we fix it?” leads to a very different process than “This is broken, and I have the answer.”

The former asks people to investigate the root cause and find multiple possible solutions. The latter pins all your hopes — and, in some cases, your identity or perception of self-worth — on the merits of one argument.

Neither urge is necessarily correct or incorrect, but they do pull at each other, and sometimes well-meaning people with good ideas and noble intentions get caught in the middle. As a result, their ventures go nowhere.

Here’s how to avoid that.

Is Your Problem Really a Problem?

Very few products or services are ideal. Almost everything you buy comes with a few annoyances built in, due to inefficiencies in design, operations, sourcing, infrastructure, etc. And if you do find something that’s nearly perfect, its pricetag probably isn’t.

But there’s a difference between a problem and an inconvenience.

Some people build solutions for what seem like problems, but are really just adjustments to inconveniences.

Your UX sucks? We fixed that, so buy our thing instead.

Your process takes five steps? Ours takes three, so buy our thing instead.

Your product takes 30 hours to master? Ours only takes 10, so buy ours instead.

All of this is a nice-to-have… but is it business-critical? Are your improvements helping your customers accomplish things they can’t do today? Or are they just making what they do today better or easier?

To be sure, there’s a market for better and easier… but it’s much smaller than you’re hoping for. That’s because most people will put up with “good enough” until it gets obsoleted. And when you’re first launching, your “less-inconvenient” solution is probably more expensive than the market leader you’re trying to topple… so why would anyone switch to your brand new, untested, untrusted solution that may not be around in three years?

In order to build a business [other than fashion or art, where image is everything], you need to solve a problem that, by doing so, creates new opportunities for your customers. (And even art and fashion solve a type of problem: a lack of representation of what a certain audience wants to see, or be.)

You must frame your value proposition not just in terms of what it will save your customer in the short run in terms of a few dollars or a few headaches, but in terms of what they could accomplish if that bottleneck or inefficiency didn’t exist in the first place.

In other words, you have to sell the “after” to people who are still living in the “before.”

And if your “after” is just “less inconvenient,” you’re not really solving a problem. You’re just selling a better-looking inefficiency. Push past that and get under the roots of the issue and then you’ll have something to talk about.

Understand All Aspects of the Problem – Not Just the Ones You See

Sometimes the people closest to the situation are the ones most uniquely equipped to fix it… but sometimes those same people only see the situation from their own point of view. And that means there are likely other causes or influences on that problem that the people closest to it are completely oblivious to.

Say you take a new job, and you find out your new employer is still using a woefully outdated technology. Why would they do that? It makes no sense to you, because there are obviously better products and services on the market. So you decide to pitch the IT department on the service you liked better at your last job. Why would they say no?

Maybe they’re getting a massive discount from their existing vendor.

Maybe implementing your solution would also necessitate upgrading all the operating systems or computers in the facility.

Maybe the existing solution is tied to another app that your new solution doesn’t interface with.

Maybe the time and cost of training the entire workforce on your new solution seems daunting, and the momentary loss of productivity while everyone gets up to speed just doesn’t sync with the budget forecast for the quarter.

Until you can see this problem from more than just your own perspective, you won’t be able to understand all the hurdles involved in selling and implementing a new solution.

Make Sure Your User AND Your Purchaser Both Want What You’re Selling

Unless your user is also your buyer, you don’t just have to convince your user to change the way s/he does something; you also have to convince your purchaser that changing your users’ workflow and disrupting existing processes will be worth it.

If your value proposition is “a better user experience,” your users may love it… but your purchaser may not see any reason to buy “slightly better than.” (In fact, they almost definitely won’t.)

If your big pitch is “we save you time and money,” your purchaser may love it… but your users may hate your UX compared to what they’ve always been using, and they may resent the change. (They may also tie up your customer service lines for days.)

It’s not enough to just win over one of these audiences and then hope they can influence the other into buying / using your product or service. You need to view both sides as partners in this solution, and find language that appeals to each of them without contradicting your core values. (You can’t be “the best on the market” and also “the cheapest solution” at the same time. Nice try, optimist.)

You also can’t unilaterally implement a solution that affects multiple groups without expecting those groups who are now obligated to adopt the new solution to feel like they’re being taken for granted.

For example, YouTube recently changed how they serve ads. This change was supposed to please advertisers… but it wound up aggravating the people who actually make (and watch) YouTube videos. By trying to solve one problem (brands don’t want to advertise on “questionable” videos), it created a new one (YouTubers now want more control over their experience).

When your solution addresses the concerns of one user group at the expense of others, you don’t actually solve the underlying problem. You just complicate the process.

The Takeaway

If your current passion is solving a problem, ask yourself four questions:

  1. Is this problem really just an inconvenience?
  2. Do I understand all the reasons why this problem exists?
  3. Do the buyer and the user both want my solution?
  4. Am I trying to fix a problem, or am I trying to prove my answer is right?

Image by Ulysse Bellier.

If You Like This Post

… then you may also enjoy learning about the question that kills your business before you ever start, or this post about how to live your life in a no-bullshit zone.

How to Live Your Life in a No-Bullshit Zone


1 Comment

3 Steps for Building Your 21st Century Career – Justin Kownacki · October 2, 2016 at 11:22 pm

[…] (Just make sure you’re not confusing a solution with a mission.) […]

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