Many business experts will tell you that the best innovators write down ideas on a regular basis. In fact, some suggest that formulating at least one idea per day drastically increases your chances of coming up with a truly valuable one. While the premise of this advice is correct – you should always be looking for opportunities – the “idea per day” convention misses a crucial step in developing ideas that might actually work. Your first focus should be on problem discovery.
Ideas need to solve problems. If they don’t, they are inventions with no home – a hammer without a nail, so to speak. Ideas are a dime a dozen and all you need to do is look at the plethora of weird, useless products in existence to see that: a barbecue grill powered by car exhaust, a sleeping bag you can walk in, DVD rewinder, goldfish walker, and – wait for it – a USB pet rock that does absolutely nothing. Are these all ideas? Yep. Do they solve problems? Definitely not.
Many of the world’s greatest solutions were borne out of identifying a problem where nobody realized one existed. Instead of trying to come up with a list of ideas, you should instead try to identify important problems to solve. Ideation is a useless exercise unless you have the inputs you need to come up with something great.
So, what makes a problem worth solving? Here are six questions you should ask yourself to determine that:
- Are people talking about it? What do you hear people griping about often? What causes frustration? Write these things down. Ponder them. These will start you down a path of thinking about solutions to real problems.
- How often is it an issue? Does the problem happen often enough to matter? Big problems seem important to solve, but it’s hard to create value if they only happen sporadically. The problem must happen often enough to create a sense of urgency for a solution.
- Is it a big enough pain point? A mere inconvenience is different from a day-ruining problem. On really cold days, walking in a sleeping bag sounds great but is it critical? Solving niche problems can be interesting and fun, but lack transformative impact.
- Are solutions being hacked together? Are people doing whatever they can to solve problems imperfectly? A mentor of mine, Andrew Razeghi, says, “Innovate where the duct tape is.” When problems are painful enough, temporary fixes are often hacked together as workarounds that need better solutions.
- Does it trigger emotion? Comedians are wonderfully talented at surfacing problems that we all resonate with but have never thought about. If a situation makes people laugh, cry, or get angry, pay attention. People need to care about the problem, and emotional response is a great indicator of investment.
- Is it a problem for enough people? A problem could check all the boxes above, but if it is only felt by one person, your idea likely won’t create enough value to make it worth pursuing. How many people need a solution? Depending on the price you charge to solve it, the answer could make or break your idea.
Problems that are inextricably linked to these six elements means that the solution(s) you come up with have awesome potential to create value for people. Today’s most successful entrepreneurs and corporate innovators have a keen sense for identifying and understanding important problems. Get good at that, and good ideas will follow.