Learning is the Key

A wicked problem is a locked door.

Learning is the key that opens the door.

Of course, even when you have the right key, you still have put the key in the lock, turn it, open the door and walk through.

Some years ago, as I began to think about ways to describe 10.10.10 and its problem-first approach, I talked about the difference between starting with a key and starting with a door.

Many entrepreneurs today — most, I think — start with a “key” they have found. This key is often a tool or new technology of some sort, something the founder or founding team latches onto. It is often an idea for a new product, something inspired by a recent change, shift or development. Examples abound of the kinds of tools and technologies that have been used to generate ideas for new ventures, including semiconductors, data, personal computers, routers, modems, hard drives, the Internet, the World Wide Web, smartphones and apps, cameras within smartphones, IoT sensors, AI, etc. — all of these things have given rise to hundreds of thousands of new products and tens of thousands of new companies. This is the easiest approach to entrepreneurship. It works well for low hanging fruit or for fruit that has already fallen to the ground.

Sometimes this works very well. Successful companies have been created by finding a key, an idea based on a tool or technology, that helps the company create a better alternative in the marketplace to anything that has come before. At the same time, this is the least effective approach to the most difficult problems (which are often also the largest opportunities), and it is the most wasteful use of capital and other resources.

You have heard this approach described in other ways. It is the cliched “solution in search of a problem.”

The “key first” model leads entrepreneurs to take the key they have found or discovered or fashioned and try that key in door after door after door after door after door in the hope that one of them will open. One could argue that this is precisely what lean-startup thinking is all about. You have a hypothesis — a key — and following Steve Blank’s excellent advice, you get out of the building to talk to customers — trying your key in many doors. Until you run out of money. Or resolve. Or both.

Related to the “too many doors” problem is this one: sometimes when you finally find a door you can open, you learn that nothing of value lives on the other side of the door. Not a happy moment for an entrepreneur. This is what happens when you learn you have a customer and a market for your solution, but the problem you’re solving for them isn’t worth much. This is when you wish you’d followed a different path.

From the perspective of problems to be solved — especially wicked problems — All of this is backwards and upside down. Instead of bringing problems to your beloved solution on dozens of problems, why not bring solutions to a problem you care about enough to want to solve?

10.10.10 asks entrepreneurs to start, not with a key, but with a door. What is a door? A door is a problem, a challenge, an opportunity. A door that guards a treasure. This door must be unlocked to get at the treasure. (Depending on the door, the treasure might be mainly monetary, mainly social impact or both.) Wicked problems are doors guarding a treasure with both monetary benefit and social impact.

But if wicked problems are the doors, how does an entrepreneur get hold of the right key? How does an entrepreneur choose a door behind which tremendous opportunity may be found and then create, develop, find, or buy the key — perhaps the dynamite — that will open this locked door?

Stay tuned . . .


From October 16–26, 2017, 10.10.10 will host its Cities program in Denver. This 10.10.10 Cities program will focus on “wicked problems” 2 key areas: water and infrastructure. If you’d like to be involved in some way, this is the place to sign up. We are particularly interested in participation by those in other cities who may wish to bring a 10.10.10 Cities program to their city in 2018 or 2019.

You should know that we invite just 10 prospective CEOs to participate in each program. (You’ll find our most recent cohort of prospective CEOs here.) If you are a successful serial entrepreneur and plan to start a new venture, you may request an invitation here by filling out the form. We also partner with Validators (organizations and institutions with deep domain knowledge) and Ninjas (individuals with the specific skills — finance, marketing, design, product management, data analysis, etc.) to support our prospective CEOs during the program.