“Finding the Problem is the Hard Part”:  I recently viewed a short video clip from Stanford University’s Entrepreneurship Corner that makes the point that finding solutions is much easier than finding real problems.  This really resonates with me as I’m in the middle of a project with one of my clients to do just that - find the critical problems to solve that they can build a new business on.  

Why is it that we tend to move to “solution space” so quickly and then wind up in a quixotic search for customers who want our solution?  It seems so obviously backwards, which of course, it is.

I think the short video from the founders of Instagram hit the nail on the head - because it’s hard to do right!  But that begs the question, what makes it so hard to do?  Part of the answer came from another article that I recently read that  I think hints at a deeper root cause to this faulty approach - decision bias.

An article from Harvard Business Reviews online magazine entitled “The Big Idea: Before You Make That Big Decision...” the authors provide an excellent overview on decision bias and how it can effect organizational effectiveness.  We all know we have biases, apparently, knowing that we have them isn’t the answer to overcoming them.

By the way, the article has a link to a very cool survey tool that helps give you individualized feedback on how your own particular decision-making style compares to hundreds of other respondents who’ve taken the survey.  It also apparently is helping them with their ongoing research of the topic as well - so you’ll be providing them with one more valuable “data point”.

So, back to decision bias and it’s contribution to finding problems before solutions.  In the HBR article the authors identified 12 questions that explore a variety of biases.  I thought it would be interesting to look at a few of these to see how they reinforce the “solution before the problem” approach.

Self-Interested bias: we start with a solution because we’re already invested (and rewarded) for a specific product or solution, so we try to we try to fit it to a problem.

Affect Heuristic bias: essentially we’ve fallen in love with our elegant solution and therefore ignore whether or not it actually solves a real problem (that we can get paid for.)

Groupthink bias: dissenting opinions were suppressed when we were in the ideation phase and everyone jumped on the bus, only problem it wasn’t the right one.

Saliency bias: this is a big one in my view, especially when we’ve had “home runs” before.  Effectively this bias is causes us to be overly influenced by an analogy to a memorable success.  It may not even be our own success - we may very well see this in the wave of tablet computers after Apple’s success, for example.

And the last I’ll mention, which I think is one of the key biases affecting solution before problem thinking, is - 
Overconfidence bias: we simple think that we know best what the customer wants; our brilliant solution is the “wave of the future”; the cat’s meow; the best thing since... you get my point.  

It’s interesting to note in this article how the author’s link this to “inside view” vs “outside view” thinking.  I have seen this a lot, where organizations base their reality on their own set of assumptions and data and rationalize away massive amounts of external, objective external feedback (like customer complaints) that doesn't fit with their view of the world.

So, if you get a chance check out the survey and see how your decision-making style compares to others.  But more importantly realize and act on the truth that the only way to reduce bias is by moving from individual decision-making to a systematic, organizational decision-making model, because we can detect biases in others but not ourselves.

And if you’re interested in further reading in this area here are some good books to check out:
    Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
    (Caravan, 2008)
    Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition by Michael J. Mauboussin (Harvard Business Review Press,
    Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions and How to Keep It from Happening to You by Sydney 
    Finkelstein, Jo Whitehead, and Andrew Campbell (Harvard Business Review Press, 2009)
    Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (HarperCollins, 2008)
    Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, forthcoming in 2011)

What are your thoughts?  How has a more team-based decision process helped you think outside of your "bias box"?   Your comments are always welcome!

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    John Geffel

    Value is a much abused, misunderstood and misused word, everyone thinks they provide it but so few show real evidence that they do!

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