Recently I’ve been talking to a variety of product and project managers. One thing I always ask them is: “What books would you recommend?”. One of the answers I got was the Playing with FIRE book. Another recommendation, which is what this article is about, came from a product manager at a fintech startup: ‘the Lean Product Playbook’. After reading it, I’ve gotten very enthusiastic (as you can also see on the basis of my Tweets), and today I want to discuss one particular prominent concept that I think many entrepreneurs, including myself, can learn from. And that is the Problem Space and the Solution Space.
The Solution Space
Let’s start with the solution space. According to the author Dan Olsen, this is the fictional space in which you, as an entrepreneur, product owner or creator, build a solution. Let’s take an (entirely random ?) example and say that you run a meetup for entrepreneurs.
In a way, this meetup is a product or solution. In this case, the solution has certain aspects: It is held every month, the focus is on learning and meeting others, and it is held somewhere in a city centre.
If you would want, you could change the solution and what makes it unique. Perhaps you want to organize the meetup someplace else, outside of the city. Or you might invite other kinds of people. By changing the solution, you make sure that it takes up a different location in the solution space.
But regardless of what location (or space) it takes in the solution space, your product should ideally be a solution to a particular problem. And that’s where the problem space comes in — which is what makes this concept truly interesting.
The Problem Space
If you want to properly build a product, startup or company, you should start with the problem space. The problem space, according to the book, is the space where you can find a particular problem.
Keeping in mind the example of before, perhaps you’ve found that entrepreneurs find it difficult to meet like-minded people. To them, that’s a problem. Alternatively, perhaps these entrepreneurs don’t feel as if they can easily learn about entrepreneurship. These problems, or customer needs, take up different locations in the problem space.
So far, so good, right?
Well, yes. But also, no.
While the concepts of problem and solution space are useful, they only become really useful if you are aware of what space you currently operate in — and if you look at how they relate to one another.
Problem-Solution Space Mountains
Another way to think about it, is to picture the two spaces as two mountains, just a meter (or couple of feet) apart. The mountain on the left, the problem mountain, is devoid of bushes or trees. It’s slick and slippery, and not easy to climb.
In contrast, the mountain on the right or solution mountain, is filled with greenery. You can easily find your way up the mountain — just use all the pretty trees to climb up.
If you stand on the right mountain and want to go to the left, you’ll have a really hard time. You can’t throw a rope to the other mountain, because there’s nothing there for the rope to hold on to.
But if you stand on the left mountain, you can easily build a bridge between the two, and move to solution mountain. Simply find a protruding branch of a solid-looking tree, tie your rope, and off you go.
Perhaps this metaphor sounds weird, or doesn’t make much sense. But the point I want to make is that (too) many founders start in the solution space — or on solution mountain. They start with building a solution, and only much later defining a problem.
Too many founders start on solution mountain.
Personal Examples of Climbing Solution Mountain First
If you think about this as an entrepreneur or founder, I’m sure there are almost too many examples that come to mind.
For instance, a few years ago, I started a subscription box for long-distance runners. Why? Because subscription boxes were the hot thing in founder-land, and I regularly ran 5-10 kilometers to stay fit.
But I didn’t first try and find a problem. Turns out, as a runner, I didn’t need a subscription box. And very few people did either.
Similarly, two years ago I started a consultancy in blockchain technology called Infloat. Blockchain was hot and I figured with my knowledge on the subject, I could consult other businesses on the technology’s implementation.
I was proudly waving my flag on top of solution mountain.
But again, I was proudly waving my flag on top of solution mountain. It’s only after my co-founder and I launched the consultancy that we started to look into the problem space: What was the actual problem that we wanted to solve with Infloat.
Start on Problem Mountain — and in the Problem Space
In all these examples, what I should have done — and what you should do too if you’re a starting entrepreneur — is to start in the problem space. Start on problem mountain.
And this is not easy to do. After all, it’s much easier to just think of cool solutions: Instant teleportation. Flying cars. Airbnb but for office spaces. Uber but for animals.
But to think of the problem that these solutions solve is much more difficult. But that is exactly what you should do. Start with a specific target group in mind, and find a problem.
Do whatever you can do to climb problem mountain. To start in the problem space. Test your assumptions with your target group — and make sure they actually find it a problem.
Only when you have verified the problem’s existence, is when you move, slowly but surely, to solution mountain.
After that, you’ll definitely go back and forth a number of times. To test your solution; and refine the problem further. But the first step should be made on problem mountain; don’t be attracted to that beautiful shrubbery.