Peter Lyons

The Problem Mindset

November 28, 2020

Everywhere I look in the tech world, I see everything everyone does being framed as "solving problems". "What problem are you trying to solve?" is a question asked at the start of many project inception documents. It occupies an early slide in most presentations. Whole company missions are framed as solving a particular problem. Many engineers list problem solving as one of their core skills.

My motivation for this post is to simply state that I don't think this mindset should be taken as a given and I personally don't think this way about everything. It's not that clearly defining a problem isn't a useful approach to planning/strategy. I just think about the word "problem" in a more specific way meaning something is broken, troublesome, or has gone wrong somehow. I think the world needs people and organizations doing things in addition to solving problems. It's perfectly valid to be refining something that is not problematic. It's fine to be creating a new capability from scratch without having to think of the "I don't have X capability" as the definition of the problem.

OK let's go through some concrete examples.

Are ride sharing apps like Lyft and Uber really solving a problem? I think of them as providing a particular kind of transportation. It's an update to a centuries-old core business in the world of smart phones, GPS, gig economy, etc. There's a raft of interesting changes in their financial models, approach to vehicle inventory, driver relations, driver compensation, driver competition, etc, but fundamentally I don't think of what they are doing of solving the problem of "I would rather use an app than a telephone to summon a taxicab". For that matter I don't think "transportation" when thought of as a problem has a science-fact solution. We can make it better, but not really solve it as a problem. Thus I would think about it more like a need.

WTF problem is instagram solving? It's a thing that exists and has utility for some and is also problematic but I can't bend my brain to think of instagram as solving any particular problem. I guess if arch-capitalists think of "Advertising dollars are being spent with companies I do not own" as a problem, then Instagram solves for that I guess?

Does AirBnB really solve the "It's hard for me to book short-term tenants into my guest room" problem? It makes a lot more sense to me to think of this as creating a marketplace facilitated by the web and smartphone apps.

Here's a couple examples of companies/products that it seems logical to think about as solving a problem.

Insurance comes to mind. Something rare and costly just went wrong and I otherwise would be in financial disaster, but insurance prevents that disaster for me. Roadside assistance. A flat tire is a problem that sometimes happens and while roadside service doesn't "solve" it as in prevent it from ever being a thing that happens, it reduces the impact significantly.

An extension cord solves a problem. In some ways WiFi solves a similar problem for your network cable, but it seems weird to me to think about WiFi as a solution to the problem "my gigantic ethernet cable is annoying to manage while I carry my laptop around the house". It's just a new technology and I don't feel any need to frame it in relationship to a specific problem.

If any of this resonates with you, please join me in rolling our eyes in our next strategic planning meeting.