What is your problem?

As soon as you understand what the primary jobs are that your customers are trying to do, it is possible to start imagining completely novel solutions, says Suvi Nenonen.

We human beings don’t really like problems. “What’s your problem?” is very seldom a prelude to a satisfying conversation. Experiencing a problem – whether personal or business – first-hand is pleasant only for those with masochistic tendencies. 

Thus, it is not unsurprising that whenever we encounter a problem our brain immediately starts looking for a solution. Unfortunately, this deeply ingrained solution-orientation is, in fact, a problem when looking for innovations and winning strategies.  

The problem with solution-orientation is that we don’t spend enough time framing the question to be answered. For example, let’s assume that your office building doesn’t have enough elevators, and thus people find themselves spending a lot of time waiting.

The most common suggestion to this problem is to install more elevators. However, it is possible to look at the immediate problem from another perspective. What if the problem is not waiting in itself, but the fact that waiting is boring? 

Installing screens displaying CNN or even plain mirrors could lessen the pain of waiting with a fraction of a cost of retrofitting a new elevator. Such reframing of problems is usually very powerful – but it doesn’t come naturally. New concepts and techniques are needed. 


Innovation from understanding customers’ problems

When looking for radical innovations, ‘jobs-to-be-done’ is a particularly powerful concept in reframing the problem to be solved. Too often innovation processes take the core product or service for granted, and the innovation team focuses all its creative efforts in making this product or service better. How to make the banking app more intuitive? How to design a more energy-efficient engine?

Jobs-to-be-done approach decentres the product and focuses on the customer. Customers don’t buy products for the products’ sake. They buy the products to fulfil a specific job. The banking app may be used to keep on top of your finances so that you don’t overspend. 

As soon as you understand what the primary jobs are that your customers are trying to do, it is possible to start imagining completely novel solutions. Perhaps your customers don’t want to have a more energy-efficient car. They may be looking for ways to make their transportation greener or cheaper – and thus eager to hear about car-sharing system. Cue BMW’s ReachNow service.


Defining the problem

Reframing the problem is equally effective when crafting business strategies. For some peculiar reason, most strategies mistake objectives for strategic action. 

Unfortunately, merely stating that you want to increase your market share / profits / share price / (insert your favourite performance metric) takes you nowhere closer to achieving this objective in practice. 

Thus, simple yet powerful strategic reframing occurs when you shift your focus from objectives to actions. Which actions could deliver the desired objectives? Are all these actions realistic? What about their relative effectiveness? Are there some interdependencies between the identified actions? 

One of my former clients was once given a highly stretched target of doubling their bottom line in a highly competitive and commoditised context.

 After the initial shock, the executive team was able work together to create an almost exhaustive array of possible strategic actions. In the end, it became clear that gaining an exclusive licencing agreement from a global brand powerhouse would be the winning strategy. 

This licensing agreement brought in more volume, which in turn enabled a double-whammy: stronger position to negotiate prices with retailers, and lower per unit production costs. This particular executive team was able to deliver their stretched target, but only because there were willing to put in the requisite hours to truly reframe their strategic dilemma.   M

For more information about jobs-to-be-done, please see the works by the Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen.


Associate Professor Suvi Nenonen works at the University of Auckland Business School’s Graduate School of Management and teaches in the MBA programmes. Her research focuses on business model innovation and market innovation.

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