Much has been written and talked about regarding ideation and how to proceed with ideas. How to propose alternative solutions. How to prototype cheaply along the way. How to pivot based on an invalidated assumption. How to measure the potential impact of an idea.
Little has been written about finding a problem worth solving
This is a problem (pun intended). You see, many teams find themselves going in with full force trying to expedite the process from idea to launch (thank you, lean startup). And that is fine. But the unfortunate circumstance is the one those teams find themselves in as a result of assuming a problem exists and is worthwhile solving. They are going fast in the wrong direction.
It’s time to emphasize testing problems
Just as we would test the assumptions that make up our ideas and potential solutions, we need to test the identified problems’ validity and potential impact. Just as we would validate our value propositions for product-market fit, we should also test our problems for problem-market fit.
Let’s take an example
Let’s say you have a “hunch” about designing a new variation to training called CrossFish. It’s perfect, right? You get the benefits of crossfit minus the injuries and impact on your joints. It’s crossfit in a pool. Perfect. Let’s make sure we’re doing proper planning so we don’t jump head-in and realize we’ve launched a service nobody wants. So we whip out our business model canvas and start filling it in.
Let me slow you down a bit. For your own sake, trust me.
Your value proposition is great. Your idea is great. But as of right now, it’s based on an assumption. You are assuming that people do have that problem. That people indeed want to crossfit but are suffering from injuries. If you decide to go out asking friends and family (or sharing a survey), you might be met with positive feedback. Of course everyone wants to train without injuring themselves.
But what if all of this didn’t matter? What if people are crossfitting to solve a different purpose besides building muscle? What if people are crossfitting to serve a social job?
In Clayton Christensen’s beautifully written book, he proposes three types of problems (what he calls “jobs”) that people are trying to solve (or “make progress in”). The three types of jobs are functional, social and emotional. They end up hiring the best solution out there so they can get their “job done” the best they see fit. So if the problem at hand is functional: I want to get fit as fast as possible, then Crossfish might be competing with Crossfit. However, if the problem at hand is: I want to show my circle of friends that I’m working out and that I care about my wellbeing, then Crossfish is hardly competing with Crossfit (You can’t be taking selfies in the water, now, can you?).
As you see, Crossfish is an excellent concept. But it’s one whose success is hinging on whether people are trying to solve for a functional problem or a social problem. And if it is indeed a social problem that they’re after, then it doesn’t matter how much you spend branding CrossFish. You’re not going far.