Innovating is hard work. You’re venturing into the unknown, and advocating for resources – time and money that you may never get back. And if you’re innovating in a corporate setting, that’s called waste. In a world gone lean, you want to de-risk your ideas as much as possible. You want to ensure that the outcome of your initiative will bring forth impact. We are told to empathize with customers, develop customers, observe them and better understand them. This is all done in an effort to better understand their problems.
And that makes sense.
You see, whether you’re experimenting in a new startup or venturing in the enterprise, the success of your initiative relies heavily on your understanding of the problem. No amount of iteration will help if you’re barking up the wrong tree. No matter how fast and cheap you iterate or pivot, you will still be consuming resources. And that’s very frustrating in hindsight when you realize that you’re solving a non-existent problem. Or that your misunderstanding of the problem has taken you down a detour.
So how can we better understand problems?
That’s the wrong question to ask. Or at least, it’s a secondary question you want to ask. The better question to ask is: what problems am I having? Corporate entrepreneurs tend to forget that they are users. And that there is a whole lot of opportunity to innovate beyond innovating the final product that gets shipped to the end customer. For entrepreneurs, the success rate is much higher for people solving their own problems (ie, scratching their own itch). Allow the following two pie charts from Capshare’s fantastically written article prove my point:
As it turns out, the second leading source of unicorn founders’ ideas is “scratching your own itch” – second only to industry expertise. I’d argue that industry expertise overlaps with scratching your own itch. This is because, logically, deeper industry expertise leads to a better understanding of the problems in said industry. The same story repeats itself with serial entrepreneurs.
So why does solving your own problem increase your chances of success?
It is less likely that you will have solution bias
One of the issues innovators find themselves in is falling in love with their ideas or proposed solutions. Once they have envisioned what it potentially looks like, it’s hard for them to find fault in it nor consider any other ideas. This is called solution bias. When you’re setting off to solve your own problem, you are more likely focused on the problem and it being solved, regardless of how the solution manifests itself.
You know if the problem has been solved
When you’re facing the problem you’re solving for, you have a better take on whether a potential solution solves your problem. You have a better understanding of the context in which the problem exists. You also know what it’s like to be living with this problem, and can better judge whether or not a proposed solution eliminates the problem at hand. Many times we fall in love with ideas, start prototyping them and eventually pilot them to a thud. This is all because the solution doesn’t address the problem head on. Living with the problem and encountering it daily reduces the possibility of this happening.
You know which features of your solution to prioritize (and which are unnecessary)
Many products, services and “innovations” are released with a lot of features and complexities. This is most likely the result of a weak understanding of the core problem. The team working on the product end up justifying all of the features that eventually ship with the product. The governing thinking is that if the product has all these features, it’s more likely to solve the problem. This is evident in various types and manifestations of innovating. If you’re subject to a day to day work process that is overly complex and actually hinders your work as opposed to aiding it, then you are likely using a process that has been created by a team that didn’t quite understand the problem they were solving for.