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A Solution Looking for a Problem Conundrum

How many times have you heard of, or perhaps even been involved with developing a product that seems to potentially provide a good solution but has no clear problem that it solves?  Sounds crazy but it happens more often than you might think, especially for tech-oriented firms who can see the possibilities of what a promising technology could offer but lack the skills to ask the fundamental question “what problems do people have that our technology can solve?”

I believe good ideas can come from a variety of sources and perspectives. The technology perspective can and does provide potentially breakthrough and disruptive opportunities but only if a real problem can be solved by the technology. Otherwise all we end up with is a “solution looking for a problem” leading to one of two basic reasons why new products fail:

1) The product wasn’t needed (i.e. it didn’t solve a real problem effectively or better than current solutions) or 2) The target customers did not understand what the product does (i.e. no compelling reason or no clear message of why a customer should buy – or hire – the product).

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges a company can face is trying to figure out how to sell a product after it’s developed and heaven forbid in production and launched. This is a very unfortunate situation that is caused by a “self-inflected wound” due to a poor idea-to-launch framework that lacks market input and feedback.

To avoid creating the “solution looking for a problem,” it’s essential that we take the time to really understand why a potential customer would “hire” our solution in the first place.  We need to discover what jobs the customer is trying to get done and the level of satisfied with the outcomes they are getting.  From there we can better understand if our technology/solution can make a significant improvement in their desired outcomes.

So when you find yourself with an interesting idea based on a new technology capability, and hopefully early on in the innovation process, start asking the question –  “what are the possible jobs that people are trying to get done where our technology could provide an alternative and better solution?”

The “job-to-be-done” framework and lens popularized by Clayton Christensen in his ground breaking book “the Innovator’s Solution,” is a powerful tool that helps innovation and development teams get as close as possible with an initial product that is much closer to what customers will ultimately discover what they value.

Yes you read that right – “what customers will ultimately discover what they value.”  Truly new products rarely provide a complete solution or clear value proposition until potential users have a chance to play with see how the innovation will improve their outcomes.  It takes experimentation, testing and learning between both customers and developers before a market will adopt a new innovation.  (The challenge of early market adoption described in a body of worked called the diffusion of innovation.)

A criticism we often hear about why using voice-of-customer techniques don’t work for truly new products is that “the customers can’t articulate what they truly want because they know what they know and they don’t know what they don’t know.”

It’s true that most customers can’t tell you with any great accuracy or reliability what products you should develop that will go on to become breakthrough success, because that’s not what they are thinking about. Sorry it’s not their job to tell you how to innovate – that’s yours.  But what they do know either explicitly or tacitly is the job they are trying to get done and some level of satisfaction in accomplishing that job.

With that in mind, when you have a promising idea based on a new technology capability, ask the question – “what jobs are people trying to get done today that our solution could possibly improve?”  Create a hypothesis on who the potential customers might be with this “jobs-to-be-done”  in mind and what their circumstances are in successfully getting their jobs done – and then seek out these potential customers and observe them to discover what they are really trying to get done and ask them about it:

“What are you trying to get done? How’s that working for you?  What would you need to have to make your outcomes a perfect 10?” etc… 

By testing your hypothesis early, often and cheaply you will quickly understand if there is truly a problem out there worth solving and if your technology and product concept can solve it better than the current solutions out there.



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