In search of the right problem

Do more work in fewer hours

Most of us get up every morning to solve problems. Some are fortunate to get to pick which problems to work on and when. Others get to shape that decision, which is why learning how to define, validate and prioritize problems is key to doing more fruitful work in fewer hours.


What is the specific problem you are solving for? You should be able to sum it up in 1-2 sentences. This is important to do because you can’t reliably solve a problem you don’t understand, and distilling anything down to its essence is the only way to fully grasp it. It also makes the problem statement more memorable, which in turn makes recruiting the help of others much easier.


Who has this specific problem? Life gets easier if you intimately understand the problem yourself. If you don’t, you need to narrow in on the best customer and talk to them. Your strategy will differ if you’re planning to go from 0 to 1 (getting something new off the ground) vs. 1 to N (taking an existing thing to greater heights).

When you’re going from 0 to 1, you’ll want to go narrow and deep. You can’t start off by pleasing everyone. This is a fairly unintuitive lesson since we are taught to admire big numbers. While it’s important to consider how to expand beyond your small and focused set of customers, starting with a minimal viable population is the best path to getting to big numbers. In order to take off, you need love from your initial customers to fuel growth and achieve escape velocity. You’re looking to capture customers who are currently underserved by the world today. Resonance over reach.

When you’re going from 1 to N, the strategy is different. While still helpful to have a specific persona in mind, it’s a great sign when you know that most if not all of your best customers face this problem. This means the value of your solution will reach more of your customer base and enhance the overall value that you provide.

How frequently do they encounter it? How painful is the problem? Problems worth solving are typically high in at least one dimension. Very painful problems encountered frequently tend to be sweet spots ripe for a solution. It gives you more opportunities to get in front of your customer and prove your value.

How are they currently solving this problem? If there’s already a solution in place, you need to be more confident you can do it 10X better because switching is a hassle. People’s tolerance for mediocrity tends to be much higher than they let on. Habit and user expectation remains a very strong moat.


Why is it worth solving for right now? Success is the product of good timing and other things. This means if your timing is off, the equation goes to zero.

Will this problem still matter in the foreseeable future? Make sure the half-life of whatever solution you pursue is worth the effort you put in.

What next?

A common trap is jumping into solution ideation before thoroughly understanding the problem space. We’re hungry for answers, and we easily fall in love with our solutions. The IKEA effect is rather innocuous when it comes to building furniture, but it can be dangerous when the problems we solve are in service of others. Value must be measured by customer and business impact rather than the ego of the builder.

Another dangerous trap is the curse of success. If you’ve created the most effective solution for problem X, you go to great lengths to preserve problem X. It’s in your interest that the problem doesn’t disappear. Having a stake in the status quo keeps you from seeing the emerging truth.

This is, in part, why paradigm shifts result in a changing of the guards, where incumbents who are dedicated to solving the last vanishing problem are cleared away for new players who have identified a new rising problem. Microsoft’s mission of putting a computer in every home lost ground to an Apple/Google phone in every pocket. Solutions come and go, which means staying curious about problems and their evolution is the best antidote to irrelevance.

Falling in love with your solution leads to vanity development, where you overbuild and redesign to satisfy your own whims, even if the problem no longer exists. Obsessing over the problem, on the other hand, keeps you honest, and leads to continuous breakthroughs in solutions.

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