Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

What Problem Are You Trying to Solve?

Figure that out first.

I asked my engineering students, “Where do problems come from?” and they just looked at me stupefied, like I was posing some kind of crazy rhetorical question just to set up another 30 minute in-class rant philosophizing about their chosen profession.

Which, of course, I was.

Just because engineers are outstanding problem-solvers doesn’t mean they have any skills in problem formulation. In engineering school, we drill our students in problem-solving, but as far as they know these problems come from professors, from worksheets, from politicians, bureaucrats, or middle managers... . And the answers to all the odd numbered problems can be found at the back of the book.

Engineers typically have no idea where problems come from, and it’s my fault. As an engineering instructor, I’ve failed to give my students opportunities to practice problem formulation, because I (like my colleagues) have been so caught up in drilling them on problem-solving.

So I’ve gotten better at asking, “What problem are you trying to solve?”

I’ve discovered that engineers aren’t the only people unable to answer the question. Entrepreneurs often struggle with this question. College administrators are typically flabbergasted. And my artist and musician friends are sometimes offended that the question has even occurred to me, much less been asked.

The problem is… whenever we define a problem, we simultaneously call to mind the solution. Understanding the problem is the most important thing about the solution.

For example, the peer-to-peer ride hailing app Uber was founded to solve the problem that passengers have waiting for taxis. A very similar app called Gett was conceived in the same way, but launched to solve the problem that taxi drivers have finding passengers. By contrast, Lyft was founded to solve the problem of empty seats in cars driven home from college campuses during breaks. Although all three apps provide almost the same solution, they are targeting different problems, and that makes all the difference in their growth trajectories.

In a book that Steve Cunningham calls one of the Best 365 Business Books of All Time, Simon Sinek advises us to Start With Why?

He draws his “Golden Circle” describing the three most important questions: working from the outside, “What?”, “How?”, and “Why?”

Simon Sinkek explains “Start With why?” by imagining what a hypothetical marketing message from Apple (back when Steve Jobs was CEO) might sound like if Apple started with What? instead of Why?

The Why? of engineering typically starts with understanding the problem you’re trying to solve.

We can compare Sinek’s hypothetical Apple marketing to the real launch of the original iphone, by Jobs himself.

In this video, Jobs explicitly explains the Why? when he says, “The problem is… .” Look for it at 3:48 when he says, “… we have these plastic little keyboards on them and the problem is that they’re not so smart and they’re not so easy to use.” And again at 5:19 when he says “well the problem with them is this stuff right here they all have these keyboards that are there whether you need them or not to be there and they all have these control buttons that are fixed in plastic and are the same for every application… and they can’t change.”

Jobs knew what problem he was trying to solve. He knew why his company was working on that solution.

Most engineers only receive training in problem solving, to the neglect of problem formulation. As a consequence, engineers are too often the instruments hired to build someone else’s dreams.

There are four questions essential to engineering innovation and entrepreneurship:

  • WHAT problem are you trying to solve?
  • WHY is this problem important?
  • WHO has the problem? and
  • HOW MUCH are the people with the problem willing to pay for a solution?

Few of my engineering students are prepared by their educations to work in the complex world of innovation and entrepreneurship, because a start up environment is complex:

Daniel Christian Wahl summarized this for us in his article ‘Facing Complexity’ in which he traces back the history of scholarship on a certain class of complex systems challenges called “wicked problems.” For example, he cites a 1967 article by C. West Churchman that coins the phrase “wicked problems” and attributes it to a lecture at Berkeley by Horst Rittel that later became a seminal paper. The paper lists the ten characteristics of wicked problems, but in principle they are reducible to five:

  1. Difficulties in problem formulation,
  2. Multiple, but incompatible, solutions,
  3. Open-ended time frames,
  4. Novelty (a lack of analogous problems), and
  5. Competing value systems or objectives.

All of these characteristics are present in a typical technology start up, and universities do not provide educational experiences that allow students to practice the skills necessary to grapple with them. Universities are dominated by scientific ways of knowing, and Science Does Not Ask “Why?