I've posted recently about the challenge of understanding the problem before rushing off to develop a solution (Finding new problems and What's the problem with LEDs?). A recent post by Sam Shrauger, Vice President of Global Product and Experience at PayPal, reminded me that losing sight of the real problem (or ever having it in the first place) is not just an amateur mistake: Why the Mobile Payment Debate Is Headed in the Wrong Direction. As Shrauger points out in talking about the future of mobile payments, even the best people in the best organizations lose sight of the real problems.
As Shrauger explains,
The current market discussion goes something like the following. Mobile phones, and specifically smartphones, are gaining rapid consumer adoption. Smartphones have become what the first PDAs aspired to be: the center of your life, in the palm of your hand. In effect, they're meant to enhance all the things you do every day — communication, entertainment, content discovery and shopping. If mobile devices are going to enhance such activities, they should also enhance the act of paying for those purchases. Mobile devices are poised to eventually replace our wallets.
Unfortunately, this is the point where an interesting discussion seems to veer off into the trees. Rather than focus on the main issue at hand, the debate becomes about competing technology.
The problem, according to Shrauger, is that "no one is asking the basic question: Why would people want this? And more specifically, what are people looking for in a payment system that will compel them to actually replace their physical wallets with a digital one?"
In other words,the best technical and strategic minds in mobile payments (ie, the ability to use your phone to pay for your latte) are easily distracted by visions of technical utopias and lose sight of the first principle: a solution has to solve a real problem.
I have been inside product reviews and strategic planning sessions in enough Fortune 500 companies to recognize this phenomenon. All too often, the problem everyone is addressing is "we need to develop a product that will compete directly with our competitor's new product;" "we need a credible growth plan for how we're going to achieve 30% revenue growth (because that was senior management promised the board;" or "we need to distract analysts from a lackluster quarter with promises of a stellar tomorrow."
These are real problems for the people in the room. The problem is these are not real problems for the customers who are expected to buy whatever ends up getting made as a result of this process.
Maybe this is why trying to solve the wrong problem is not just a challenge for amateurs. The more experienced the professionals become, the more cloistered they become. Spending their time in forecasting meetings, strategy sessions, and industry conferences, the less time they spend talking with the actual customers, store managers, and salesmen that represent the boundary layer their organization and industry depends on.
Sam Shrauger ends his post with a challenge that would work for anyone:
I’d like to issue a challenge to the industry: Let’s change the conversation and start talking about the customers for which we’re creating these products and technologies. Let’s talk about what might be right for them when it comes to a digital wallet and how we can make their lives better. At the end of the day, that's what matters most.
Words to live by…