Are you solving the right problem?

are you solving the right problem?

Are you solving the right problem?


As startup founders, entrepreneurs, and students, we often become so focused on developing solutions that we neglect to take a step back and carefully examine the problem we are trying to solve.

We make assumptions about customer needs or the viability of ideas without testing them first. This confirmation bias can set us down wayward paths, wasting time and money on products no one wants.

So how can we ensure we are solving the right problem?

By questioning our assumptions, listening to users, and reframing issues through fresh perspectives.

The Power of Framing

How we initially frame a problem has a profound impact on the solutions we consider and the paths we take. Framing shapes the very way we perceive issues from the outset.

For example, when dealing with disease, do we frame it as a medical problem requiring clinical treatment? Or as a public health crisis demanding preventative measures? How we frame it drives our approach. If we view diabetes as a medical issue, solutions may focus on drugs, insulin delivery devices, etc. But framing it as a public health crisis opens up solutions around nutrition education campaigns or regulations on food packaging.

Similarly, framing a productivity tool as an individual time management app highlights solutions around personal habits and task menus. But framing it as an organizational coordination challenge opens up ideas around team communication, shared workflow, and meeting management tools like the ones offered by Clockwise or Fellow.

The framing process includes how we name or label the problem, the preconceived narratives and metaphors we overlay on it, and what boundaries we artificially place around the issue’s scope.

Often we subconsciously adopt frames from the industry we’re operating in without questioning them. For example, framing ride-sharing only in terms of the taxi/limo industry could blind us to Uber’s innovative framing as a platform for personal mobility. Be aware that these starting frames can drastically limit the possible solutions you consider from the onset.

Reframing to Spark New Ideas

Fortunately, reframing techniques allow us to expand the problem scope and find unexplored solutions.

First, look for what assumptions or constraints you are unnecessarily baking into the framing. For example, food delivery services are typically framed around hot prepared meals. But what if we reframed it as providing convenient home-cooked ingredients instead? That opens up solutions like Blue Apron’s model of shipping recipe kits.

Next, approach the issue through completely new lenses. Use frames from other domains or seemingly unrelated contexts. For instance, how might the sharing economy principles of Airbnb apply to farming equipment or heavy machinery? This reframing allowed companies like Rypexx to create an Uber for tractors.

You can also zoom in or out on the frame. If you’ve been viewing it through the industry lens, zoom out to the societal environment around that domain. For example, zooming out from individual productivity tools to broader social forces could frame the issue around loneliness and lack of belonging driving anxiety/distraction. This opens up solutions building community support features.

Or zoom in deeper on one specific use case or persona experiencing acute aspects of the issue. Reframing around working parents’ overwhelming schedule logistics highlights needs for family calendar apps to coordinate rides, appointments, etc.

Lastly, exaggerate the frame by considering extremes. What if we solved the productivity challenge by eliminating all meetings? This points to solutions like read-only documents and asynchronous communication tools. Or take calorie tracking to the nth degree by imagining someone followed you around to log every bite – revealing opportunities for automated tracking with computer vision.

These thought experiments can uncover overlooked spaces for innovation. The goal of reframing is to escape cogitative blindness. Each new lens and perspective allows you to identify hidden problems and solutions. Do this continuously throughout the development process.

Why Confirmation Bias Can Lead You Astray

As entrepreneurs, we often fall in love with our ideas. This passion creates a sort of tunnel vision that narrows our perspective. We seek out information that confirms our beliefs about the problem we want to solve but ignore data that contradicts them. This tendency towards confirmation bias can cause us to charge ahead solving the wrong issues.

For example, when James Dyson invented the bagless vacuum, he assumed consumers wanted a more efficient product. However, when he tried selling his invention, he discovered people just wanted their floors to be cleaner. He tweaked the design to improve suction power rather than focus on other metrics. This pivot was key to his eventual success.

We need to catch ourselves when we only hear what we want to hear from potential users. Ask open-ended questions, listen intently to responses, and double-check your interpretations instead. Strive to prove your assumptions wrong, not right.

Talk to Customers Without Leading Questions

Too often we structure customer discovery conversations in ways that confirm what we want to believe. We ask leading questions focused on our preconceived notions of problems and solutions rather than neutrally exploring user needs.

For example, asking “Would you use a mobile app that delivers lunch to your office?” primes users to consider that specific solution. Instead, ask “What frustrations do you experience around lunch at work?” This opens up the possibility for a wider range of problems and ideas.

Approach user interviews seeking truth, not validation. Ask follow-up questions to understand motivations. Why do users act and feel that way? What outcomes do they want?

Dig for the root causes behind beliefs to discover the actual issues that need to be solved.

Zoom Out to Gain New Perspectives

Entrepreneurs often get stuck rehashing the same solutions, unable to see other options. When this happens, try zooming out to gain a new vantage point.

Think about analogous problems in other industries that have already been solved. How might those solutions translate? Uber applied the sharing economy model of Airbnb to black car services. Perhaps an agricultural solution could be relevant in pharma.

You can also literally zoom out and consider the 50,000-foot view. How might the forces in the broader political, societal, or technological landscape open up new approaches? Changing social attitudes or AI advances might attenuate certain problems over time for example.

Another tactic is to imagine you have no constraints and could develop any kind of solution. Let your mind wander freely, and write down even wild ideas. Now try to ground those big ideas into practical solutions. Going through this expand/constrain creative exercise often unlocks new possibilities.

What Jobs Are Your Customers Trying to Get Done?

Instead of assuming what customers want, analyze the functional, social, and emotional “jobs” they are trying to get done. Ask yourself:

Functional: What goal are they trying to achieve? Where do they struggle? What outcomes matter most? How can I make the job easier?

Social: How do they want to be perceived by others? What self-image are they trying to project?

Emotional: What feelings do they want to experience? What feelings do they wish to avoid?

For example, a product manager thought parents wanted an app to track their kids’ locations to keep them safe. However, interviews revealed social status concerns and fear of judgment were bigger unmet needs. Parents wanted to look like responsible caretakers to their peers and avoid being shamed for losing track of their kids. The team reframed the problem around these jobs to be done, sparking new solutions.

Figure out what’s frustrating, confusing, time-consuming or scary about current solutions. Dig into why jobs remain undone. Only then will you know the right problem to solve.

Get Feedback Early and Often

Don’t go too long down a path before showing customers iterations and prototypes. Get feedback early, even if rough, so you can quickly test hypotheses with real data.

Set up discovery sprints where you rapidly build/test solutions with users in just 1-2 weeks. You’ll gather better insights from responding to actual product suggestions versus hypotheticals.

Schedule regular check-ins as you develop MVPs. Ensure you are continuing to solve the issue users care most about. Otherwise completing the wrong product wastes resources, even if perfectly executed.

Treat development as a continuous conversation with customers, not a one-time research phase you check off.

Pivot If Needed – It’s Not Failure

The Latin root for “persist” actually means “to stubbornly continue on a wrong course despite difficulties.” Smart entrepreneurs know when persisting transforms into detrimentally pushing ahead on the wrong path.

The most successful founders use validated learnings to radically rethink products even late in development when needed. 42% of startups that scale change their initial ideas.

Pivoting demonstrates intelligence – that you are avoiding the sunk cost fallacy and confirmation bias. It is not an admission of failure but of mastery over your perceptions. Pivot early, pivot often. Develop a culture of openness to recognizing the wrong path and having the courage to change.


We often incorrectly assume we understand customer problems based on untested assumptions and confirmation bias. This leads us down the wrong path building products no one wants.

Avoid this fate by questioning your beliefs, neutrally interviewing users, reconsidering issues from new angles, understanding customer motivations, rapidly testing solutions, and courageously pivoting even late in the process if needed.


Q: If my startup team seems convinced we are solving the right problem but I have doubts, what should I do?

A: Voice your concerns transparently, even if it causes some friction. Red flag any part of the process where research methodology may have introduced bias. Ask if you can talk to some customers yourself to get another data point. Suggest quick experiments to test aspects of the hypothesis. If still not convinced, keep probing. Disagreement is healthy and ultimately leads to better outcomes.

Q: How many customer interviews are enough in early discovery?

A: There is no magic number but aim for at least 20 so you hear common themes. The key is to keep interviewing until you reach theoretical saturation – when you stop hearing major new insights. Sample different user segments too.

Q: Aren’t customers notoriously bad at imagining innovative solutions when asked what they want?

A: Yes, asking users to ideate is often less fruitful than observed immersion. But do not discount their ability to articulate struggles, goals, and needs once asked good probing questions. Observe them using current solutions and listen to feedback on prototypes too. Combine these techniques to identify the right issues worth solving.

Q: I thought startups were supposed to persevere past initial failures and work relentlessly to make their ideas succeed.

A: Sweat and persistence are still very important but should be channeled correctly. Pushing past others’ doubts through pivots makes sense when you have validated you are meeting real needs. Stubbornly persevering on an idea no one wants fails. Allow your perception of the problem – not your solution – to flexibly change based on data.

Leave a Reply