Companies Are Brilliantly Solving the Wrong Problems

Why making a better product can sometimes sink your company

“I“I’m a problem solver,” the innovation manager at my first job used to say. “You give me a problem, I’ll give you a solution. That’s why people keep hiring me.”

He was right on all counts. People gave him problems, he solved those problems, and people kept hiring him. However, the more I got into the science of innovating, the more I realized this innovation manager wasn’t actually innovating at all. Sure, he would do whatever people told him to — but he never knew why he was doing it. He took the problem as a given. And most of the time, that meant he did a great job solving the wrong problems.

My manager was far from the exception. Companies have generally become very good at solving the wrong problems. What I mean by this is that most companies fail to uncover what their actual problems are — or where their real opportunities lie, and they excel at solving the problems they do uncover, simply because it taps into their existing knowledge, experience, and skills.

Addressing the wrong problems

BlackBerry continued to improve its physical keyboards because it wanted to focus on business emails. Kodak didn’t recognize its own invention of digital photography as disruptive. Blockbuster turned down a deal with Netflix because it didn’t think customers wanted movies delivered.

Obviously, there’s no single explanation for why companies fail to recognize their biggest problems or greatest opportunities. Most industries have, due to increasing international competition, come to realize that if a product isn’t good enough or appealing enough to customers, those customers will most likely buy a different version somewhere else. In response, companies are eager to seek out new ways to learn what their customers want.

But unfortunately, these same companies are often not very good at figuring out what customers actually want.

Ford’s faster horses

Critics of customer-driven innovation oftentimes aim to cleverly derail discussions on its value by using the classic Henry Ford-attributed quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Although there is no evidence of Ford actually saying these words in the first place, I highly doubt he would stand by them today.

In fact, I believe the quote illustrates one of the root causes of why companies have become so good at solving the wrong problems. In Ford’s faster horse example, common problem solvers like my old manager would now be testing different types of hay, water, and carrots to feed old Betsy. He’d do it well: It would be hypothesis-driven, with clean A/B testing and solid metrics, and nine times out of 10, he’d find a way to speed up those horses. Because like many other managers, he is indeed remarkably good at problem-solving. But did he really fix the right problem by slightly improving the existing product?

Customers may send you in the right direction, but will rarely hand you solutions.

Using customer feedback, input, and ideas is all about getting down to the essence of their comments: What are they trying to tell you? Sure, customers may tell you they want faster horses — but what does that mean? Why do they say they want faster horses? Is it because they enjoy the wind in their hair? To get off of that uncomfortable saddle? Is it to arrive at their destination sooner?

Brilliantly solving the wrong problems

So if a lot of companies aren’t finding the right problems, why are they so good at solving the wrong ones? Generally speaking, it’s because the wrong problems tap into our existing experience, knowledge, and skills. If you ignore or misinterpret customer feedback, your other option is to fill in the gaps yourself. You use your vast knowledge and experience of your own product, and set off on the dangerous task of assuming you know what your customers want.

When you have been surrounded by a framed context for years, both defining and solving the problem is understandably clouded by your biases. But however tempting it may be to use your knowledge and experience, it is also your greatest limitation. The difficulty in most industries is that you’re not the only one that’s caught in your biased views: so are your company leaders, your colleagues, and your “outside” consultants that have been working with you for years on end. They will applaud your ideas, methods, and results, because they have become accustomed to those exact same standards and understand exactly what you are telling them. It feels safe, sensible, and secure. And it feels like innovation.

We’re so good at improving, we forget to innovate

We have become so adept at solving the wrong problems because it’s in our nature. We aim to continuously improve, but easily forget we are confined by our own (organization’s) paradigms. With our heads in the engines, we are constantly looking for tiny opportunities of growth. Right up until the point when a competitor comes flying by with an actual innovation or pivotal redesign, and our customers move on without giving it a second thought.

How to avoid the problem-solution loop

Every wrong problem that is brilliantly solved feels like a success story. That’s why it’s so difficult for companies to realize they need to step up their game to stay relevant. It takes visionary leadership to see through the illusion of success and recognize necessary step-change innovations. Even when it threatens your current capabilities or product.

What happens when you ask a horse trainer to speed up his horses? Most likely scenario: he’ll agree and deliver. It’s what he knows and loves. But innovation is about zooming out, recognizing radical opportunities, and facilitating necessary pivotal shifts. It’s about digging deeper, flying higher, and daring to leap out of your (organization’s) comfort zone.

Breeding a faster horse to pull your carts is an improvement. Letting an engine pull the cart is an innovation.

No matter what industry you are in, or what the size your company is, innovation is vital to ensure you continue to create value. Here are four actions that in my experience can help you take those first steps:

1. Define a solid mission statement related to the impact you want to make

Don’t let your product confine you. Find the why that drives you. Once you detach your reason for being from your product, it will allow you to reinvent yourself. Disney’s goal to create happiness allowed them to add amusement parks, streaming services, and musicals to its legendary animated movies. Don’t aim to sell horses — aim to transport people around the world. Let your ambition (your why) drive you, and find out what that means for your current and future products.

2. Find out what your customers actually want, not what they say they want

Customer input can be a key contributor to uncovering your problems or opportunities. Listen to your customers, challenge them, observe them. But remember, customers will rarely hand you solutions. Use your creativity and intellect to uncover what they are trying to tell you, and work from there.

3. Learn to reframe your problems

Problems aren’t always what they seem, and solutions aren’t always what they need. When Disney’s amusement parks received a lot of criticism for the hour-long queues for every ride, the park managers were stumped. The only way to shorten the wait would be to create more rides, or allow fewer visitors into their parks: both costing them millions. After a group of designers was hired to evaluate the situation, they brilliantly reframed the problem: instead of investing millions, Disney World simply added themed music, videos, and introduction stories to the waiting areas. Instead of decreasing the waiting time, they increased its value. Reframing problems is essential to transform difficult demands into workable innovations.

4. Benefit from an outsider’s perspective

Recognize how difficult it is to step back and break free from your otherwise valuable knowledge and experience. Allow new team members, outside consultants, and even interns to come in and ask you that simple question: “Why?” Allow them to challenge the status quo, to reinterpret customer feedback, and to co-create new ideas together with your experts and your customers. Get that fresh pair of eyes to kick-start your innovation engine, because when it comes to finding and fixing the right problems — an overkill of (product) experience can be counterproductive.

It’s time to shake things up and truly innovate. It’s time to start solving the right problems, to start solving them right, and to start solving them quickly.

Freelance Consultant — Driven by innovation, product development, startups and creating future-proof organizations

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