Define your problem before picking a solution

Our industry revels in coming up with solutions, but is quite poor at defining problems. This has resulted in an vast constellation of technological solutions, but with the majority of investment capital being centered around a small handful of banal consumer problems (Hailing Rides, Shopping Convenience, Entertainment, etc.) If we are to solve problems that are worth solving, we’re going to need to get better at defining our problems before we pick solutions.

For example, don’t do this:

Blockchain is the next wave of disruptive technologies, so we need to get on the Blockchain train before it leaves us behind

Blockchain is a solution, not a problem. Picking Blockchain as a solution before you know the problem is absurd, and contriving a problem so that you can use Blockchain is wasteful.

Do this instead:

We need to eliminate the ability for an attacker to tamper with our customer transaction history.

Now resist the urge to say “Blockchain is the best solution to this problem” as you’ve not analysed the relative costs and benefits of your available options. If you need a formal methodology consider using the OODA loop:

  • Observe – We have looked at the situation and defined our problem.
  • Orient – We have many options to solve this problem, all with pros and cons. (Blockchain is but one of many options.)
  • Decide – Weighing the pros and cons, decide which solution is best for your situation.
  • Act – Implement the solution, without pride or prejudice. Get it done, solve the problem, and move onto the next problem like a benevolent problem-solving locust.

Picking the solution before defining the problem is childish. A child will pick up a spoon and use it as a drum stick, shovel, catapult, mirror, or nose adornment. This isn’t them being innovative, this is them being imaginative. The two are not the same. The former has practical value, the latter is largely for personal entertainment.

If you feel compelled to dabble with the latest and greatest solution of the day, feel free to do this on your own time. If you are entertaining yourself on the company’s time, be cognizant of the fact that you are being both selfish and wasteful. You are hired to be a professional problem solver, not to play around with whatever shiny object catches your fancy.

Problem solving is hard; playing with toys is easy. Decide what you want to be known for and own your decision. If you want to play with toys, try to land an R&D job or become a academic researcher. If you want to make a real impact on the world, you’ll need to solve real problems. If you want to solve real problems, you need to get good at defining them. Don’t worry about solutions, they’re out there. The challenge will be in leveraging them to get the results you want, and that is quite a challenge indeed.


colleague pointed out that this approach is called Design Thinking

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