Solve the Problem You Have, Not the Problem You Think You Have

One of the things that I’ve been struggling at work is helping get projects and people aligned around solving for the right thing. Sometimes (possibly often …), a request will come in that reads something like:

I want you to build a hovercraft, because people have a need for travel, and a hovercraft satisfies that need.

And that’s fine, right?

Except, in this scenario, building a hovercraft doesn’t really solve the problem of travel. It is a possible solution, but it’s a really complicated solution that maybe can’t get delivered for years (we have to invent hovercraft technology). Maybe a bike would solve the problem? That would be easier. Maybe we don’t need a vehicle at all—maybe we just need shoes.

This is a ridiculous example, but hopefully the point is clear. It can be hard to convince people that they’re trying to solve the problem they want to solve (or worse yet, that they’re simply solving the problem they think they have).

I’ve found this is common in tech organizations where you’ve got folks all around who are somewhat technical, and they get stuck on an idea, and that idea becomes the solution to every possible problem.

Man, it takes us too long to build stuff. We should setup some really complicated technological process that allows us to more easily build stuff.

The problem there is well stated. It takes too long to build stuff. The solution, however, is solving the problem that the person believes exists: that the lack of some technological process is the real cause of the “taking too long” problem.

That is, more often than not, a fallacy. Everyone gets hung up on the solution. The challenge is to help people get hung up on the problem: what is the issue, how does it manifest itself, what is the pain, etc.

I’m as bad as anyone at this. My brain starts making connections and rapidly gets to the point that I believe I understand the problem and that I’ve figured out the optimal solution (the biggest bang for the buck solution, in my mind). In thinking about this, I came across this quote:

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 was pretty clever.

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