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  • Anand Rao

The Problem With Ideas

Why should your team prioritize problems over ideas?




Our family is currently in the throes of the Chicago Student Invention Convention. My son and his fellow 4th grade classmate had an idea to invent a novel hover device for phones. The device would detect a drop via rapid acceleration and activate a hover feature similar to drones and prevent catastrophic damage. At first blush, I was quite impressed by the concept. However, upon further thought the invention idea posed more problems than would be worth. For example, the size of the add-on device would inhibit slipping a slim phone into one’s pocket, it would require charging, and the technical infeasibility of delivering the requisite power to fight gravity. While they picked a valid problem (phones get dropped and break), it begged a few key questions - what other problems did they even consider but rule out? Why this problem and why do they think it is big? Clearly, they needed help in problem identification. Starting with discovering meaningful problem areas and prioritizing them down to the ones they could solve. A similar problem-solving thought process is required in the workplace for innovatively solving for growth, customer satisfaction, efficiently, and employee engagement. More often than not, I have seen teams skip ahead to ideation and solutioning that result in three key pitfalls: · Wrong problem, wrong solution · Right problem wrong root cause · Right root cause, infeasible solution So, here’s the recipe I use with my teams: 1. Identify problems close to you (financials, function, product, or customers) 2. Analyze the root cause for each problem and bundle into thematic problem areas 3. Prioritize them by severity (a combination of level of customer pain, financial impact, and frequency of occurrence) and intuition on solution feasibility 4. Brainstorm creative solutions, rapidly prototype, and estimate effort to develop 5. Define Minimum Viable Product and approach to pilot These steps need a good balance between left brain (financial impact, structured data analysis) and right brain (empathy, intuition). During the early stages of identifying problems, analyzing root causes and prioritizing, it is particularly important to create the environment for financial/data analysts and customer experience designers to collaborate and share their insights. A good leader asks probing questions in the spirit of the 5 whys in order to get to the iceberg underneath. It behooves us to heed the advice of many intellectuals including Albert Einstein who said that everything starts with focusing on the right problems, then identifying the root causes before solutioning. If you are interested in how it went with our 4th graders… The first step was to limit but not restrict their scope of problem areas. So, they were encouraged to focus on their wakeful day in areas that they directly observe or experience. They identified problems such as remembering to brush on weekends, depending on parents for school drop-off, filthy school bathrooms, bullying, etc. Next, they bundled problems into bigger themes, rewriting them on post-its, and stick them on a horizontal scale of ‘problem severity’. This step was eye-opening for them as the problems they identified fell into a traditional bell curve. Introducing a Y-axis called ‘level of interest in solutioning' allowed truly large-scale problems that impacted them directly to rise to the top quadrant. To name a few – independent mobility while being safe (without parental help), hygiene in school, and promoting green ventures and recycling. They voted and picked their top problem to solve. The next step is solution brainstorming and prototyping, with presentations following.