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Are you solving the right problem?

We all come across different situations that we interpret as a “problem to solve”. The ability of solving problems seems to be hard-wired into our brain, in our biology. It is something we all know how to do. It is fantastic and has led to many innovations over the years. By identifying problems to solve, we can come up with solutions to overcome the problem. This leads to development of new ideas that solve the problem and make our lives easier. It is all good and a real superpower we have. However, the root cause of the problem we see before us is not always the one we at first see. And that makes a whole difference.

Someone who belived this, was Steve Jobs who claimed that you cannot ask your users what they need, because as a user you don’t know what you need until you see it. This may be controversial and to some extent it is, but I believe he has a point. Why? Because as humans, we tend to see problems through the lens of what we know of today. Most often, we do not have the ability to think of solutions that go beyond this space. And to find the true solutions, this is what is needed. Let me give you a historic example.

When the high-rise buildings were built in New York in the early 20th century one manager of such building started to get complains from the tenants about the elevators. People said that the elevators were riding too slow. At peak times it took forever to get up and down from your floor. This was unacceptable. The tenants of the buildings were threatening to move out. Clearly this was a massive hit for the business and something had to be done.

The manager went to the engineers and asked them to find a way to speed up the elevators. The engineers looked for solutions but found none. The only alternative they could see was to replace them with new ones, but this was too costly and was not doable for the business. What to do? The manager gathered his team and among the staff was a fresh psychology graduate. The graduate found it interesting that people were complaining about the speed after waiting only for a short time. Why, he asked?

After conducting a small study he came up with a solution: Install mirrors. This was a very different idea and quite strange. But it was a quick and cheap solution and it was put to test. Mirrors were installed next to the elevators and inside the cabins. What happened? The complaints suddenly stopped. People were now happy with the elevators! It turned out that people had been bored waiting for the elevators and having nothing to do while waiting. The mirrors solved the issue and people needed no longer perceive the elevators as too slow. So by defining the problem differently, a cheap solution was found and the business saved. Cool, don’t you think?

Mirrors inside an elevator – a result of defining the right problem

Clearly, how you define the problem is important for us in order to find the solution. It seems to be so that the problem definition sets a “box” for our mind is as we proceed to look for solutions. And once you got your mind started in that problem space, it is very hard to get out of that defined “box”. Recognise this?

So before you dig too deep in finding for solutions, make sure you have really understood the problem. And make sure you are addressing the root cause of the problem – not the symptoms. If you can learn how to master the art of problem definition – it can make the whole difference for you and your career. It can lead to radically new ideas that can save valuable resources for your business. Actually, how you define the problems may be what in the end decides the fate of your business. If you do it right, it can be even be the start of the next big unicorn.

Think of this when you look in the mirror of an elevator the next time.

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