3x3 Rubik's cube toy

What Problem do You Solve?

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I’d like you to set aside about ten minutes to read this article, because I’ve got a little exercise for you. In fact, if you’re back in an office, this is something you can do both there and at home—it’ll be a great contrast. So if you can’t spare the minutes right now, set this aside for now, and come back when you can give it a bit of time.

Ready?

Get a piece of paper, or even a note-taking app on your phone, and look around you. Jot down the first dozen or so physical objects you see. Everything counts: furniture, windows, whatever. Just write down everything your eye falls on, spending no more than a minute doing so.

Got it? Good. Here’s the exercise:

For each thing, write down the problem it solves.

Sometimes this’ll be obvious and straightforward. Other times, you may have to tweak your thinking a bit. For example, does your Xbox or Playstation “solve a problem?” Sure: they help alleviate boredom, which is what your television, Blu-Ray player, and other entertainment devices help solve as well.

Once you’ve listed the problem everything solves, walk around your home (or office, or home office) and repeat the exercise in your head for the things you see, both big and small. Tables. Glassware. Picture frames. Try to make this a reflex: as soon as you see a thing, your brain is succinctly describing the problem it solves.

Now for the real question: What problem do you solve?

Ask this question purely in the context of your job, and in the larger context of your career. What problem would exist if you weren’t around? If your employer is a customer of yours—and they are—what service do they pay you, as a vendor, to take off their hands?

What problem do you solve?

This is an existential question for businesses of all sizes. Customers pay money to have something solved for them, whether it’s the provisioning of food or gas, the installation of plumbing, the delivery of boredom-alleviating entertainment, or whatever else. People pay for solutions. Businesses that cannot clearly express what the solve for are businesses in trouble: if you don’t know the problem you solve, then you’re likely to do a poor job of solving it, which means you’re unlikely to retain as many customers as you might want.

So what problem do you solve?

Make a concise statement: I solve the problem of XYZ. Don’t phrase this like, “I maintain the server infrastructure;” that’s a job description, not a solution statement. Again, if you were gone, what problem would exist? I solve the problem of XYZ.

If “XYZ” seems trivial when phrased that way… then you’ve some career-examining to do! So let’s assume that your “XYZ” is a meaningful business problem that is well and truly worth the money it takes to have you solve it.

Next: How can you be better at solving that problem?

You, not your employer. This isn’t, “I could work faster if my company gave me (whatever).” See, that’s the companysolving the problem, which is actually what they pay you to do. So how could you be better—faster, more efficient, more effective, more reliable, etc—at solving that problem? Be honest—brutally so, if need be—in crafting your answers.

Finally: keep in mind that almost all businesses have to be prepared to solve whatever problem they solve, for a variety of customers. Businesses invest in improving their problem-solving because it’s how they win new business and grow. As individuals, we tend to only have one employer, and so we often engage in two bad behaviors.

One, we get super-customized about solving our employer’s problems, and we lose sight of the larger, more widespread problem that other companies might be experiencing. This isn’t bad, as it makes us an excellent “solution vendor” for the company paying our fees, but it isn’t great, as it starts to dial us into a single, super-specialized solution set that’s not useful elsewhere. One way you can “be better at solving that problem” is to allow yourself to “go deep” for your current employer’s problem set, but also force yourself to “stay broad” to maintain market relevancy.

Two, we forget that we’re just a vendor. Oh, the culture of our company may be appealing, we may love our coworkers, and so on, but at the end of the day, we’re a vendor, providing a solution to a problem. Even while we’re enjoying the office holiday party or availing ourselves of our employee benefits, we need to keep in mind that those are simply part of what we’re paid to solve the problem we solve. The minute we’re no longer the most effective way to solve the problem, our employer—our customer—may well go elsewhere.

Let me expand on that last example a bit.

In the US, Wal-Mart is one of the largest (if not the largest) brick-and-mortar retailers in the country. For a long, long time they were the most efficient way for customers to solve a specific set of problems. But then Amazon came along, and suddenly Wal-Mart was no longer the most efficient solution to the problem. Many, many customers “fired” Wal-Mart, and “hired” Amazon. There was no malice in it: people who pay money for things want the most value and efficiency they can possibly wrangle.

Wal-Mart could have—arguably, should have—seen it coming and adapted faster. As-is, they’ve invested heavily in making themselves a better solution to the problem that both they and Amazon seek to solve. Wal-Mart has remained at least somewhat competitive, and they’re still in business as a result.

Now pretend you’re Wal-Mart, and your employer is a retail customer.

Wal-Mart never asked their customers to pay for Wal-Mart’s investments in improvements, right? Wal-Mart had to invest on their own in order to retain their customers. The same can be said of any employee: it isn’t necessarily your employer’s task to help you be the best solution to the problem you solve… it’s yours.

I’m not talking about just tech skills. Communications… business acumen… teamwork… leadership… those are all things that likely make you a better solution to the problem you solve, and it’s on you to continually evolve those things before “Amazon” comes along and does it better than you. It’s why I feel “daily learning” is so important: it trains your brain to be a faster, more agile learner (see my tweets tagged #DailyLearning or this article if you’d like some help in this area; the tweets hit every morning US Pacific time).

So:

What problem do you solve?

How could you solve it better?

What resources do you need to be a better solution… and how can I, and your fellow Ampere Club members, help you obtain those resources?

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