By Eric Gombrich
“If you build it, he will come” is the famous line from the 1989 film “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner as farmer Ray Kinsella, and James Earl Jones as Terence Mann, both dreamers of days gone by with a passion for baseball. The premise of the statement is that if Ray plows-under his corn and replaces it with a true-to-scale major league baseball field, the ghost of his father – and many other historical baseball figures – will come to play ball there, and all will be right in the world. Perhaps a bit sappy for some of you, but for a sentimental sports guy like me, a classic. If you haven’t seen it in the more than 25 years since it was released, not sure you ever will. But I won’t give the ending away, just in case.
It’s fascinating to me how many innovators and entrepreneurs operate under this passionate sentiment; if they build it, the customers will come. But when they do build it, they find their field remains empty. After more than 30 years of participating in innovating in healthcare, I believe the reasons for this can be collapsed into one common theme; the customer’s problem wasn’t really understood by the innovator / entrepreneur.
While it seems simple, really understanding the customer’s problem requires a certain temperament that in many cases may not be well-aligned with the passionate problem-solver. A problem-solver, after all, wants to do just that; solve the problem. They want to offer a solution as quickly and efficiently as possible. And this haste to solve the problem often-times runs at odds with what is necessary to really understand the problem.
A simple but proven tool to set you on the right path is the 5-Why’s methodology, credited to Sakichi Toyoda of the Toyota Motors Corporation as part of its manufacturing methodology. This is one of the principal frameworks that gave rise to the Japanese automotive industry. In the methodology, followers are encouraged to ask “why?” not less than 5 times to try to identify the root cause of an issue. It might go something like this:
What’s the problem? I’m hungry!
Why? I haven’t eaten lately.
Why? I haven’t had time.
Why? I’ve been too busy with work.
Why? Because I have a deadline.
Why? Because I’m the only one here to finish the job!
As you might see, if our Interviewer stopped with “what’s the problem?” the solution is simple; give our Interviewee some food. But that would only temporarily solve the effect of the real problem, which appears to be a staffing issue. However, if our Interviewee continued on with this beyond the initial 5 whys, she would likely uncover some economic barrier that is impeding the quality and volume of work the business produces. That’s not something resolved with a Snickers bar!
It’s my belief that virtually all problems are rooted in an economic cause. And by economics, I don’t just mean money, but a balance of resources with demand. When you get to that point in exploring the real problem, you are at the place where truly valuable solutions are born.
I’ve seen some really interesting breakdowns in the problem identification process resulting in squandered resources that are equivalent to a mid-size country in terms of both cash and human capital. Unfortunately, they aren’t isolated and are often times repeated.
One of the most-annoying patterns I‘ve seen involves an entrepreneur or innovator (let’s call him Willy Loman) talking to someone (let’s call them Bob), when Bob says “Man, I wish I had an [fill in the blank].” Willy – ever seeking new opportunities – leans in to learn more; “Really, what would you do with it? How much would you pay? How many of your friends or colleagues do you think would want it also?” and on the questioning goes trying to quickly assess the magnitude of the opportunity. Not surprisingly, the results are predictable; the market is huge.
So off Willy goes to build his fortune. Willy builds a solution, funded out of his own pocket and maybe with some grants he got from the government. Bob buys it, albeit at a discount because he’s the ‘beta’ site. Then Bob tells a few friends, and they buy it too. Willy is all excited, and begins raising additional capital to expand the business. Investors, seeing the trend, enthusiastically jump in. And Willy continues to see the business grow… for a while. Then he goes to expand into new markets, perhaps beyond the city, state, province, etc. in which Bob lives, and he runs into a wall; he realizes that either what he built was so unique that it only applies in the micro-market in which Bob works, or there are already many competitors in the market, and he’s late to the industry.
Where did Willy go wrong? It was in his zeal to help Bob find a solution instead of understanding Bob’s real problem. What if instead of focusing his questions on the solution and its potential, Willy focused on the problem? Imagine the conversation taking this path: “Really? Why don’t you already have an [fill in the blank}, Bob?” Bob: “Because they aren’t available here?” Willy: “Why aren’t they available here?” and at this point, the information would have been really telling to Willy. Potential responses I’ve seen include:
- The regulatory environment makes it difficult to build and maintain the solution
- The costs of building the solution relative to the market size are too high to warrant the investment (Leading to the price being too high for Bob to afford
- Those building the solutions just haven’t brought them into ‘Bob’s market’ yet
Any of these responses would have caused Willy to think twice about the real potential for the business. Willy’s challenge is not in his ability to build a solution; it is in his ability to understand the real problem.
This is made even more challenging by the sheer fact of how complex healthcare as a ‘system’ truly is. A seemingly obvious solution to one problem may create problems or challenges elsewhere, and thus be met with significant resistance to adoption. Often times, this is why there is no solution to the surface problem already. It isn’t because other innovators or entrepreneurs can’t solve the surface problem; it’s because they can’t find a path to solve the root problem.
I’m also not suggesting that there should only ever be 1 solution available. Some pretty successful business have been built over the millennia solving a problem differently than others. This is the premise of product choice, and there is value in that. But as an entrepreneur, if you purposely choose to ‘build a better mousetrap,’ again, your success will be directly tied to your ability to satisfy an underlying problem with the current mouse-trap. And simply asking Bob what he doesn’t like about his present mousetrap may not provide the information you need. Do you really think Bob’s current mousetrap supplier isn’t aware what Bob might like changed? Have you asked yourself why they haven’t satisfied Bob’s needs? There may be a legitimate reason they’ve purposefully opted not to make that change. And rushing in to do so may momentarily satisfy Bob, but it may have other reciprocal impacts that are negative.
I’m not identifying anything a great Product Manager or Marketing expert doesn’t already know. But I am suggesting that in the new digital economy where anyone with a computer and some programming skills can create an ‘App,’ the initial exuberance in seeing a problem they can solve should be tempered with a series of humble questions, like “Why hasn’t someone else solved this problem already?” Chances are, there are some pretty good reasons. That’s not to belie how great your problem-solving skills are. But it is to suggest that while I’m not necessarily amongst them, I’m confident there are other great problem solvers out there also.
Have you seen solutions built, but no one has come? Do you or someone you know remember seeing a solution to a surface problem and thinking “they just don’t get it?” in deference to the real problem at the foundation?