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Why solutions don't always fix problems

I've always been a solution orientated person: I hear about a problem or an opportunity, and I start pouring in ideas. But a recent workshop I attended on innovation gave me a well-deserved slap on the wrist.

I, like many others, was pouring poorly fitting ideas into problems I didn’t fully understand, just because I thought it was a fun, exciting process. But pouring ideas before we’ve figured out the exact shape of the problems doesn’t really benefit anyone: so it’s well worth learning to take a step back and focus on listening before we act.

Our teacher called this the essential ‘empathy’ stage of innovation. And here are some of the key takeaways I learnt about it; and how you can apply it to your business, no matter which stage it’s in.

1. Never start with a fix.

Our teacher had a number of previous mentors, and he shared with us the story of one of them; a business owner. The business owner had invested money into an app and was frustrated. Those browsing in his store readily bought products, but those online logged off with full baskets.

He decided the problem was a lacking function, and he resolved to fix it. But when he met with our teacher looking for tips, he was asked a surprising question: ‘have you ever actually asked a customer why they don’t buy a product? Have you ever watched someone use the app?’

The business owner hadn’t. And yet, he was absolutely convinced he knew how to fix the problem.

At the prompting of his mentor, he asked one of his friends to sit down and purchase a product using the app while he watched. She got a few clicks in, and suddenly looked confused. He repeated the process again and again, and watched in disbelief as his friends, one after the other, adopted the same confused look at the same page.

The problem wasn’t at all what he had expected it to be. He didn’t need to spend much money to fix it, or radically change anything.

The problem was that people couldn’t see the shipping price until they were about to press ‘buy now’ – which meant they were always being hit by surprise fees at the last minute. The problem wasn’t with the apps structure at all, and it was resolved simply by adding the shipping price beside the regular price of products.

The business owner, who had been so convinced of his solution, had completely misgauged the problem.

2. You can’t help everyone, but listening helps.

So how do you figure out how to solve a problem? Or how to improve a product?

The trick is listening. Not asking leading questions, not trying to bend conversations to suit you, but simply listening and gathering insights. How are customers using your products? At what time of day? Are they multitasking? What are their other interests? How are your stakeholders involved? How are your customers feeling?

By keeping an ear to the ground and making constant observations you can begin to identify trends and reoccurring issues. Once you’ve grabbed onto a few, then you can start brainstorming possible solutions. And once you have at last three (the first is often completely misguided and two is simply inviting disagreements, but three is a conversation) you can start validating and testing them.

Are people really interested? Does your proposed solution fix or improve the product/business? Is it necessary? Will it be a worthwhile return on investment?

Problem solving isn’t as simple as whacking a Band-Aid on a bruise and hoping you covered most of it: it’s a complex process of remaining open minded, reining in the first solutions you think of, and staying in contact with the people you’re going to impact the most.

3. Run split tests

Once you’ve got a validated theory, test it: and test different versions of it. We often come to view our ideas as our babies: but when it comes to business, being tactical pays off.

Becoming emotionally attached to our first thoughts can be damaging to us, our employees, and our customers: so when you start proposing solutions, try out a few at a time to gauge reaction and move forward in the most productive way possible.

There’s nothing wrong with being a solution orientated person, so long as you listen hard and long before you propose change. But slapping solutions on problems without taking the time to identify them properly is asking for trouble: if you want a better business, active listening will make all the difference.

- Lena Klein

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