Solving Problems vs Finding Problems

Given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes understanding the problem and one minute resolving it - Albert Einstein.

Escaping the engineering porn

As an engineer, I used to love playing with new technology & open source toys. It ranged from taking Stanford Deep Learning classes to reading books and trying new code on LSTM or Recurrent Network. The more complex the solution was, the more excited I was.

The mindset completely changed when I was about to start a company. I deliberately not take deep engineering problems and spend time on finding the right problem instead.

I unlearn the habit I have spent years building and relearn a new habit that I think critical for my next step.

There is nothing wrong with learning and specializing in an engineering skillset. If you want to become a great engineer, I think you should do that. The issue I see here engineering skillset is more about finding a solution and less about finding a problem.

For an entrepreneur, finding a problem is more important than finding a solution. All debates about what framework to use, or should we use Java or Node for server are generally irrelevant in building a company because they still on the solving side of a problem. Engineers are often stuck in this trap.

If you are a decent engineer, you can always find a solution for your first MVP launch. Open source projects are growing at an unprecedented rate that you can find what you want in most cases. And since most startups have to rewrite their code every 2-3 years you don't have to worry about scaling right now.

The more you can delay thinking about the details solution, the better chance you can find a product that fits you.

The broader meaning of Finding a problem

Finding a problem is a longer process than coming up with an idea. It often includes the following steps:

  1. Define a problem you want to solve. This does not have to be a new problem no one ever solves. It could be an old problem that needs to solve in a new way.
  2. Are you a person who fit to solve this problem? Weight your competitive advantage if you commit to solve this problem
  3. How deep do you understand about the problem? Do you have a background in the problem? How many people do you know to have this problem or help them realize that they have the problem?
  4. What is the size of the market you are solving? If this is a competitive market, how do you find a set of users that you can provide solutions to?

As you can see, you do not need to have a solution to answer the 4 questions above. This means doing research on the problem you are about to solve before you start solving it. For a founder, this means talking to lots of people before you write a single line of code. You will spend more time on problem exploration but the benefit of solving the right problem is worth ten times the amount of effort you spent on it.

Of course, you do not want to be trapped in analysis paralysis. You do not want to keep reading and talking without taking specific action. It might affect your morale since no progress on the product is made. A good ratio for the exploration phase is about 10-20% of your execution (exploitation) phase. This means if you are about to commit one year for a product, spend a month exploring the idea.

Explore then Exploit.

Some last words

This not only true in entrepreneurship but also in sales and art. In Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's study, the psychology researchers found that students who took more time to think about what to draw often had higher quality work and later had a more successful professional life.

To become a successful problem finder, you need to have an ability to process a vast amount of information from different disciplines and filter out the essential insights of the problem. It is no coincidence that VCs often invest in founders who can provide insights into an industry that they cannot easily find.

It is very unfortunate that finding problem is not a skill that is well taught in school. In most schools, we learn solving problems. Everyone is given the same set of problems and whoever comes up with the best solution in the shortest amount of time wins.

When we go out to the real world, no one tells us what to solve. A large proportion of students feel lost or do something very different from their degree because they do not know what to focus on.

Creative people who might not be a great problem solver in school might find their favor in real life because of their ability to deal with ambiguity. Don't be surprised if an average high school classmate can be much more successful than you are.

The good news is finding a problem is a skill that we can build. It requires combining, curating, and rearranging information from various sources and presents it to our audience. Each of these steps requires deliberate practice but you pay attention to it, you can create a stronger competitive advantage for your career.

Show Comments