Problem Unpacking

72% of new products fail.

Why? People don’t see a need for the product. Why? Because the product doesn’t solve a problem the customer has. Pause a bit here to realize the magnitude of this finding. 72% of products fail because they don’t solve a customer problem. Now that’s not to say that that’s a revelatory insight. This very statement (products fail because they don’t solve a customer problem) has been repeatedly preached in books, seminars, courses, workshops, webinars and wherever innovation is considered. Why are we still failing miserably then? Is there a tool we can use that lets us understand customer problems better?

It is usually assumed that you know what the problem is and so you skip straight to generating ideas and potential solutions. Let me explain how this logic is dangerous by giving you an example. Let’s say there is a building with a very slow elevator. The tenets consistently complain about this problem and the landlord has heard enough. The landlord, wanting to keep his tenets happy, decides to call up the elevator technician. The technician happily recommends an upgraded motor that will certainly solve the problem. However, the upgrade will cost the landlord over $5,000. This is a costly solution, but certainly a solution nonetheless. Notice how the landlord in our example didn’t questionthe problem, and simply took it for granted. What if there were other ways to “speed up” the elevator without really speeding up the elevator? The problem could be rephrased as “how might we make the elevator wait more bearable?” as opposed to “how might we make the elevator faster?” Let’s break down the possible solutions for each problem statement.

How might we make the elevator go faster?
Install a more powerful motor.
How might we make the elevator wait more bearable?
Install mirrors inside and next to the elevator, install a hand sanitizer dispenser next to the elevator, play some classic music inside the elevator, install wifi in the building.

There are a couple of things to note about the simple rephrasing.

First of all, the number of solutions vary considerably. Second, notice how much cheaper the solutions become when we rephrase the problem. Also, the solutions don’t necessarily target the elevator itself after rephrasing the problem. Keep in mind that the solution even before rephrasing is still an effective one. You will likely get less complaints if the elevator is in fact faster. I’d assume the alternative solutions are much more desirable though, especially from the landlord’s perspective. This nifty trick is very effective, but sometimes it’s difficult to apply this sort of thinking to problems you are having. Perhaps the use of a simple tool helps.

Enter The Lotus Blossom Technique (Tweaked)

The Lotus Blossom is a tool that comes in very handy when you want to explore a problem space. When tweaked, it allows for this lateral style of thinking when solving problems. Creativity is heightened when the tool constrains you in specific ways, and forces your brain to work in ways it’s not used to. This helps to eliminate any biases you have towards solving problems the way you have always done.

It is much easier to explain how to use the tool by giving an example. So here we go. Note: keep in mind that this is a tweaked version of the technique. I have found it to be more directive and effective. This means that you will find the tool being applied differently when you look for it on the internet.

You start off by writing your core issue, product, theme or part that you’re addressing. For our example, we will use Nike Shoes. So let’s go ahead and fill in the innermost cell with “Nike Shoes.” This will be the product we’ll address.

Next, Fill in the adjacent cells with aspects of the core issue. The aspects could be both tangible or intangible. Striking a balance between the two is optimal. I will partially fill in the cells for the sake of brevity.

As you can see, we will be exploring both tangible (materials, laces) and intangible (post ownership, pricing) aspects of Nike Shoes. For whatever issue or product you’re tackling with The Lotus Blossom Technique, try to think of the experience as opposed to just the product. This will yield better results.

After opening up the core issue into its different aspects, you now want to look at problems associated with these aspects. Here is where things get a bit tricky. You want to to specifically be thinking of problems as opposed to ideas. The reason is that problems live in the present while ideas (which is another way of saying potential solutions) live in the future. As a result, ideas are inherently predicated on a combination of assumptions. On the other hand, problems rely less on postulations. It is easier to state a problem when you encounter it as opposed to an idea that lives in your mind. Let’s go ahead and fill in some of the problems associated with materials, laces, post ownership, pricing and connectivity.

Again, I haven’t completed the entire cells for brevity. While doing this exercise, you will notice that it’s easier to come up with problems for certain aspects. It might be more difficult for others, and that is fine. In fact, that natural gravitation to certain aspects as opposed to others is a vital indication of opportunity. What this tells you is that perhaps this specific aspect that has a lot of problems is an area we really need to look in to. Another thing to notice is how easy it is to fall back to ideating. Remember, we want to be filling the cells with problems and not potential solutions. In the “pricing” blossom, I wrote down installments and add-ons. Those are both ideas. They are not problems. In fact, installments could be an idea for steep brand pricing, a problem stated in the same blossom. Try your best to stick to problems.

After filling up the entire lotus blossom, you want to know which problems to tackle. In some cases, a problem pops up that your team will right away point to. Avoid stopping the exercise and tackling the problem. You want a fresh set of eyes to look at your problem space. See what others think. Which problems can they relate to? It is hard for others to give you valid feedback for an idea, but it is very easy to relate to a problem. If you are a team, try starring the problems and see where the majority of the stars are located. Starring is simply allocating three stars to each team member that they can put on problems that they relate to or have faced. Once you’re done, you will have a clear indication of the path forward and a better understanding of the problem.

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