Innovation Junkies Podcast

BONUS: Selecting the Right Problem

The Jeffs discuss innovation processes, human-centered design & sustaining organizational transformation. Hard-hitting topics include: how to clarify the problem you’re trying to solve, what to do when evidence doesn’t support your hypothesis, & identifying stakeholders & why they matter

Jeff Standridge: This is Jeff Standridge, and this is the Innovation Junkies podcast. If you want to drastically improve your business, learn proven growth strategies, and generate sustained results for your organization, you’ve come to the right place. Over the next half hour, we’re going to be sharing specific strategies, tactics, and tips that you can use to grow your business no matter the size, no matter the industry, and no matter the geography. Weekly we’ll bring in a top mover and shaker, someone who’s done something unbelievable with his or her business, and we’ll dig deep. We’ll uncover specific strategies, tactics, and tools that they’ve used to help you achieve your business goals. Welcome to the Innovation Junkies podcast.

Hey guys, if you’re looking to put your business on the fast track to achieving sustained strategic growth, this episode is sponsored by the team at Innovation Junkie. To learn more about our Growth DX, go to Now let’s get on with the show.

Jeff Standridge: Hey guys, welcome to the Innovation Junkie podcast. My name’s Jeff Standridge.

Jeff Amerine: And this is Jeff Amerine. Glad to be back for another episode.

Jeff Standridge: Great to have you with us today for this bonus episode. Today we’re going to be talking about a blueprint that we’ve developed as a team to try to encapsulate all of the processes involved in innovation, human centered design, and creating sustained organizational transformation as a result of that innovation. And so we’re going to, over the course of the next three bonus episodes we’re going to take that blueprint, we’re going to break it down, and today we’re going to be talking about identifying the problem, clarifying the problem, and making sure that we’re solving the right problem, right, Jeff?

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, absolutely. And the compelling part about that is I think there was a Carnegie Mellon study some years back that said that only 4% of all major projects, software development projects, finished on time and within scope while meeting customer requirements. And the diagnosis for that is that people launch off on solving things that are not really the right problem. And so for innovators it’s super important to start with the problem and also to make sure it’s the right problem.

Jeff Standridge: You know, we like to also acknowledge that everyone comes to the problem with their own set of insights, aspirations, and even come to the table asking the question, “Well, what if we could do this and what if we could do that?” So we don’t want to dismiss the fact that we’ve got a lot of expertise in the room, but it’s that expertise that sometimes gets us into problems, that curse of knowledge, so to speak. So we like to ask innovators and change agents to step back from that expertise for a moment, to suspend those preconceptions those what if questions that they’re asking, to suspend those for a period of time and really get focused, as you said, on the problem that they’re solving to make sure that they’re solving the right problem that’s big enough to be worth the effort.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, and it is a struggle for most people, particularly highly creative people, to resist the temptation to immediately jump into the solution they have in mind. But it’s kind of crucial to the process to really start with the problem.

Jeff Standridge: That’s right. That’s right. So let’s talk about that, let’s talk about that process just a little bit and starting with the problem. How do we clarify or how do we help our innovators out there really clarify the problem that they’re trying to solve?

Jeff Amerine: You know, I think initially you start with a hypothesis that can be an unmet need or an actual problem. And then one of the very first things that you do is come up with credible facts or statistics that will describe that problem. So what I always like to say is, if you put forth an assertion, any assertion, but especially when it relates to a promise statement, and you don’t back it up with any kind of credible statistics, it looks like an opinion. There’s no real basis for it. So one of the important things is finding those credible facts along the way.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, and I’ve guided individuals and teams before of saying if you’re really having a hard time articulating the problem you’re trying to solve, they tried for a hypothesis, they couldn’t really get there, they might start by saying, “Well, let’s first of all talk about, what are the issues, the key issues that you’re seeing?” Or start with the so what. What are the key issues that you’re seeing that are leading you to believe there is a problem to be solved? And sometimes that helps.

Jeff Amerine: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. And to some extent that also will tie into the methodology that links to the lean canvas as well, where you’ve come up with the problem hypothesis but you’ve got to have those supporting factors. And sometimes people will overlook the fact that if there’s not an economic consequence of the problem, in other words, if you can’t define how it’s impacting revenues or increasing costs, it’s probably not a problem that’s going to be relevant or high enough priority to proceed with.

Jeff Standridge: That’s right. So we start by trying to articulate the problem, working on perhaps, or starting with the credible facts and statistics that underscore that problem, or the quantitative validation of that problem. If they’re having a hard time doing that, maybe stepping forward a little bit and looking at the key issues or the experiences that they’re seeing, answering the so what question, and then backing into the problem from there. They get that quantitative validation and then they really need to take the next step, which is really the most difficult many times for the innovators that are just getting into the game. And that’s really going out and talking to their stakeholders.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah, the customer discovery. And again, on customer discovery or stakeholder discovery, being able to ask really good questions that avoid confirmation bias. And then also, don’t inject your idea of a solution, which would be how you would define confirmation bias. Crucially important to getting clear data. And really we call it customer discovery, but it’s just good fundamental primary market research, is what it amounts to. And there’s no replacement for getting out face to face or getting on a Zoom call and really being able to understand what the pain levels are that those stakeholders have. Is it really a problem or not? Is it a high priority, et cetera?

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, do we have the right problem, right? Or in other words, without asking that question, do our key stakeholders or do our core customers tend to also gravitate to the same problem that we’ve identified when we ask them those unbiased open-ended questions? Number two, is it a pain point for them? Is it a big enough problem? I found out a number of years ago there’s a difference between a true business problem and just a nuisance. A true business problem people will pay to have solved. They will buy a solution. A nuisance, they won’t ever pay to have it solved, but they’ll gripe about it and they’ll complain about it, but it’s not big enough to produce a big enough impact on enough people to be worth the effort or worth the investment.

Jeff Amerine: Must-have versus nice-to-have. Must-haves are things that get funded and that people pursue, nice-to-haves are things that they might get to when they get around to it. And there’s also something that’s implied there and ultimately what that’s going to mean for an internal or external sales cycle. If you’ve got a nice-to-have that people don’t know they need, expect an extremely long sales cycle and a lot of evangelism. If it’s a must-have, you’ll be able to get a market indication once you get down to that point, because you’ll get a lot of positive reinforcement. People will want to buy it.

Jeff Standridge: Absolutely. So let’s talk about who our stakeholders actually are. How do we go about identifying those stakeholders?

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. It’s a process of circling up the people that think they have a problem and then just identifying. The classic way of doing that is the internal users, external customers, shareholders. So it’s really just an identification and a listing out of who is impacted by it. And a lot of times you have to get into the roles they play in the organization. So are they an economic decision maker? Are they a technical decision maker? Are they an influencer or a saboteur? And understanding a bit about that power map is crucially important, because there will be some agendas typically associated with the problem, good and bad, that you’ll want to make sure that you understand.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah, great point. So primary stakeholders are generally those end-users or those folks who are going to benefit the greatest from solving whatever problem you’ve identified. The secondary stakeholders are those economic or technical decision makers that are actually going to decide and ultimately fund the solution. Sometimes those are the same, sometimes they’re not. And then those tertiary or those third-level stakeholders, that can be influencers that you want to get in the boat with you, that you want to make sure that you get their feedback in early and often, so to speak. And then, as you said, those potential saboteurs, those skeptics, those naysayers, those who are influencers in the organization, but if you don’t get them in the boat with you, they will very likely be negative influencers.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. And a lot of times on things that involve technology, and this is not to take a swipe at IT. I’ve run IT organizations. IT organizations a lot of times can fall into that category. Because they have the understanding of all the other priorities that are already on their plate, they know that they’re probably overworked, and they’ll tend to take a more, sometimes more informed, but just generally a more negative view, in my experience. Unless you can get buy-in from them and really bring them on board with why this is an important problem to pursue.

Jeff Standridge: So let’s talk about what happens when the quantitative evidence doesn’t support the underlying assumption or the underlying hypothesis, or perhaps the quantitative evidence does and then we get to the qualitative evidence coming from our key stakeholder validation and it doesn’t support the hypothesis. What do we do then?

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. Well, a lot of times if you’ve got that disconnect, it’s time to really look hard at what you’re doing. There may be an opportunity to iterate. And what you may also find if you have that mismatch is there’s typically something that would have come up or have been highlighted through that process that may be the real problem as well. So that might be an opportunity for a pivot, for thinking differently about what the real problem is, for recycling through it. This is a process of iteration for sure. And that’s part of the strength in the way we go about it.

Jeff Standridge: So we’re talking about the process for disrupting the status quo, creating massive value, and generating sustained results. Today’s bonus episode we’re talking about specifically how to identify the right problem to solve and/or the opportunity to chase, so to speak. Talk a little bit about that for a moment. Many times we talk in terms of negative, past tense, problem oriented words. We generally tend to speak to a problem. So it’s too much of a bad thing. Oftentimes we find positive oriented, future tense, pleasant oriented language, that tends to speak to an opportunity that we want to seize. That is, not enough of a good thing. So it can be too much of a bad thing, i.e., problem-oriented, or it can be not enough of a good thing, i.e., opportunity. But we also want to make sure, and this is something I’d like you to talk a little bit about, that we’re not, in articulating our problem or opportunity statement we’re not biasing the solution masquerading itself as a problem.

Jeff Amerine: Oh, yeah. This is a little bit like an episode of Jeopardy, where you have to constantly drag people back into the idea of, don’t try to use the solution as the problem statement. A perfect example of that is if you’re having in-store out of stock issues in retail. Well, the problem isn’t, “We need a better inventory management system.” The problem is you’re having out of stocks for whatever reason. And so you really have to guard against pulling yourself into the solution and assuming that you already know how you’re going to fix it, because many of these things it’s not about technology. It may be procedural fixes. So you have to go into it as a consultant to that unmet need or that problem with the idea that you’re going to be completely objective about what could come from the problem in terms of solution.

Jeff Standridge: Yeah. I go back to Dr. Deming, who said that 94% of quality issues in an organization are the systems or the processes, not the people. And if we try to jump to the people or the technology or what have you, we’re really biasing our entire process. And many times we find out that that’s the reason, as you said, that those technical implementations or those software implementations fail, is because we were biased going in that a solution would be a fix-all.

Jeff Amerine: Yeah. And you find enterprises will jump in the middle in many instances where they’ll say, “Well, we see that company X is using this system to do Y. We need to go get that system.” But they haven’t taken the time really to map out the processes and to understand where the real problems are manifest. And as a result they’ve got a system that they implement that is solving something that may not be the real problem, and they’ve spent more money and wasted time. And it’s completely counter to a best lean practice or any kind of process.

Jeff Standridge: Fantastic. So just to summarize, we’re asking the innovators to step away from their what ifs and their aspirations and their inspirations, to suspend their expertise for a few moments, to step back and become that of a researcher, to identify the problem that needs to be solved or the opportunity that needs to be seized. In doing that, articulating an assumption or a hypothesis that can be tested. The first stage of testing is looking for that credible quantitative evidence, either in the form of credible facts and statistics, recognizing that any time the data tends to undermine our problem language, our problem statement, our opportunity statement, we may have to pivot. We may have to come back to that problem statement and reiterate it, so to speak. Quantitatively validate, then we go to our key stakeholders, primary, secondary, perhaps tertiary. We do our qualitative validation with a series of open-ended questions where we’re really trying to find out, do we have the right problem or opportunity? And is it felt universally by our stakeholders, and is it big enough to produce a big enough of an impact to be worth the effort?

Jeff Standridge: And again, if we find evidence to the contrary of our assumptions and hypotheses, we may have to pivot throughout that entire process. That’s the first stage of innovation or of disrupting the status quo. In a couple more episodes, maybe in a couple of weeks we’ll talk about, once we’ve got the right problem, how do we craft a human centered and human oriented design around that solution? And then a couple of weeks following that we’ll talk about, how do you implement one of those designs or one of those solutions in a way that generates lasting results?

Jeff Amerine: That sounds great. This is a crucial part of it, because if you get the problem statement right, the rest of it falls right into place.

Jeff Standridge: Thank you so much, Jeff. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you on the next episode.

Jeff Amerine: Hey folks, this is Jeff Amerine. We want to thank you for tuning in. We sincerely appreciate your time. If you’re enjoying the Innovation Junkies podcast, please do us a huge favor. Click the subscribe button right now. Please leave us a review. It would mean the world to both of us. And don’t forget to share us on social media.

Change The Trajectory Of Your Business

Our GrowthDX package has been responsible for massive improvements in many companies. Some thought they had it figured out but had blind spots, while others knew they were missing the mark but had no idea where to start.

This is your chance to make significant breakthroughs in your organization. Don’t miss out!