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What Problem Are You Trying To Solve?

Ever been in a meeting and the group is just pounding their collective head against the wall of a problem. Trying to come up with rules to keep bad things from happening, or to optimize a process.

“What problem are you trying to solve?”

This is probably the question I ask the most of my proteges and anyone I’m working with on a problem. It is especially useful for entrepreneurs.

I don’t mean “What problem is your business trying to solve?” Or what pain are you trying to alleviate? That is a core question every business has to answer and understand at a foundational level.

But it generally gets answered early on in the start-up process and you don’t need to be asking constantly.

“What problem are you trying to solve?” Does need to be asked a lot.

We get caught up in doing what we “should” do. Or what everyone in our industry does. Or what we think will get us what we want. But often we’ve put the cart before the horse and are now galloping off in the wrong direction.

Let me give you an example.

When I first met one of my proteges her biggest pain point was going to coffee shops and trying to get people to start working at her co-working space.

She wanted to know how to approach them without feeling horrible and weird. What should she say? How should she do it? Should she just pass out her business card?

So I asked, “What problem are you trying to solve by doing that?”

“Well I’m trying to get new customers.”

“Why are you going to a coffee shop to get new customers?”

“Because that’s where I thought the kind of people who need a co-working space would be.”

“OK, but is is working? Is that true?”


“So what are other ways you could attract new customers?”

Then we figured out a number of different ways to try. The problem was new customers, not how to cold approach strangers at a coffee show.

Often we get so focused on a method and making that method “better” we don’t remember why we are using that method in the first place.

You see this with rule making a lot in business. Businesses ask, “What could go wrong?” Then they make rules to keep that thing from happening.

For example, suppose you have a printer that you let your customers print on for free. You ask, “What could go wrong?”

“Well, people could come in, print 100 pages, and use up all my paper and ink.”

Then you make a rule that people have to get approval from you before they can print anything to make sure they don’t print too much.

That’s a valid concern, but my question would be “What problem are you trying to solve?” “People printing too much.”

“Do your people print too much now?”

“Huh? No.”

“Then you don’t actually have that problem do you?”

“Well, I could.”

“Then why don’t you solve that problem when you have it, not before?”

Asking “What problem are you trying to solve?” not only gets you back to the core problem, it also shows you if really have a problem or not. Too often we try to solve problems, often at the cost of lots of time, money and anguish, that we don’t actually have.

My general rule of thumb is don’t try and solve a problem till you have actually experienced it enough to understand the parameters of the problem.

Say you notice a big print job going through your printer. You know it is more than you wanted people to use. Go talk to the person doing the printing.

Find out what the deal is and talk to them about your side of it. On a small scale this will probably solve the problem without a rule.

But maybe it doesn’t. Now you understand the actual problem and its scope. You can create protocols based on reality and not just what you think will happen.

Bonus Distinction: Actually talk to the person. Don’t just have the conversation in your head. Because you will probably have the worst-case scenario conversation.

Also don’t email them, or send them a text, because then you’ll remove all emotion probably come across as accusing. That will create conflict in a way that a relational curiosity oriented conversation won’t.

Maybe they just need to do a big print this one time. You mention it uses a lot of resources. Normal, nice people, will try to fix it.

They understand that “unlimited free printing” probably doesn’t scale to printing a 500 page novel every day. They will offer solutions. To pay you something. To never do it again.

Now that you’ve had a personal conversation, you can just let it go, and watch to see if it is going to be a problem long term.

Yes, there are people who will try to game the system. Who will be unreasonable, but they are actually the exception and not the rule in most businesses. You just notice them more because they are a problem.

That’s a perception problem. I did a whole series on Perception last season with an episode on this effect. Check it out for more information.

Next time you are in a discussion that seems to be going round and round trying to make something work, ask the question “What problem are you trying to solve?”

It may open up new avenues or even tell you it isn’t something you need to be spending so much time on.

Question of the Day: What problem are you trying to solve?

Leave a comment below and maybe I can help.

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