Solving the right problem

What if the problem isn't the one you think it is?

These past days Twitter has been boiling. Twitter announced that they are testing double length, 280 character long Tweets. In their own words, it was to give us users more characters to express ourselves. The response has been less than enthusiastic. Many call Twitter out for not addressing real issues, like harassment and racism and bot trouble.

Meanwhile, some have Tweeted that those who oppose the longer Tweets shouldn't worry. They don't have to use all 280 characters, and can continue making 140 character long Tweets. Doesn't solve the problems I see. I'm concerned about mobile usability, as long Tweets block the screen especially on smaller devices, and abuse.

These are examples of solutions for (possibly) wrong problems.

The problem with the wrong problem

Businesses and professionals and products are usually set to address and solve problems. How to make messaging easier for teams? How to help parents address their children's sexuality? How to make websites better? How to build more environmental buildings? How to get over your own thinking biases? How to grow your business? How to make your life better?

Unfortunately, many businesses make the same mistake as those who "solve" the problems about long Tweets by telling you to make yours shorter. They work to solve the wrong problem.

We all have done it. Whether it was life in general or in our businesses. Either inventing problems that don't exist, or trying to find solutions to the problems that don't need solutions.

Trying to continuously fix wrong problems is a recurring problem with Twitter, for example. Not only with this Tweet length debacle, but with their whole product. Like many other weak and struggling businesses, Twitter is resorting in assumptions and distractions. As a result, nobody is really happy. The regular users are distressed and user growth has been stalling, the marketers are less than keen to buy ads, investors aren't interested, and even the celebrity users are leaving.

Twitter folks are testing the longer Tweets right now, to find out if they are the right solution. I'm just not so sure if they are trying to solve the right problem. Especially I'm concerned when Jack Dorsey says they expected the critique, and that it proves the change is important and for the better.

Dorsey's statement is revealing. It sounds like Twitter went out and about to test if introducing 280 character long Tweets would create critique. So far, the answer has been "yes". There has been critique. I have contributed to it. Is critique over changes really the root problem Twitter is facing? Is it the root problem the users, marketers, and investors are facing?

"If people are upset with you, then you are doing something right." This is a common mantra amongst Internet entrepreneurs. If you are making people upset with you, then you are (or they think you are) doing something that made them upset. It doesn't automatically make whatever you are doing right. Doesn't make it wrong either. It just kind of is, as making people upset is quite easy. Look into what made them upset, without making assumptions.

While in some cases trying to solve the wrong problems can help to uncover underlying root problems, or come up with new inventions, it mainly just wastes resources and drives users and leads and customers and investors and collaborators away. Unless you have unlimited time and money, wrong problems are best to be left untouched. Or just make them side projects, stuff you work on because you happen to be so very passionate about them.

This is not to say that all the problems about which you are passionate, or which are personal to you, are wrong problems. It's just to say, you gotta at least consider the fact that they are not the right problems.

The danger of solving the wrong problems is ending to a situation where the right problems can not be solved at all.

Solving the right problem -- Mervi Emilia

Finding the right problem

There are always problems you find, and there are those you create.

Fixating into wrong problems, making assumptions, jumping to conclusions, and thus giving the wrong solutions is human. Like when you are assuming that the problem with long Tweets is that people think they must start writing longer content. Or assuming that when your social media platform is struggling to grow, you must add new technical features. Many think when their website is having low traffic, it is because of its design. Corners must be rounded or squared, colours must be changed, images added, and then some.

When you are stuck with finding the actual root problem, try reframing the problem at hand. You can approach the reframing in many ways. Bring in outside help, who can look into your situation with "fresh eyes". Collect all the suggestions, expectations, and definitions, and analyse them. Be especially critical with your positive expectations, and those that are based on thinking that "when people are upset, you are doing something right". Try to see and understand biases, concentrating on those of your own (they are often the hardest to work with). Do clearly defined A/B testing. Don't get obsessed with a problem or a solution.

Ask more questions. Why should you fix or create this? What is the need you are addressing? Who is this fix or creation serving and benefitting, and how? Is this one or more problems, are all the problems equally as important? What has been already tried and how did it work? Why would people be upset with this? What is the desired outcome? Why and how will this serve the needs of your business? Which problems will the suggested solution create and why?

An old method, usually known as 5 Whys, suggests that asking why at least five times you can dig in to the underlying root problem. Start with a basic and clear problem, such as website traffic. Then start asking why. You may end up finding out that the root problem isn't the website traffic after all, but the fact that the traffic you get isn't bringing you enough sales. Which means you cannot pay your rent. For example. In this case the root problem could be that you cannot support your life, and become homeless and hungry. The root problem is not the bad traffic. Maybe solution is not in getting more traffic after all, but something completely else.

Breaking down and reframing the problem helps to determine what is the real problem, why does the problem exist, and why or why not should it be solved. When you have found the right problem, you can actually solve it.

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Mervi's picture

Hello there!
I'm Mervi Eskelinen

I'm an artist, nerd and creative business wizard, dedicated to help you build the business of your dreams, market your creativity, and find a meaningful way to support your lifestyle.