Are you faced with a problem and can’t figure out the answer?
Maybe, you’re going about it wrong. Questions have answers; problems have solutions. You’re trying to skip a step.
“If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it,” Albert Einstein
Before you can find the solution to a problem, you need to determine the questions you need to answer. Once you have those answers, the solution will become apparent.
There is always one question you should always ask first, regardless of the problem.
Is this a problem?
You’ve heard the expression, a solution looking for a problem. This happens more than you think. Because we try to find a solution before defining the problem. We are looking for answers to questions we haven’t asked. And often, either the question changes over time, or the answer does.
Let’s work through an example using a subject near and dear to my heart; photography.
The problem is you are on vacation with your friends, and you want to bring back pictures. So, is this a problem? Well, yes, it is if you think it is. One person will believe they need to have photos of their vacation; another won’t care anything about it. So, to person A, it is a problem; to person B, it is not.
So, the first person has identified a problem, but what is the question. That’s simple enough. How do I take pictures of myself and my friends on vacation? But the answer has changed radically over the last twenty years or so. At one point, you would buy a cheap Instamatic, or even better, a disposable camera. You came back from vacation, dropped the film or camera off at a film kiosk, and in a few days, you had your pictures.
Problem solved. Question answered.
A few years later, digital cameras became a thing. So, the answer was to buy a cheap, point and shoot digital camera and take it with you. The problem was solved quickly, and the images could be shared with your friends while still on vacation.
After that, the camera became standard on phones. Now the question was answered and the problem solved before it even became a problem. Instant images of you and your friends that you can share immediately with people back home. No one would ask the question that went with the original problem because the problem no longer exists.
But what about the solution looking for a problem? Well, to me, that is the selfie. How can I take close-up pictures of myself and my friends and post them on social media? The answer was self-evident, and the solution was reversible cameras on the phone. But what was the problem? I don’t think that was ever established.
I know someone that takes nothing but selfies on vacation. And they travel a lot. Every time they go on a trip, you can be assured of getting many close-up images of their face. And if you look carefully, you may be able to find small details in the background to determine where they are.
Like the Eiffel Tower or the Great Pyramids.
They have solved a problem that didin’t exist. No one ever said, hey, next time you go on vacation, send me a picture of your face. But somehow, this solution has become so prevalent that secondary solutions without problems have sprung up.
Like the selfie stick.
But let’s look at a more practical problem, a business problem.
In my days in the corporate world, sitting through endless meetings, people presenting solutions without problems was more the norm than the exception. Or there was a genuine problem, but the solution offered was an answer to the wrong question.
And in most cases, the real question should have always been the same. So, I would try to get people to think of that question by asking another.
“What is the purpose of our business?”
And people around the table would answer with variations of the services we provided or the products we sold or licensed. Every time. Finally, I would stop them and say the same thing.
“No. The purpose of this business is to make money.”
Isn’t that the purpose of any business? So, the question that should have been asked every time but never was is, “Will this thing make us money?”
The answer I received frequently was that our competitor had that thing, so we needed to have it. “Is our competitor making money with it?”
Let’s break this down by looking at a basic business, the lemonade stand. You just got a vision of one in your head, didn’t you? Some kid standing behind a table with a pitcher of lemonade, some glasses, and a homemade sign that says, Lemonade Ten Cents.
But is that kid making any money? Well, let’s break it down. Let’s assume the only cost of doing business for this kid is lemons and sugar. The exact cost of the lemons varies, but let’s take an average of .50 each. And a pound of sugar is going for about .75. Based on a recipe I found a gallon of lemonade will cost about $6. This will produce 16 8 oz. glasses, so the cost of doing business is .375 per glass.
I guess that sign in your memory was a little out of date. So, okay, this is a modern kid selling lemonade for .50 a glass. That’s a pretty tight margin, but the market won’t bear a higher price. And they do a brisk business and rake in several dollars a day. Pretty good money for a young kid.
Then someone comes along and offers a solution. A whiz-bang lemon juicer that only costs $79.99. They can make lemonade much faster than before. But that is a problem that didn’t exist. The kid has nothing but time, and there are only so many customers. Plus, we’ve already established that .50 is the most they can charge. All this solution does is ensure that they make less money than they did, or more likely lose money, and do it faster.
Before you try to solve a problem, you need to ask the right questions.
And the first question always needs to be, is this a problem that requires a solution.