Emerging Theme at SXSW 2019: Are We Solving for the Real Problem?

“Sometimes the deepest questions are the simplest questions.”

Safi Bahcall during his SXSW 2019 presentation, LOONSHOTS: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Transform Industries

We’ve been told that product/market fit is one of the most important steps for any business, from startups to Fortune 500 companies. If the market doesn’t want your product, your business will not succeed. It’s that simple: make a product that people will buy. A corollary to this practice is: keep testing your hypothesis about your product to make an even better product than the one you started with.

One of the emerging themes from SXSW 2019 touched upon this concept of product/market fit in a new (old?) way. As entrepreneurs, it’s easy to start thinking up solutions to what we believe or perceive the problem to be. But, what if we’re not solving for the right problem? Several presenters reminded us that we need to question what the real problem is and how it’s been defined. This includes questioning our assumptions about the problem. It also includes looking at the processes for solving problems within our companies and asking if these need to be overhauled or eliminated. Why? Because, outdated thinking and processes can lead to creating products no one wants to buy. Once we start the re-evaluation process, we realize one of the problems with problems is that sometimes we haven’t defined them correctly.

In her presentation, The Future of Performance Apparel, Dr. Chantelle D. Murnaghan, an innovation manager with Lululemon, talked about rethinking athletic apparel. Dr. Murnaghan tells us that we can use the body’s existing technologies (i.e., 20+ senses) and emerging technologies to create products that people will want. However, before we can design a new piece of clothing (i.e., sports bra), we must first understand the real problem. She walks us through the original problem that sports bras were trying to solve and surprises us by saying she and her team questioned the problem. They ran some experiments to test the new hypothesis, gathered data, and illustrated sports bras have been designed for the wrong problem. She and her team only realized this by questioning the original problem, or the original hypothesis in this case. We can use this design approach for any problem that exists to verify its validity and subsequent solutions.

In a featured session, Tinker Hatfield with Scott Dadich, Tinker talks about how he thought differently about athletic shoe problem. He intentionally did follow Nike’s design brief protocol because it was outdated and wasn’t helping the company produce remarkable products. He found inspiration in the Centre Pompidou, a museum in Paris that was causing an uproar because it exposed mechanical, plumbing, and electrical elements on the building exterior to make room for more art on the interior. Tinker realized that to create a remarkable product, he needed to rethink design elements of a traditional athletic shoe and the problem he wanted to solve. His new approach allowed him to create the now famous Nike Air sneaker. The shoe he designed exposed some of its inner workings and helped people believe that they could achieve their athletic pursuits with them. Instead of designing an athletic shoe like everyone else, he questioned the problem and as a result helped Nike build a different and remarkable brand.

In his talk, The Next Killer Application on the Blockchain, Dr. Julian Hosp also reminds us to question the problem. He put his talk in terms of blockchain but it’s applicable to any technology, really. We need to understand that while blockchain [insert emerging technology A] is a solution, it’s not a solution for all problems. Further, if we do not identify the correct problem, we may believe a technology like blockchain or emerging technology A is the right one to solve it. One way to check the hypothesis is to ask the following: Is the problem is worth being solved on the blockchain or emerging technology A? Is this problem better solved with blockchain or another technology altogether? Questions like these can help us keep a pulse on whether we’re solving for an actual problem.

Each of these presenters reminds us that we need to question the hypothesis, assumptions, and any long held beliefs to verify problem validity. When we don’t know the real problem, there’s a 100% chance that we won’t create a remarkable solution. And, solving for the wrong problem means that no amount of marketing will save the company. Blippar, an AR startup that once claimed a $1.5B valuation that no longer exists, is one example (out of countless many).

It’s time for us to think about the simple question: are we solving for the real problem? It’s time for us to re-evaluate the real problem. It’s time for us to work in a space that allows us to see real problems so we can create innovative solutions. When we spend our time innovating in a new direction, the right one, we build something that no one else is building (or even considering). Once we do this, we can develop better solutions and connect with humanity in ways we didn’t think possible.