The Problem With Problems

by Ryan Larcom

We have a problem with problems.

We are taught to run to solutioning, not to embrace the ambiguity of the unknown. Yet when we rush to a place of comfort and knowns, we make decisions from our personal, limited experience rather than through a diversity of others’ experiences, which result in ill-conceived products and experiences.

The Design world has done a lot to popularize methods for addressing the “fuzzy front-end” of problem-framing, but in the vast majority of organizations, these methods are still ill-understood or poorly utilized. At worst, the beneficial processes of Design Research are often reduced to just more time spent thinking. We have begun to slow down when facing problems — ever heard the phrase “We need to go slow to go fast”? — but we’re still not spending that time wisely.

We continue to grasp for surety in the midst of ambiguity by thinking problems to death, attempting to amass “near-perfect” data before going “all-in” on a desired solution. The problem is that overthinking is just as bad as underthinking:

  1. Overthinking slows decision-making. When making a decision, ask yourself: Is the opportunity cost of spending more time collecting data going to yield information that will enable a better decision? (Jeff Bezos has a great read on this topic!)
  2. “Perfect data” is never perfect. No matter how well you think though a topic, something gets missed. It is through execution, testing, and iterating that these unforeseen circumstances can be rapidly identified and addressed. (HBR published an article in May 2016 on how agile compresses speed to market while increasing customer satisfaction compared to traditional waterfall project management.)

Directional decision-making

Instead of overthinking problems at High Alpha, we have a bias toward action. We believe in an iterative approach to walking through the fog of ambiguity. We get out of our chairs and in front of buyers, users, investors, and subject-matter experts in their environments. We frame and reframe our problem-to-be-solved. We mock-up our ideas: first as a few-sentence “pitch,” then with increasing resolution as a wireframe, later as a product and a business. We listen well.

When we founded ClearScholar, a student engagement app that builds a lifelong relationship between student and university, the company established a “Founding 100” cohort of highly-engaged Butler University students to be the first beta-testers of the app. This group met regularly with the combined ClearScholar/High Alpha team to receive feedback, develop and prioritize a Product Roadmap, and study user interactions. It was through this type of research that the team was able to tailor the MVP for a product that ultimately achieved 90% downloads and 60% weekly active users in its first year deployed on Butler’s campus.

Our goal through this walk is to increase directional accuracy, not architect for perfect decision-making. We are humble enough to recognize that we’ll never get anything right the first time, but we can narrow the possible directions through data-collection. This allows us to take one step forward with a high degree of conviction while testing the path that we are on and enabling course correction.

“Our goal is to increase directional accuracy, not architect for perfect decision-making.”

It also makes each decision less precious, because it’s only one step forward. You can easily retrace it and step out in a different direction if you step wrong. And when you get good at this style of iterative decision-making, you can begin to run through the fog over rocky terrain far faster and at less cost than simply thinking could ever allow.

High Alpha is a venture studio pioneering a new model for entrepreneurship that unites company building and venture capital. To read more on how our directional decision-making plays out, read our post on how we use Sprint Week to create new software companies.

Ryan’s first role at High Alpha was as Director of Strategy & Innovation, where he combined his background in human-centered design with business strategy to develop ideas into business concepts, ultimately helping High Alpha launch a new startup several times per year. In his new role as Director of Operations, he continues to facilitate Sprint Week, while also working with High Alpha’s Leadership Team to provide world-class support for early-stage startups birthed out of the venture studio.

Thanks to Matt Sease, who inspired my thinking on “the problem with problems,” & Paige Haefer, who continues to push me to share about the innovative work we do at High Alpha.