What’s The Problem?

If you can identify a problem, solving it is very easy. Identifying a problem is not as simple as it sounds. In fact, it’s often hard because it sounds simple.

Let’s say the pipes under your kitchen sink spring a leak and now there’s water spraying all over your kitchen. Oh no! What’s the problem?

Duh, the problem is that the pipes are leaking, right? Having figured that out, you quickly set to trying to fix the problem: you wrap a bunch of towels around the pipes, trying to stem the tide. It doesn’t work. You use duct tape; it maybe works a little better, but clearly not enough. You go to the store to get new pipes, and when you return there’s three inches of water in your kitchen. You start to replace the pipes, and it’s a disaster.

You misidentified the problem.

The problem wasn’t “my pipes are leaking!” The problem was: “there’s water everywhere!” With that problem in mind, you seek a solution: “I want there to not be water everywhere.” Easy, you turn off the water main in your basement, problem solved. Sure, now there’s another problem to solve (“I can’t use the water utility in my house”), but that’s less urgent. Correct identification of the real problem at hand in the immediate sense created better outcomes.

I see this in hiring all the time. People think the problem is “I need a good marketing manager.” So then they try to solve that problem by trying to figure out what makes someone a good marketing manager and then trying to hire that person. But that’s wrong. The problem is: “my customers don’t know about my product.” That’s a different problem, and if you focus on that, you’ll find solutions. Even if the solution is “hire a marketing manager,” you’ll be better able to understand how to do that and what to look for if you focus on “solving for X” instead of “what makes a good abstract marketing manager?”

Think of it like wishes. If you could wish for an outcome, you wouldn’t wish to hire a marketing manager. You’d wish for your customers to know about all your products and how good they are. So start with that and work backward, minimizing the number of steps it takes to get there. That’s how you find good solutions.

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