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Problem Solvers Focus on the Problem, Not the Solution

Problems Matter More Than SolutionsThink back: the last time you pitched an idea - internally or to a customer - did you start out by getting everyone to agree on the problem they were facing? If not, I'll bet you didn't land the deal.

We're all trained to come up with solutions, but if you don't identify the problem - the customer's pain, the roadblock to their success - nobody's going to throw money at your solution. That's for sure.

Example: If you've ever wondered how Apple makes one breakthrough product after another, here's how:

  • First, they figure out what users really want to do.
  • Then they look at what frustrates them, drives them nuts - what stands in the way of them doing it. That would be "the problem."
  • Then, and only then, they sit down and try to come up with the simplest solution that doesn't cause more problems than it solves.
It's the same thing when you're trying to sell an idea or project to your own management. If it's something you think is a good idea, great, give yourself a gold star. But if you really want to get it approved and funded, it had better address a problem your management thinks is critical. Get the difference?

Don't ask me why, but for some reason, people gloss over the problem and jump right to the solution all the time. I guess it just doesn't come naturally. Admittedly, I sometimes find myself diving in and getting to work without taking the time to make sure I know what the hell I'm trying to fix.

The bottom line is, assuming you've got the problem wired is a huge mistake that accounts for more failed products, bad service, and stunted careers than you or anyone else can imagine.

So, regardless of what business your company's in or what you do for a living, here are:

5 Tips For Making Sure You're Solving the Right Problem

  1. Don't assume anything. The "set up" is more critical than any aspect of any process. A wise CEO once told me that most business disagreements were due to conflicting assumptions. You know, he was right. If you set up the problem wrong, the whole process is flawed from the start. Don't assume you know anything. Find out.
  2. What's the biggest roadblock. First, learn your company's or group's big goals and imperatives. Then determine the biggest hurdles or roadblocks to meeting those goals and imperatives. How is your expertise best suited to solve those problems? That's what you want to jump on and help find a solution.
  3. Find out your customer's WIIFM. Pretty much everything in business starts with finding out your customer's WIIFM - What's In It For Me. You need to know that for any customer or internal stakeholder. Examples: If you're in sales, you need to figure out the right buttons to push with the decision maker. For the Apple iPod, users wanted a single, simple device to download, manage, and serve up all their music. That problem statement led to an elegant solution that revolutionized consumer electronics.
  4. What's the customer's pain or business problem? In a prior post, we talked about the four questions every entrepreneur must answer to start a business and get it funded. One of them is "What big market or customer problem are you proposing to solve? Who (what types of customers) currently faces or suffers from this problem and what's the nature of their pain?" Every successful business is based on solving a big customer problem.
  5. What does your boss need most to be successful? There are a few key questions to ask your boss and help you determine how you can be most effective in your job. Your value to management and your company, how indispensible you really are, is largely a function of determining how best to apply your capability to help them to be more effective in solving their big problems and meeting their goals. If you're not doing that, you're wasting your time.
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