Don’t Bring Me Solutions, Bring Me Problems!

Published by Grahame Cox on

Henry Ford famously said, ‘If I had asked them what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse’. Well maybe he was asking the wrong type of question. I often find that in today’s action-oriented world, there is a tendency to rush towards solutions without first really establishing the nature of the problem you are trying to solve. This is especially true of innovation. Too many new product launches offer no real benefit over the myriads of alternatives already available. They don’t solve a ‘problem’. No problem solved = no sales, or at least no long-term sales. Of course we can all ‘buy’ sales in the short-term – a distribution drive, a strong promotional campaign, big advertising budgets. These can all entice people to try a new product or service at least once. We have a natural inclination to want to try something ‘new’. But if we don’t buy for a second, and third time then do we really have a success on our hands? AC Neilsen’s 2014 Breakthrough Innovation report notes that across all Western European markets, some ‘76% of all innovations did not achieve 52 weeks of sales (and barely half that achieved even 26 weeks of sales)’. So, with such a high rate of failure, if you aren’t going to add to the list of ‘the ones that didn’t make it’, I suggest you focus on problem seeking, before you start problem solving.

I have heard lots of people use Ford’s quote as a reason to dismiss research. Steve Job’s said of Apple ‘We do no market research’ (although you can find a number of market researchers employed at Apple on Linked In!). I don’t agree. Research is an invaluable tool in unearthing those consumer problems, those unmet needs that are gold dust for innovators. How you research problems poses a whole new set of questions. I visited the 3M Innovation Centre recently. It’s full of all sorts of amazing products and innovations. Talking to the people there, it seemed that 3M’s great skill was to observe their customers in action. They found problems their customers didn’t even know they had and provided solutions that they didn’t know they needed! We recently ran an exercise for a client where we equipped consumers with tablets and then dialed in to ‘observe’ them on a regular basis as they went about their daily business. When we analysed what we saw, and sat down with this group of consumers, their almost universal response was ‘I didn’t know I did that!’. The skill of problem seeking, it seems, lies as much in observation, if not more so, as in skillful questioning. 

I strongly believe that the first step in delivering successful innovation is to really get to grips with the nature of the problem that you are trying to solve. In my experience, the better you define the problem, the better the solution is likely to be. That’s why, before we start the ideation process, we spend a lot of time with clients digging deep, getting to the root of the problems in their markets. Hunting down those opportunities. We also have to make sure we have identified ‘relevant’ problems: do enough people have this ‘problem’ to make it a real business opportunity? Does your company have the skills and capability to solve the problem, or is it prepared to invest in those capabilities? Are your competitors better placed to provide the solution, in which case could they launch a better alternative once you have opened up the market for them? Look at all of this to ensure you’ve got a ‘relevant’ problem, one that you are best placed to answer.

As you go through the ideation process, keep referring your solutions back to the problem at hand. We like to make sure, once we are excited by an idea, that we take a step back and ask ourselves: ‘does this really solve the problem?’ Then we ask ourselves: ‘could we solve that problem even better?’…. and we keep going until we believe we have a winner. My assumption is that at a very simple level the motor car solved a problem of the speed with which it was possible to get from A to B. But there were probably all sorts of other options beyond the faster horse and reasons why a motor car was a better solution to the problem. Finding the right solution, means finding the right problem. 

So, when you embark on your next innovation project, start by looking for those problems. Become a ‘problem seeker’, it is likely to make you a better innovator, and lead to better, more profitable and sustainable innovations.