Solving problem-finding

September 2018 · 2 minute read

Methodologies for problem-solving are fairly well established. The scientific method is perhaps the best problem-solving template we have. However, finding good problems to solve is a different skill altogether, one that we don't teach.

Problem-finding is about looking for an area that you can invest your problem-solving skills into. It's the intersection between problems worth solving, and problems you will be adept at solving.

Problem-finding is harder than problem-solving because there is no established methodology around it. It's a hole in our educational system because it leads to people dedicating valuable years of their lives to problems that aren't particularly important.

Common wisdom encourages us to solve the problems we see in our immediate surroundings — in writing it's distilled as "write what you know", but it can be generalized as "do what you know".

Without deep experience in a specific field, this approach rarely yields good problems to solve, usually for one or both of these reasons:

  1. The problem is very personal, it doesn't help very many people
  2. The gains to be made are small

Of course there are many big problems in the world that are well-documented.

What I've found is that most problems that are worth solving aren't immediately obvious, even if they turn out to be big problems. Often it's because everyone dealing with the problem has given up on solving it, or they've gotten so used to the problem that they don't notice it anymore.

Every complex system has problems. Most industries are complex and ripe for problem-finding. The challenge is knowing enough about the domain, yet retaining the beginner's mind necessary to actually see the problem.

If you are coming out of school, or embarking on an entrepreneurial path, it really helps to put in a few years in an industry. Anything you are interested in will do. Try to understand it from the inside out, and study the inefficiencies. Do the work yourself, feel the pain. Stay curious, and keep branching out until you can see the whole picture.

The problems you will be solving in your work are probably not the important ones to solve. The real problem will be more meta, it will be that you have to spend time solving these smaller problems in the first place.

The problem you should solve is the biggest problem you are capable of solving. Perhaps that is why problem finding is such a hard problem in itself — someone needs to care about the problem before it can be found.