What problem are you trying to solve?

Simon Sinek advises us to Start With Why? when communicating our ideas.

In his hypothetical marketing message from Apple (back when Steve Jobs was CEO) he asks us to imagine what it might sound like if Apple started with What? they do instead of Why? they do it. And it (of course) falls flat.

The Why? of engineering entrepreneurship typically starts with a problem 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… “.

Whenever we define a problem, we simultaneously call to mind the solution. Understanding the problem that you’re trying then becomes the most important thing about your solution.

For example, the peer-to-peer ride hailing app Uber as famously 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.  Although the apps provide almost the same solution, they solve different problems.  (By contrast, Lyft was founded to solve the problem of empty seats in cars driven home from college campuses during breaks).

Most engineers only receive training in problem solving, to the neglect of problem formulation. As a consequence, engineers are too often the mere instruments hired to create innovative technologies that conform the world to someone else’s imagination.

There are four questions essential to engineering innovation:

  • 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?


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