Solutions Looking for Problems

This is happening at your company, and it’s costing you a fortune…

There’s nothing quite like launching something new; be it a brand new product, or even just a minor enhancement. And of course, when we launch something new, we often celebrate. We congratulate the team for their hard work, give them a thumbs up in their performance review, and we go work on the next big thing.

The issue here is that we’re celebrating the act of shipping, rather than having achieved the intended outcomes. If we reward the act of shipping, what is the incentive for the team to dig into the root problem, or to find the most efficient solution? We end up with an organization that’s focused on launching rather than solving the root problems, and we have unintentionally created a culture of doing what you’re told.

In my work as a coach at Lean Startup Company, and as a senior leader in both technology and product organizations, I have witnessed this situation first-hand on almost every single engagement. The story usually goes something like this:

  1. A senior leader has an idea for a solution, and asks a manager to tackle it
  2. The manager tells their team they’re going to implement the solution
  3. The team delivers the solution

Although you didn’t intend to hire short-order cooks, that’s exactly what you end up with: an organization full of diligent order takers. You want solution XYZ? One XYZ, coming right up!

The unintended consequence is that teams frequently lose touch with the problem they’re trying to solve. The motivation to explore for a better solution path simply evaporates.

At first blush, it’s easy to read this blog post and think, “There’s no way this is happening at my organization.” If you will, allow me to challenge that reaction by presenting a couple examples from clients that I’ve coached:

  • A team was asked to implement a RFID solution. The solution would take a long time to implement, and was not cheap. When I first chatted with the team, I asked, “Have you explored what other alternatives exist for RFID?” The answer? No —not even a Google search.
  • A team was asked to create a new internal requirements process. They had a multi-slide deck on exactly how they would implement the process. When I inquired what problem the requirements process needed to solve, they didn’t know.

To be clear, these are brilliant people that are trapped in broken cultural systems. Their talents are leveraged at a fraction of what they have to offer, and they are simply waiting to be unleashed.

It is no coincidence that the first core principle of the Lean Startup methodology is that “Entrepreneurs are Everywhere.” And they are. But when we create a system that doesn’t reward entrepreneurial behavior, people don’t behave like entrepreneurs.

As a leader in your organization, you can start to change this NOW. When you assign a project or task, make the root problem you’re trying to solve clear to the team. Rather than present a predetermined solution path, elaborate on the criteria that would make a solution successful, so the team has plenty of room to innovate.

As a team member, you don’t need permission to act as an entrepreneur. When you’re assigned a project, explore the root problem. Inquire about the criteria that would make any solution successful so you create the space to innovate.

And finally, we can all start shifting our focus from celebrating shipping to celebrating having achieved desirable outcomes. When we celebrate successful outcomes, teams are more likely to hunt for successful outcomes.


Written by Lean Startup Co. Education Faculty Elliot Susel. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your large complex organization, Lean Startup Company can help. We offer live and virtual training, coaching, and consulting to empower people and companies to solve their own problems using entrepreneurial management, no matter their industry, size company, or sector of the economy. Email us.

Yesterday we covered some of Netflix’s adventures in Lean Land. Through early Lean Startup Experimentation and Mastering 24-Hour Shipping, a shoe-string startup became one of the most powerful names in entertainment.


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