October 29

Solving the Wrong Problem Is Unhelpful. Even If the Solution Is Brilliant.

“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” is a common refrain we hear from managers. One of the most sought-after skills in the workplace, or for that matter, life in general, is the ability to solve problems. Often though, we fall into the trap of coming up with brilliant solutions by solving the wrong problem. And that can be unhelpful, wasteful, or even dangerous.

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root - Henry Thoreau

One of Silicon Valley’s heavily publicized failures in the recent past was the product Juicero. Buoyed by the success of single-serve coffee makers such as the Keurig, Doug Evans, a juicing aficionado, aimed to create a product that would produce single-serve cold-pressed juice at the touch of a button.

Bright Silicon Valley minds backed by eager venture capital investors went to work on this concept. They soon had a solution—Juicero—a subscription-based service that would ship consumers fancy pouches of diced fruits and veggies at regular intervals. In addition, customers also had to make a one-time purchase of an expensive (priced initially at $700 but later discounted to $400) high-tech juice-pressing machine that would turn the pouches of produce into instant cold-pressed juice.

Impressive technology

Juicero, targeted at the busy consumer, was trying to capitalize on the wellness craze, albeit with an expensive product. The technology was impressive. The founder was proud that this machine wielded substantial force, “enough to lift two Teslas.” It’s the age of the IoT (Internet of things), after all. The wi-fi-connected device included a scanner, antenna, and about 400 custom parts. Investors were sold; they funneled over a hundred million dollars into the venture.

Just after the product launch, Bloomberg published a one-minute video review of the product. Turned out you didn’t need the $$$ Juicero machine after all. The produce pouches could just as well be squeezed with bare hands. And since the produce packets were perishable, there were logistical issues with shipping the product long distances.

It didn’t take long thereafter for Juicero to become another case study in startup failures. And, it reiterated a message we hear too often:

No matter how impressive the solution is, it won’t work if you spend time solving the wrong problem. 

It isn’t just companies or leaders that grapple with solving the wrong problem. We often do the same in our daily lives and then wonder why we make no progress.

Solving the wrong problems – daily life edition

Here are some common examples of how we end up barking up the wrong tree in our attempt to solve some real-life problems:

a) We get tired of the amount of time it takes to declutter our spaces.  Often, we complain about messy family members. Then, we try to solve the problem by getting more “organized,” i.e., buying more storage boxes, cleaning supplies, upgrading to a storage unit, or sometimes even a larger house!

The wrong problem: Reorganizing. The right problem: Buying too much.

b) We find ourselves constantly late for work or to a social engagement. Simply adding more time to our schedules won’t help because eventually, we will fill it up with something else.

The problem may not be that we’re too busy or have a lot going on in life. The real problem may be that we dislike our job or find the social engagement unfulfilling, so we keep putting it off.

c) Trying to lose weight for a reunion? Dieting for a few days may work, but it’s a short-term solution to the wrong problem.

We would be better off focusing our attention on getting fit and healthy by eliminating junk food from coming into the house in the first place.

d) Getting a flower delivery service to send flowers once a week sounds lovely, but it cannot simply be a substitute to resolve underlying communication issues in a relationship. On the bright side, the florist will be happy, though!

We’re constantly perfecting the art of short-term patching, fixing the symptom rather than the cause. Even brilliant astronauts can’t seem to get it right.

Space pens

When NASA started to send astronauts to space in the 1960s, they encountered a problem—ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity conditions. The story was that Americans spent millions of dollars in inventing a space pen. In contrast, the Russians used pencils! While the story of millions of taxpayers’ money funding the space pen research has been debunked now (a private company spent money for the study), it still is a lesson on how easy it can be to solve the wrong problem.

Type III error

Statisticians refer to this as the Type III error for hypothesis testing—you get the right answer but to the wrong question. In Juicero’s case, the technology may have been brilliant, but it was completely unnecessary and over the top for the underlying problem.

Solving the right problem the wrong way may still be preferable to solving the wrong problem. 

So, how do we make the light bulb go off in our heads at the right time? How can we tell if we are barking up the wrong tree or the right one? Here are some pitfalls and guidelines to watch out for:

1. Because I said so

It’s said, “Well begun is half done.” To ensure we aren’t solving the wrong problem, we need to define the right one first.

The internet credits the quote below (or a variation of it) to Einstein. While the quote cannot be verified, it’s still worth remembering:

If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.

To define a problem, start with “why”—a lesson we can all learn from children.

Ask, “Why is this a problem?” Do not accept “because I said so” as an answer.

Persistently asking “why?” will help us get to the root of the problem—the real one.

We don’t ask why enough times, though, for whatever reasons. Maybe we don’t want to come across as overbearing, untrusting, or annoying. But without a clear why we don’t even stand a chance of solving the right problem.

2. It’s always been done this way

One of the British royal family traditions is that if you’re dining with the Queen, when the Queen is done eating, so are you—even if you were in the middle of a course. Because that’s just how it’s always been.

I’m not advocating for you to keep chowing your food when the Queen is finished. It’s entirely your call on whether you want to wage that battle. I could care less.

What is essential, though, is to challenge the status quo when it comes to problem-solving. Just because something has been done “this way” is no reason to keep doing it the same way, especially if it isn’t working.

3. What fat French trains can teach us

In 2014, the French railways made headlines around the world. For all the wrong reasons. They discovered that over 2000 new trains they had ordered to serve rural stations were too wide for the stations.

Turns out, someone forgot to measure the width of the stations before ordering the trains. As a result of this embarrassing error, the French government had to spend over $65 million reconfiguring station platforms to fit the new train. And suffer public ridicule.

The lesson is clear: before solutioning, make sure to get the basics of the problem right.

Before you add complexity to the mix, whittle it down to the fundamentals. Understand the simplest and most essential requirements of the problem you’re trying to solve. Focus on the signal. Ignore the noise.

4. That saying about assumptions

Here’s another epic failure that could have been completely avoided.  

After years of delay, the Hubble space telescope was finally launched on the space shuttle Discovery. It was meant to be a “window to the universe,” a telescope that would beam beautiful images of our planet from outer space.

But soon after launch, NASA scientists were shocked to discover that the images were blurry. The telescope could not focus! According to a NASA historian,

“The heart of the instrument, either the primary or the secondary mirror, or both (it would later turn out to be the primary) had been ground and polished over several years a decade earlier nearly perfectly to the wrong specifications.

In hindsight, of course, the error could have been found and rectified had someone seriously challenged the assumptions. But no one did. NASA ended up being the toast of late-night comedy hosts for a long time to come.

The saying is true. When you assume you can make an ass out of you and me. Instead, try this radical approach. Ask. Check. Clarify. Validate. Do anything else, but don’t “assume.”

5. Don’t pound everything because you have a hammer

Kaplan’s law of instrument: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Specifically, because we’ve been trained in particular methods or have some skills or tools handy, it is almost natural for us to redefine the problem to fit our solution.

We need to broaden our scope. Acknowledging that there could be problems we don’t as yet have solutions to is critical.

This will truly help limit all those brilliant solutions to non-problems. And will go a long way to stop us from solving the wrong problem.

6. Get outsider input

Get a second opinion. Really. If you haven’t realized it already, people love to give rather than take advice. Case in point: this article.

All you need to do is ask for an opinion. When you’re unsure of something, or more importantly, when you are too sure of something, please stop to get a second opinion. You can thank me later.

7. Finally. Most importantly. Adopt humility.

We live in a culture where it is too easy, especially when technology is involved, to slap words like innovative, disruptive, and life-changing, to proposed solutions.

The reality is that any gains from such supposedly innovative and disruptive processes, in a vast majority of cases, are restricted to a very thin slice of the world’s population.

The light bulb or the printing press were inventions that genuinely changed people’s lives. A coffee maker that can be programmed from your phone doesn’t really qualify for “making the world a better place.”

A lot of the problems we deal with aren’t even first-world problems. They are minor inconveniences for a tiny sliver of those in the privileged world.

So, let’s slow the heck down before we conflate Nobel-prize-winning discoveries and overengineered fads. A little humility and a lot of empathy will help us focus on genuine problems and avert us from solving the wrong problems.

The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions – Peter Drucker



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