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Problem Finding: How You Can Become Better At It

We go through many years of school solving all sorts of things. Math, for example, is about becoming better at problem solving. Granted, we do depend heavily on our ability to solve problems. But could it be possible to find problems as well? Nobody wants more problems, yet everyone wants opportunities. Could they go hand in hand? How do some entrepreneurs, parents, or teachers manage to find problems and benefit from them? Perhaps work is not exclusively about solving problems but finding them too. And by no means is problem finding about inviting unnecessary conflict. It’s about the creativity of discovering unaddressed problems we’re not consciously aware we have. An unaddressed problem means there’s an unaddressed opportunity, and the potential to generate value.

I first read of problem finding in Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human. In this fascinating book, he argues that to move others we need “clarity—the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had.” So if problem finding is about identifying problems that others have and don’t see, then how do we identify our own? In problem solving methodologies, there’s a definition phase where you take the time to clarify the problem to avoid unnecessary action on the wrong issue. But you don’t find problems just by clarifying them—otherwise there wouldn’t be any innovation.

Our culture and our schools rate problem solving as one of the most important skills to be learned. That is reflected in the many analytical courses we take throughout school. While there are other courses, like art, they’re seldom taken seriously. They become more like a filler class. But problem finding is more of an art in that there’s no manual about how to find things worth solving. We spend too much time solving recurrent problems, and develop few skills to help us recognize patterns and find problems. For instance, consider why it took so long to find that carrying a suitcase was a nightmare. Why was adding wheels such an elusive problem to find?

Certainly, the world expects us to be better at solving problems, but maybe we could become more active at finding them. Think of problem solving as fixing an issue, and problem finding as seeing an opportunity. With problem solving we work to stop the setbacks, but with problem finding we set to gain from them. So how can you become more creative and sense the problems that have not yet been seen? Let’s look at some areas where you may find opportunities:

Needs / Wants

How can you uncover hidden value that others don’t see? Identify a need by looking for normalized problems. There are many ways to do this. You can look at hidden problems we’ve all gotten used to: What are people frustrated or fearful about? What do people desire, hope, or dream for? It takes a lot of empathy and observation to find what unconsidered needs are waiting to be uncovered and fulfilled.

In Meaningful: The story of ideas that fly, Bernadette Jiwa explains: “Meaningful products and services—the things we use, come to depend on and learn to love—start life as a set of unfulfilled expectations. A moment of frustration or embarrassment, a feeling of helplessness, or a way of making do. If we approach business and innovation from a place of wanting to fulfill those expectations and meet those needs, then we win. We win by finding wins for the people we serve.” Bernadette urges us to start looking where we or the customer may be frustrated, but to also see where the customer wants to go. What do people desire? How can customers benefit from something you could you fulfill?

Exposure

Problem finding happens with time. It’s a process of exposure. Time is an indispensable element that does not get enough credit. It’s hard to understand what happens over time, and how time itself enables us. When you’re trying to do something worthwhile, time is your ally. When we’re trying to find a problem, not measuring time but allowing time creates the ideal conditions. Problem solving is more goal-oriented. It wants to narrow down to the solution. But problem finding is less about knowing exactly where we want to arrive, and more about exploring where we could arrive—to discover something of benefit or a potential payoff through trial and error.

Exposure uncovers hidden opportunities, and it opens up options. You can expose yourself by playing, experimenting, trying different things, or meeting different kinds of people. On a trip to Dublin, we met a local couple and asked where they would recommend us to eat. They suggested a place they claimed had the best fish and chips in the world! Upon our arrival, we realized the food was only to go. So we asked the staff if they knew of a nice place where we could eat. They suggested taking our food a few blocks away to St. Patrick’s Park where we ate overlooking the cathedral! We could have problem solved by going to eat at the first restaurant we saw. Instead, we found an unexpected (and delightful) way to eat by asking questions. The key about exposure is to keep it small (should an error occur), and to be alert to pick up the opportunities when they arise.

Intersections

Remember Venn diagrams? They consist of two circles that intersect each other. The resulting overlap is the area where the circles share something in common. The intersection is denoted by this symbol: ∩. Often you can find opportunities when you put two seemingly unrelated ideas together. Some examples:

  • Suitcases ∩ wheels (make travel easier)
  • Car tires ∩ sensor (detect low tire pressure)
  • Internet ∩ social (connect people)
  • Clam chowder ∩ bread bowl (genius!)

How might you intersect our environment, the machines you use, the people you know, work methods, or materials to find opportunities?

Of course, the biggest challenge in problem finding is that it’s uncertain. We just don’t know where an opportunity may be. We might find something, or we might not. Once something succeeds, the success formula tends to change. Once you find a problem or an opportunity and move to deliver a solution, then a new gap opens up. But what I hope you take away from all of this are the three areas: needs, exposure, and intersections where you might pick up future opportunities for yourself. Unlike problem solving where we need to arrive at a solution, problem finding can help you see opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have discovered.

Juan F. Diaz

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Comments

Samid Suboh
Reply

I sell mattresses for a living. My general thought process is to listen to the customers, find their problem, solve it, and ask for sale! I have taught this approach to my colleagues. Your post really hit home. Glad I read.

Juan F. Diaz
Reply

Hey Samid! Thanks for the comment! I appreciate you reading the article and sharing your own problem finding skills here. Often times customers don’t even know what they want, but a good sales person will find, like you said, their problem and solve it. Thanks!

Ted
Reply

Another outstanding post Juan! I think you are hitting your stride. Awesome examples…the suitcase example was a marvelous example of finding a good problem and a bread bowl certainly is genius! This article is especially relevant to me as an aspiring data scientist. My primary job will be extracting value from data and thus will require problem finding skills and being curious, exploring the data and asking many questions. Keep up the great work!

Juan F. Diaz
Reply

Thank you Ted! I appreciate your comment! Data science sounds intriguing. Keep me posted. I’m curious about the process of extracting value from data!

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