What’s Your Problem?

We don’t like to talk about problems. We usually try to escape them altogether, or if we absolutely can’t avoid them, we re-label them, so they don’t sound so scary. We call them challenges or barriers. Never problems. But here’s the thing; Problems are important. Problems are good. Problems are catalysts for change. When humans face problems, we rise to the occasion, we thrive, we collaborate, and we solve those problems. Problems are crucial to our society, and they are crucial for companies. And problems are the source of creativity and innovation. So when I ask “What’s your problem?”, it’s not out of hostility, it’s out of genuine interest.

To be honest, your business problems are probably not so interesting. I understand that it’s a problem that you are losing revenue, or not growing as fast as you’d like. I’d even understand that you would say that your problem is that you are launching a new product in a category that is very competitive. But those problems are less likely to drive change and innovation. The more interesting problems are the consumers’ problems. Or the business decision makers’, if you are in a B2B industry. Their problems can become your opportunity – if you manage to recognise it, and find a solution. Of course, the consumers don’t always understand what the problem is, or that there is a problem in the first place. So it’s not just about asking them. Apple and Sony famously rejected focus groups, not because people don’t have anything to say about the category, but because most people can only see answers that are already there. That’s why identifying problems is much more interesting. All great innovations and inventions have solved a crucial problem in people’s lives. And companies that have solved those problems, have gone on to become very successful.

So how can we identify and solve problems? First and foremost, we need to recognise that there is a problem in the first place. We may not know exactly what it is, but by observing people, we can try to figure out what the real problem is. The problems we should be looking for, are the ones that make a difference in people’s lives. And they have to be relative to the industry we’re in. Actually, it doesn’t have to be exactly the industry we’re in, but there has to be some expertise we can bring in to solve the problem. It’s easy to recognise that there is a problem that it takes four years to travel to Mars. But if we don’t have competency in aerospace, there is probably little we can do about it. Right? So let’s focus on the problems we have the opportunity to solve, even if the solution isn’t there yet. The hospitality industry missed out on a huge opportunity when they thought their business was providing rooms at a given location. They didn’t realise that a large group of travellers want more than just a room in a specific location. Instead, Airbnb identified two other problems that they could solve a) it’s hard to get hotel rooms at a reasonable price, especially when there’s a conference in town, and b) many people have a spare room they don’t use, and/or aren’t capitalising on the full value of their home. The tech solution is the easy part. By identifying these two simple problems, Airbnb have built a global empire.

Existing businesses can also identify and solve problems. But to do so, they need to set up a culture that allows people to look for problems. A culture that rewards problem focus, and that encourages the team to solve those problems. This requires leadership, a systematic approach to problem solving, and a solid portion of creativity and curiosity. Not all business have all of that, so to prepare for the future, you need to look at what kind of organisation you have, identify the innovation drivers and problem finders in your business, and start carving out a path to becoming an innovation leader. So that next time you’re asked “what’s your problem?”, you can answer with confidence and ideas.

Erik Ingvoldstad is the Founder & CEO of Acoustic.
Follow Erik on Twitter @ingvoldSTAR, follow Acoustic at @AcousticGroupSG
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[Main photo by Adrien Leguay, under CC]