Falling in Love With the Problem, Part 2

It’s human nature to fall in love with the first idea we come up with to solve a problem, but that very tendency can prevent us from generating truly delightful solutions.

When faced with a problem, how quickly do you jump to a solution? If you think you’ve found an answer, do you stop coming up with more ideas and move into execution?

If you tend to jump on your first idea, you’re not alone. That tendency is common and is caused by what’s known as the Einstellung Effect. It’s something I’ve written about in this space before, but here’s a quick recap before we get to some examples of how to overcome it. 

Human beings are predisposed to think their first idea is the best approach instead of considering many alternatives. Simply put, our first ideas are rarely our best ideas, yet we can’t fight the instinct to stop ideating once we feel we’ve had a eureka moment.

Once we’re down the road with a solution, it is especially difficult to recognize in the face of difficulties that we need to go back to the drawing board. At the Lean Startup Co., we see this syndrome bite entrepreneurs who go to market with a new product and then face customer pushback. Oftentimes, entrepreneurs would rather explain those customer-facing issues away (and sometimes even blame the customers) rather than explore why they are having issues.

Stubbornly pushing for a particular solution may prevent you from discovering the right solution that will bring you success. This is why you’ve probably heard the advice, “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” 

But what does it take to fall in love with the problem? It takes a new mindset and some specific tools (see the “tips” below) to get to the right solution. Here are a couple of examples where falling in love with the problem led to great outcomes.

Security versus slowdowns for gamers

People who play high-end computer games want to extract every ounce of performance from their PCs for the best gaming experience. They generally hate virus protection software and won’t install it because it slows down the gaming experience and takes up too many system resources. The solution for many is to leave their PCs open to malware and hacking in order to stay competitive.

The Internet security company McAfee offers consumer and enterprise customers a range of cybersecurity solutions including virus protection, but according to Terry Hicks, Executive Vice President of the Consumer Division, computer gamers have been one tough customer segment to crack. People who play high-end computer games want to extract every ounce of performance from their PCs for the best gaming experience. For this reason, they generally hate virus protection software which slows things down and takes up too many system resources. 

The problem for gamers was clearly identified: virus protection slows down computer games. For Hicks and his team, the obvious solution was to build a much leaner version of the virus protection software, or perhaps one that could do its processing on a separate processor or on the web. But McAfee made an important discovery while observing gamers. Before running a game, players would shut down programs and turn off a bunch of services to get the PC ready.

It turned out, the real problem is this: gamers want their PCs optimized for games. Virus protection software was only one of many applications that were slowing things down. 

Armed with this important insight, McAfee engineers built tools that would analyze processes running in a PC and automatically turn off the resource hogs that were not needed while the game was running. They eventually built a Command Center that combined resource monitoring and historical performance data in one simple dashboard. 

“Normally, when I play the Witcher 3 on high settings, my computer can barely maintain an average of 37 frames per second,” said one gamer. “But to my surprise, after using McAfee Gamer Security, it seems to hold steady around 48 to 60 frames per second, which is pretty impressive. This is the first product of its kind that I actually like and find useful.”

By falling in love with the problem and getting closer to customers, McAfee went beyond providing a more nimble virus projection. They created a more valuable solution for gamers by fine-tuning system performance and maximizing the gaming experience overall.

Increasing hiring throughput in the City of San Jose

It’s not just product teams that yield better solutions through this approach. In 2016, the City of San Jose was struggling with what seemed like an insurmountable hiring crisis: The city had almost 850 vacant positions and the number was growing. Departments such as transportation, public works, housing, and even the police and fire departments were critically understaffed. These vacancies meant budgeted priority work was not getting done and the current staff was being overworked. 

The obvious solution was for the city’s Human Resource department to hire more recruiters. Instead of accepting the easy answer, the city hired Lean Startup Co. Director Hisham Ibrahim to help examine the problem. Ibrahim assembled a team of recruiters and department managers and led them through a discovery process where they focused on the hiring manager experience. 

By methodically unpacking the problem, the team discovered that the biggest opportunity for improvement was in simplifying the hiring process. It turned out that over the years, the hiring process had become increasingly unwieldy as San Jose dealt with a myriad of labor laws and other compliance issues. Armed with this insight, the team was able to come up with several creative ideas that increased hiring throughput without requiring additional recruiters. 

Deputy City Manager Kip Harkness described the ultimate success of the redesigned  hiring process this way: “The team removed 15 unnecessary steps and increased our capacity to hire by 275 percent per recruiter without adding new resources or changing our technology. Within a year the team scaled this learning to the entire organization.” 

To fall in love with the problem is to commit to empathize with customers, to consider a broad range of ideas, and to experiment with your customers. Should you feel guilty if you’ve fallen in love with a solution? Of course not, as long as you follow a structured process that allows you to say goodbye to solutions that aren’t working, and be open to falling in love with the next one you try.

Tips for falling in love with the problem

So, how do we overcome our counterproductive tendency to fixate on a specific solution? The Lean Startup Methodology provides a structured process to help us focus on the problem, and through experimentation, find the best solution.

  1. Be crystal clear on the problem you are trying to solve. One technique is to draft a vision statement that articulates what the world will look like after you’ve solved this problem. For example, if you are trying to solve the problem of long security lines at airports, your vision statement might be: “No passenger will wait more than five minutes to get through security.” The best vision statements are straightforward and pithy, so they’re easy for everyone to understand and remember.
  2. Don’t feel the need to temper any enthusiasm that may arise as you come up with ideas. This passion is helpful in making the process fun and engaging. However, you can provide a satisfactory segue from focusing on one idea to ideating on more solutions by writing the idea down and moving on to the next one. Starting with a goal is also helpful, e.g., commit to coming up with seven ideas. This will keep you honest about continuing to ideate even if you think you’ve already found the answer.
  3. Before a particular idea is tested, you should clarify the key assumptions you are making for this idea to work. These assumptions will drive the experiments you run in the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop, and allow you to quickly learn whether your idea will work as is, if it can be improved, or whether it should be abandoned for another idea. 


Hugh MolotsiThanks to Lean Startup Co. Advisor Hugh Molotsi for contributing this piece. Be sure to read Part 1 of his “Falling in Love With the Problem” series.

Lean Startup Co. is a product and innovation consultancy co-founded by Eric Ries. We equip our clients to systematically vet, shape, and de-risk new business opportunities. We are here to support you on your Lean Startup journey when you need us. Discover our services on leanstartup.co or contact us to ask a question or discuss hiring us.

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