Want to design a great product? Forget the product – obsess about the problem!

 Obsess about the problem, not the product. 

Obsess about the problem, not the product. 

The hallways of human invention are marvellous and many – laden with trophies to human creativity. But take a right at the Tesla, then swing left at Lindt chocolate – and suddenly you’re in the ghetto.

This is the dud hall, where products like ‘umbrella shoes’ and toddler ipotties (yes, you heard that right) go to die. If it’s not Google+ or the Facebook Phone, it’s Maxwell House’s foil lined cold brewed coffee in a box and telling people to ‘drink it hot’.

But hindsight is 20-20 vision, right? Ultimately, what drew the line between success and failure was the degree to which a company stopped to do its homework. Those who took the time to understand and identify the market gaps were the ones empowered to take them.

Want to win your prospective future? Start with the end in mind and obsess about the problem, not the product. 

Why before what

We’re all about the ‘what’ in today’s business world. What innovation can push profits and gain corner advantage? What cool new gadget can we get on the shelves to market our brand as ‘out there?’ It’s all about our smarts, especially in software companies, and we’re willing to throw money at the bells and whistles without blinking an eye.

But here’s the thing. If we never put our finger on the pause button, if we don’t stop – often –  to ask the question, what for?, we are totally missing the point. If our products don’t mean anything to our customers; if they fail to meet a need or solve a particular pain point, then it’s a matter of time before we join that coffee cup on the shelf.

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” In other words, look at the problem; that will determine the solution.

Get your hands dirty

You can’t grow a vegetable patch by sheer will power or good thoughts about the pumpkin. You’ve got to get down on your hands and knees and turn that soil. Only when we’re in the thick of a problem, with grub under our nails, can we rightly assess the viability of our innovations, given the soil of risk and opportunity in which they grow.

Just because something is new doesn't necessarily mean it’s innovative. It has to be tested first – cracked open and thoroughly dissected – to ensure it’s even needed in today’s digitally disrupted world. Where value currently shapeshifts and strategies for success keep presenting themselves as moving targets, today’s leaders need to go one step beyond and anticipate needs to problems we don’t even have yet. This kind of ‘on the ground’ insight requires we assume less and dig deeper.  

Don’t sell ice to eskimos

Let’s face it. There is a lot of proverbial ice out there – ideas that copy and paste their mark upon an already identified market. Beyond short term gains, there’s not much more to them. They don’t push any boundaries of truly meaningful innovation; they just piggyback off the formulas that secure a quick and reliable profit before they fizzle and fade.   

It’s so easy to sell a bad idea. (After all, we had to sell it to ourselves before we could sell it to others.) It’s much harder to endorse an idea that is right for the product but not for our ego. A true leader is someone who can put personal ambitions aside and make brave, informed decisions that maximise benefits for the company and industry at large. The solutions they propose may not necessarily look slick and savvy; but they’re steady and intelligent and able to secure the company’s legacy over time.

So as you pursue success, do yourself and your organisation a favour. Pause, probe, and marinate a little longer in the meaning of your pursuits. In the end, that kind of purposed pace will be way faster than a ‘guns blazing’ sprint out the door. And in the end it’ll save you some egg – or, say, ooohhh, nuked coffee –  on your face.