30 Questions to Help You Identify and State a Clear Problem Statement

Understanding your problem is critical to solving it.  No matter how awesome your idea may seem, if it does not solve a problem, it will struggle to become financially viable.

Problem = Market Opportunity.

To transform any idea from concept to creation, there needs to be a market.  One of the biggest challenges I have found in working with thousands of aspiring and experienced entrepreneurs has been correctly and clearly stating a problem and making sure it is the correct problem.

Ideas are easy to come by.  If we sat a group of 5 people down and gave them 10 minutes to write ideas down, we would easily have a list of at least 50+ ideas!  Ideas are truly, as the saying goes, a dime a dozen.  Ideas are cheap.  Solving validated problems and executing those solutions is what ultimately matters.

111616-Youth Summit-131_FThe problem and solution dilemma that I often encounter at events like Startup Weekend is that people come in excited about an idea; what is not always so clear is what problem it solves.  The good news is that you already know the problem, the bad news is that you skipped over it so quickly, you didn’t even notice it.  So, which came first?  It was definitely the problem.  Even though ideas (i.e. insights) often seem to spark out of nowhere, they actually come from a complex and seemingly magical interaction and culmination of problem awareness, solutions for other problems, and your personal knowledge bank.  POOF!  All of a sudden, you have an idea.  The underlying processes happen so quickly and subconsciously, that you believe the idea just came to you.

At this point, your mission is to figure out what problem your idea solves.  This poses a challenge to many, but it is critical you understand your problem clearly before you move on, or else you risk possibly solving the wrong problem.  Further more, if your problem is too broadly defined, you may pursue a solution so complex that your customer will struggle to understand it.

Below are 30 questions/challenges I pose to people to help them identify the problem to their solution/idea.  Completing these questions will help you understand the following:

  • The job/task that is affected by the problem
  • The person(s) or group(s) affected by the problem, directly or indirectly
  • The difference between your customer and user, if one exists
  • The problem; when and how it manifests itself to each group
  • What the problem costs the user and/or the customer
  • The scope of the problem (market size)

Complete the 30 questions below in order to clearly understand your problem and market opportunity. Continue reading

What is a Startup?

The term “startup” is sometimes used too loosely and liberally.  Let’s consider the definitions of two respected authorities in the startup world.

startup-owners-manualAccording to Steve Blank, serial-entrepreneur, Stanford University professor, and father of the Customer Development methodology, “a startup is a temporary organization used to search for a repeatable and scalable model.

According to Eric Ries, entrepreneur, blogger, and author of The Lean Startup, “a startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

lean-startupWith respect to the journey any organization takes from founding to going concern, the term startup refers to the beginning of a process or journey.  Steve Blank’s use of the word “temporary” supports the concept of startup as the first step along a journey.  Once an organization concludes the search for a repeatable and scalable model, it can enter subsequent stages of maturity.

In this stage of the company life cycle, an organization is nothing more than an indefinite series of experiments to find and deliver an effective, repeatable, and scalable solution.  Founders are no different than scientists who:

  • start with hypotheses about problem and solution,
  • design experiments to test the various hypotheses,
  • measure results,
  • gather insights and learn from the results,
  • amend the hypotheses to reflect the insights learned,
  • and repeat this process

The more experiments a startup can conclude in a given period of time; the sooner it will arrive at effective solutions that can be scaled to ever growing audiences.  Given that scientists need multiple attempts at getting an experiment right, all of the experiments leading up to the ones that prove to be successful are considered failures.  Thus, we get the phrase, “fail fast, fail often” because if startups do this, they will arrive at success sooner rather than later.  In a world with limited financial runways, it is imperative startups experience a great deal of failure as soon as possible.

According to this definition, is your organization in the startup phase?

Startup Weekend Delivered a Magical Weekend in the Magic City

Florida International University was the site of some incredible magic as Startup Weekend EDU saw one of its most diverse group of people come together to learn and practice critical entrepreneurship skills in order to take ideas from concept to creation in less than 54 hours!  It could not be more fitting that Miami, Florida also known as the Magic City was home to a magical experience for a diverse group of aspiring entrepreneurs that included: students from elementary, middle, and high school; university students; university professors; K-12 teachers; parents; ex-convicts; developers; entrepreneurs; and local professionals.  The youngest participants at this event were 8 years old and they both presented with their respective teams!  

SWmiami2Startup Weekend EDU is a 2.5 day event whereby educators, developers, designers, and entrepreneurs come together to pitch ideas to solve problems in education and form teams around the selected ideas.  Teams then spend the weekend taking these ideas from concept to creation, culminating into a final presentation to a panel of all-star judges from the community.  Judges assess pitches based on clearly defined problem statement, prototype design, validation of problem and prototype, and finally, the business model. This theme was critical for a region that is home to some of the largest school districts going through difficult challenges.  

Having facilitated over 16 events around the country, I thought I had seen it all.  However, nothing could have prepared me for this incredibly diverse group of people and all of the challenges and possibilities that would manifest over the weekend.  To be honest, I was concerned about whether the event could be a success and if everyone would figure out how to work well together quickly enough to deliver a final presentation by Sunday evening to a panel of all-star judges from the Miami community. Continue reading

Could There be a Silver Bullet to Learning Math?

A couple of weeks ago someone asked me to explain the most challenging aspect of teaching math to students of any age.  She said she is not a math person and as a result always struggled with it.  Perhaps she wanted to know what I find most difficult about teaching students that might have been like her.  For years, I have been asked variations of this question.  “How do you do it?”  “What do you do with students that are just not meant to do math?”  “Why do you do it?”  “Is there a secret for teaching math?”  The list goes on and on.  If you are a math teacher, surely you have heard dozens of versions of the same inquiry.

I believe every person is meant to be a math person.  In fact, I believe this so wholeheartedly that I look forward to working with the students that people believe are the most difficult to teach math to.  I look forward to the cases where the uphill climb is the steepest.

It was in circumstances like this where I began to discover something very interesting.  I discovered that all people are wired to reason and use logic every single day of their lives.  People are constantly running complex algorithms in their mind to make decisions and conclusions in situations with friends, dealings with family, scenarios in sports, and many more challenging and high pressure contexts.  Essentially, people are practicing and getting tested in the fundamental skills of math every single day.

Lack of reasoning and logic ability are not the problem.  The problem is how do we leverage math, which is a simplified version of the complex algorithms we face on a daily basis, in order to continue to build our ability to evaluate, analyze, and make complex decisions?  And related to that, how do we take our existing reasoning and logic ability and apply it to learning math successfully? Continue reading

What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Teacher?

Picture the following scenario…

Students walk in for 8th grade math class on Monday morning at 10am.  They are scheduled to have a test on linear functions that day.  There’s a camera in the front of the classroom that scans the room and notices Linda and Emma are not in class at the start time.  It scans again 5 and 10 minutes later and still no sign of Linda and Emma.

This camera isn’t just any camera, it is powered by IBM’s Watson or another artificial intelligence system and it is connected to the teacher’s calendar, the grade-level calendar, and the school calendar.  It immediately knows by cross-referencing all calendars that there was a test scheduled for that day and that Linda and Emma will need to schedule a make-up test.  Since the AI is also connected to Linda and Emma’s class and extra-curricular activity calendars and cross references their availability with the teacher’s availability, it knows that Tuesday between 2-3pm and Wednesday between 3-4pm are the optimal times for a make up test.  Taking it another step further, it also looks into the room schedules and knows which rooms are available during those two time slots.  Next, the AI sends out emails to the teacher, Emma, and Linda to offer the two optimal make-up test time slots in a format where all the students have to do is click on a link or button to select one of the two time slots.  This action automatically creates calendar entries in all parties involved, books the room, and sends out a reminder 1 day, 12 hours, 1 hour, and 15 minutes before the scheduled make-up test. Continue reading

What if IBM’s Watson Was Your Co-Founder?

What if artificial intelligence partnered with entrepreneurs, to validate ideas, hypotheses, and assumptions by conducting a study of all of the information in the world on those topics? That is, crawl the Internet and all relevant databases for every related attempt, study, write-up, article, interview, company, etc. and draw insights and conclusions to a high level of statistical significance.

Artificial IntelligenceConsider that IBM’s Watson Discovery Advisor “builds on Watson’s turbocharged text-mining and identification technology…In its current version, Discovery Advisor is tuned for science, specifically the life sciences and medicine. Beyond mining text, the discovery tool not only finds connections among words but also links related concepts together to generate hypotheses. What might be the right place to look? What path of scientific inquiry is most likely to yield new knowledge?”

What if the Watson Discovery Advisor, or a similar solution, could help entrepreneurs significantly narrow down, to a high level of confidence, the hypotheses, ideas, and assumptions that should be validated further. Essentially, AI would conduct the type of research a human could not by finding every known piece of information on it and indicating which ones deserve further human-led pursuit. This is one example of how humans and AI can work together, as partners, to produce value that could not have existed before. According to a New York Times blog article, John Gordon, VP for strategy and commercialization of Watson, “is confident that Watson can scale up in “co-creation projects with clients that can transform an industry.”

The human must play a critical role in this endeavor by providing the initial hypotheses, that is, knowing what he or she wants, and stating it in a clear manner so that AI can perform the research on already existing content. AI would then return, ranked by measures of confidence, the ideas worth pursuing further thus saving the entrepreneur significant time and money. Furthermore, perhaps AI can even propose follow-up hypotheses and assumptions for additional testing based on what it learned in its initial research.

According to the “Our Cognitive Future” report by IBM, Baylor University leveraged IBM’s Watson to build a system that is “trained to ‘think’ like a human research expert by unlocking insights, visualizing possibilities, and validating theories at much greater speeds…The solution analyzed 70,000 scientific articles on p53 [cancer-related protein] to predict proteins that turn on or off p53’s activity – a feat that would have taken researches years to accomplish without cognitive capabilities.”

What if we designed a similar cognitive “co-founder” for entrepreneurs?

The Problem with the Silver Bullet in Education

What is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem you are trying to solve is complicated, such as education, there is no such thing as a silver bullet. Complicated problems often have multiple variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. When we look for a silver bullet, we run the risk of investing significant sums of money in an unrealistic solution that will never deliver the expected returns.

Solving complex problems requires having an underlying purpose, strategy, and plan before enlisting the use of expensive and comprehensive tools

In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) committed over $1 billion for a silver bullet – to put aniPads in EDU iPad in the hands of each and every student in the district. Long story short, the initial roll-out proved to be a major failure and not because the devices lacked in performance. One of the key problems was that teachers only received a few days of training on the devices. Perhaps even more critical is the fact that, according to a published report by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.”

This is, unfortunately, an incredibly expensive case for the importance of having underlying purpose, strategy, and plan before enlisting the use of pricey and comprehensive tools. According to Michael Horn, executive director of the education program at the Clayton Christensen Institute, “Districts are starting with the technology [tool] and not asking themselves: ‘What problem are we trying to solve, and what’s the instructional model we need to solve it?’ and then finding the technology [tool] in service of that.”

Until education identifies a problem and/or opportunity that requires technology as a means [tool] to address it, any implementation or mandated use of these tools and/or apps will be underutilized and run the serious risk of creating more problems than it even stood the chance to solve. In the case of the LAUSD, teachers reported significant levels of frustration, the iPads required more bandwidth than was readily available, and last by not least, it cost the district a significant amount of money (total proposed expenditure was estimated to be $1.3 billion when the entire project was complete).

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your school that you need to address – pick 1!
  • If you do not already have a model for addressing your problem/opportunity, design one that you and your team have the capacity and ability to execute
  • If you are struggling to identify or design a strategy, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth – talk to people impacted by problem/opportunity, talk to potential users of solution, look for existing research
  • With a strategy/approach set, Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you execute – what are others doing in your field and consider what are others outside of your field are doing with similar problems
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and people; be open to switching tools when necessary – problems and opportunities evolve and so will your needs

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.

The Problem with the Silver Bullet

silver bulletWhat is a silver bullet? According to Google, it is “a simple and seemingly magical solution to a complicated problem.”

The problem is that when the problem is complicated, as the definition states, it is likely to have a multitude of variables that behave in many different ways and at times, unpredictably. If you think of all of these moving parts as a moving target, the bullet isn’t really the solution, but rather a tool, and it is the shooter who becomes most important. What this suggests is that we need to stop looking for magical solutions and instead focus on developing and motivating skilled, talented, and creative professionals to solve some of our most difficult problems.

Nevertheless, we look for silver bullets. We are intrigued by and hopeful that we will be able to find a one-size-fits-all solution that can address an entire organization or industry’s woes. We hope that somewhere out there, there is a recipe and/or a state-of-the-art tool that solves a complicated problem for us so easily that even a caveman can do it. We want to believe that we could just write a big check and purchase the proverbial silver bullet. This isn’t a bad dream…for the maker of the silver bullet, this stands to be a profitable product, and for the buyer, it’s a guaranteed way to become a hero. It seems that everyone wins.

The problem, as I stated before, is that it just isn’t that simple. Complicated problems are like moving targets. At best, there are several regular bullets (i.e. tools, recipes, etc.) and the shooter or the professional is the most important part of the solution. If the silver bullet were real, we would not need professionals in our organizations. The mere talk of a silver bullet undermines our skilled, talented, and creative professionals as it reduces them to robots blindly following an algorithm. This attitude and resulting culture will have a significant negative impact on motivation, at all levels of your organizations. Furthermore, it destroys innovation and ingenuity because the responsibility of solving problems is left to those who can purchase the silver bullets, so what is the use of hypothesizing, testing, and building new solutions.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE), believed everyone all the way down to the assembly line was responsible for solving problems at GE. In fact, he believed the people on the assembly line were better positioned to solve problems than the people who managed them. He would often walk the assembly lines asking people directly what they thought could be done better. As simple as it may seem, asking the question, “what do you think?” cultivated a strong culture of innovation by drawing solutions from all people in the organization. This question also motivated his people by empowering them to contribute to the greater mission of GE. People who understand how and feel that their work contributes to the overall company are more engaged, satisfied, and loyal. The result for Jack Welch was one of the largest, most successful, and innovative companies of all time, whose stock value rose 4,000% during his 20 year tenure. Jack Welch did not believe in silver bullets, he believed in people.

Empower your people to solve problems for your organization instead of shopping around for a silver bullet. Your people will be the ones to best positioned to decide what the best tools are for solving complicated problems and how and when to apply them. Create a culture of innovation where everyone is a part of the solution.

The Problem with Technology and How to Fix It

At some point, many of us have purchased a cool new gadget or downloaded an awesome new app that is supposed to enhance our productivity, help us achieve some awesome goal, or help us do something we’ve never done before.

Perhaps we and/or our organization purchased an expensive set of golf clubs, the priciest software (i.e. SaaS) solution, or the best audio/video editing software in the market.

State of the Art TecThe problem is that state-of-the-art tools don’t do much to help people unless they already possess the underlying skills and understanding to make the greatest use of it. Unfortunately, due to some pretty incredible marketing, we end up convincing ourselves we need the absolute best tools in order to be successful. What often ends up happening is we get overwhelmed by the technology, distracted, and end up using less than 20% of its capability. This leads to a waste of money and/or failing to achieve a goal.

A tool is only useful if you have the understanding and underlying know-how to use it adequately.  Furthermore, you have to have a purpose first, then a strategy/model/plan to achieve your goal, and finally can you then begin to consider the appropriate tools to employ. Then and only then do tools take on a clear meaning, become easier to learn, and stand the chance of delivering results.

This problem is evident in education where districts prematurely commit to major investments in technology and in corporations that purchase or acquire new processes or tools without a clear problem to solve. Organizations end up training people on the tools or integrating the processes first and then try to find places to use it, thus putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Problems and opportunities must drive our need for tools. Tools are developed in response to and in order to solve problems. Purchasing a tool without a problem to solve or an opportunity to pursue is like buying a hammer and not having a nail to hit.

Consider these steps next time you are faced with this dilemma.

  • Identify the problems and opportunities in your organization that you intend to address.
  • Ensure you have or design a model/strategy/plan for solving the problem or addressing the opportunity.
  • If you don’t have a model/strategy/plan, then learn more about your problem or opportunity and understand it in depth.
  • Identify and evaluate the tools available to help you reach your goal.
  • Finally, select and employ the tools that best fit/align with your particular plan and be open to switching tools when necessary.

In the case of opportunities, there may be a great deal of learning to do before tools are even considered. For instance, education has yet to understand how technology truly enhances learning outcomes. According to a report published by the OECD, “there is little solid evidence that greater computer use among students leads to better scores in mathematics and reading.” Before education can even make effective use of education technology, it will need to identify the opportunities and goals it wants to pursue.

Lastly, do keep in mind that most tech tools today come and go rather quickly, so while you are learning about your problem or opportunity and designing a plan, new and better tools may emerge that you will be better positioned to enjoy.

Change Your Life, Do One Thing Differently Today

DecisionsLast night, I had three intriguing firsts. One occurred because I chose to turn left instead of right. Another occurred because I chose to go upstairs instead of downstairs. A third occurred because I trusted someone’s suggestion and said yes. Each of these decisions led to outcomes that were significantly more valuable than the cost of the decision itself. The decision was not complicated at all, it was nothing more than changing or tweaking one thing and trusting in one person’s suggestion without question. The return on this investment however was quite spectacular given how minimal the investment was to begin with.

This made me think, how close are we every day to significant returns if we do even ONE thing differently?

If we choose to praise instead of criticize?

If we smile at one stranger instead of walking right passed?

If we order a tall drink instead of a grande?

If we take the stairs instead of the escalator?

If we text him or her instead of waiting for him or her to text us?

If we call instead of text someone?

If we visit instead of call someone?

If we listen instead of speak?

If we motivate instead of manipulate?

If we inspire instead of intimidate?

If we coach instead of criticize?

If we stop to compliment one service provider (i.e. waiter, barista, doorman, etc.)?

If we choose to get off the subway one stop early?

If we choose to simply trust one person on one thing today?

If we apologize for one mistake we make today?

If we simply go left instead of right today?

Small tweaks, small changes, minor decisions, left instead of right, up instead of down. What if we invested this small change once a day? What about twice a day? What would the returns be like? What if changed that typical linear path we live each and every day, the same things, the same outcomes, the same pain, the same problems, the same issues, and the same happiness. What if it took one change to modify that linear path for the better? Might we end up on a new path? Might we create an alternate future? Might our problems improve? Might our happiness improve?

There’s only one way to find out. Do one thing differently today. Be intentional about it.