You Can’t Propose a Solution If You Don’t Correctly Define the Problem

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Albert Einstein said that if given one hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem, and five minutes finding the solution. In business development, we execute this in reverse: A minute or so to define the problem, and months—or longer—to formulate and sell a solution. Figuring out problems is anything but easy. Odd, since we’re swimming in them.

Ask any senior manager at Sony of Japan, whose executives organized strategy around answering “how do we sell more devices?” Compare Sony to Amazon, whose management asked “how do we sell more books?” “As a result, the Kindle, which had wireless service and a broad book selection, was more in tune with the raison d’etre for purchasing the device: to buy and read books,” according to The Wall Street Journal (How Japan Lost Its Electronics Crown, August 15, 2012). Other electronics companies whose gadgets you once enjoyed, such as Japan’s Sharp and Panasonic, have similar stories. You can read about them by simply downloading content to your iPad or Kindle e-reader. At least for now, we still associate Japan with other products, like cars and sushi.

Sony-think infects healthcare policy, too. In The Blue Sweater, author Jacqueline Novogratz writes, “So often we ask ourselves the wrong question. When it comes to a disease like malaria, the question should not be whether bed nets (to protect people from mosquitoes) are sold or given away free. Both distribution methods have their place in a broader attack on the disease. The question instead is, ‘What does it take to eradicate malaria?’ It’s not ‘either-or,’ but rather ‘both-and.'” And she chafes when people harangue over whether access to water is a human right, or whether it’s fair for companies to profit by selling it. Instead, she argues that the real issue is how to get water to people who need it.



If she listened in on almost any B2B sales call, she’d go ballistic. We often don’t see The Bigger Picture. “This prospect’s key problem is . . . preventing cyber-attacks! . . . getting more customer engagement! . . . ensuring brand loyalty! . . . creating ‘killer’ content! . . . printing barcoded labels with a 99.9999% read rate!” Your CMO would be ecstatic. “The sales force really gets our messaging!”

Kudos. But some product hype can become a sales liability, for which we’ve coined a well-worn metaphor: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I imagine that as passengers on the Titanic we would merrily exclaim, “Gee, these plummeting deck chairs could really use our patented slip-proof traction pads!” You could give your sales pitch while clinging to a piece of debris. Here comes one floating by right now: “We evaluated your proposal, but it doesn’t exactly address our real problem.” Ouch.

How can business developers identify and define central problems?

1. State the perceived problem multiple ways until you arrive at one that seems right. “How do we sell more devices?” and “How do we sell more books?” are similar questions, but the resulting strategies could not be more dramatically different.

2. Avoid using consultant-isms. Problem statements aren’t visceral when they contain words like optimize, monetize, or proactive. “A key challenge for our customers is how to optimize ROI.” Not really. A more likely central challenge is how to acquire new customers or capture new revenue.

3. Share assumptions, challenge them, and get everyone on the same page. Sony’s assumption, that people wanted to buy devices, was a poor one.

4. Find a symptom, then go upstream. Figure out why the symptom matters. And why that matters. And why that matters . . . Preventing cyber attacks might have everything to do with acquiring new customers and achieving financial goals. Who knew?



5. After going upstream, go downstream. Ask “. . . when that happens, what are the consequences?”

6. Examine problems from different angles. When barcoded labels have poor print quality, how is that issue experienced from the point of view of your customer support representative, your sales account manager, the receiving clerk at your client’s warehouse, your Chief Logistics Officer . . .

7. When there are conflicting interests, find common ground—then define the problem. After the horrific shooting in Newton, Connecticut last December, there were many opinions about the overarching problem. How to limit or restrict assault weapons. Whether to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines. Whether to arm teachers and school administrators. How to create greater access to mental health services. How to identify violent proclivities in young males. Each one, a potentially polarizing issue. But finding the best way to protect our nation’s young children has become the issue around which most people can coalesce.

8. Get nitpicky—real nitpicky—about semantics. Rather than define a problem as “How can we eliminate low productivity in manufacturing?” ask “In what ways can we improve our manufacturing lead time?” The second statement has a positive tone, and assumes more than one viable answer could be identified.

9. Make the issue exciting. Although this can be difficult, cut out bureaucratic language. Imagine getting others on board with “How do we best establish policies to ensure that citizens are provided infrastructure for accessing drinking water?” versus “How do we get water to people who need it?”

10. Reverse the problem. If figuring out how to win more pipeline opportunities throws you, ask “In what ways can we reduce or eliminate the top five causes for lost opportunities?”



Researchers have long understood the importance of aligning studies to meaningful questions. Especially true when data was scarce and expensive. But today with gobs of Big Data, it’s common to say “we produce information because we can!” According to Digvijay Lamba, a data architect at Walmart Labs, “The big question we ask ourselves as retailers is ‘What should we really sell on Halloween [or other holidays].’ . . . Now we have all this external data that is being generated. . . and we can ask all kinds of questions.” (It’s All about the Platform: What Walmart and Google Have in Common, MIT Sloan Management Review, December 5, 2012)

Nifty, if you first correctly define the problem that must be solved.

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