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Success At Work

What is the problem?

What is the problem? By Larry Smith


To ensure success, ensure you have read The entrepreneurial employee and The independent entrepreneur pages before continuing.

Changing norms

In the far distant past, if people were healthy and had manual skills to offer, they would usually find and maintain employment. Many work skills were trained on the job. However, slowly over time, formal education became more important. After the Second World War, formal education became much more important. As competitive pressures rose, education and experience became powerful factors in securing good jobs. But competitive pressures continue to increase. A new standard of performance is now emerging. Now, you increasingly need education, experience and ideas. You need ideas that go beyond those you have learned.

First, you need to be able to find problems relevant to your employer or to prospective users or customers.

Second, you need to be able to understand how the various problems you’ve identified differ in importance.

Third, as you gain experience and education, you need ideas about how to solve these problems.

Important problems

Let us review the basic tasks of an entrepreneur, whether as an entrepreneurial employee or as an independent entrepreneur.

In the past entrepreneurs would:

  1. Find problems
  2. Find or develop solutions to problems
  3. Advocate the solutions to the problems
  4. Implement solutions to problems

Today’s entrepreneurs need to:

  1. Find important problems
  2. Find or develop solutions to important problems
  3. Advocate the solutions to important problems
  4. Implement solutions to important problems

Why is it necessary to focus on solving important problems, instead of just problems?

Again, this is the result of rising competition. In the past, there was significant advantage from being someone who solved problems. Now, everyone is supposed to solve problems.

As a result, employees who identify and solve more important, rather than less important, problems typically enjoy careers with more responsibility and potential.

One person does it within the employer’s organization; the other person does it in an independent venture. There is considerable similarity between these two pathways to superior accomplishment.

For an independent entrepreneur it is becoming increasingly necessary to solve a problem that is clearly important to potential customers or users. This condition makes it easier and less risky to develop an independent venture. Of course, solving that important problem may take time, effort and imagination.

Important problem defined

An important problem offers a must-have solution, not an OK-to-have solution. An important problem is mission critical, where a failure severely affects or jeopardizes the organization, individual customer, or user. The customer should think the problem needs to be solved urgently. It is a matter of degree. The closer you get to an urgent problem, the higher the probability of great success for either a career or venture.

For an organization, an important problem could be high cost, a sharply rising cost, a rapid erosion of customers or market share, a competitor suddenly attacking, a new competitor about to emerge, or an imminent public-relations disaster or regulatory response. Notice that your employer or customer might not recognize there is a serious problem until you tell them about it; an example would be the identification of an unrecognized competitive threat.

Test yourself


How do you find a problem to solve, one that you want to solve and that you may be able to solve?

How do you find an important problem to solve, one that you want to solve and that you may be able to solve?

Find many problems, so you can choose the most important one best suited to you and your career goals.

The power of alternatives: opportunity costs

The opportunity cost of any action is the benefit foregone from your next best alternative, or the benefit that could have been gained by taking a different action. As a result, it’s important that you generate a significant number of viable alternatives for every major action involved in the formation of an enterprise. If you do not generate alternatives, you cannot know the true cost of what you are doing. That is, you will not know what you are doing.

This is the essential basis for running an enterprise that is successful by design, rather than by luck. And since many individuals and start-ups ignore or misapply the concept of opportunity cost, it is to your competitive advantage to assess it.

The process for finding important problems discussed herein is based on opportunity cost.

How do you find a large number of important problems?

Develop an information strategy to conduct three kinds of searches

First, search in the curated business media for important problems.

Second, search your own workplace experiences and also those of others at the University of Waterloo.

Third, search for confirmation of important problems you found in the workplace by searching media, as well as in the workplace for confirmation of problems you have found using media. Search continuously, and develop an alertness to important problems no matter where you might find them.

Why search constantly?

You need to consider lots of problems in order to find ones that are not only more important by nature, but also fitting with your skills and needs and having the best likelihood of success.

Test yourself

Information strategy: ideas begin

When having ideas of your own becomes ever more important, developing your own personal information strategy becomes vital.

If you are looking for important problems, an efficient approach is to listen to what important people are talking about. They frequently talk about problems important to them; they are telling you what they need. And important people often have the ability to pay.

In addition, listen to what informed observers tell important people about what problems they should be concerned about.

One of the best ways to do this is to read reliable resources relevant to your industry daily, or at least weekly. We recommend business journals and magazines like Bloomberg Businessweek, and newspapers like the Globe and Mail. Notice that journalists are paid to look for problems; they are doing part of your job for you. By “read”, we mean read the opening couple of paragraphs of each major article, alert to the discussion of important problems. When you find an important problem of interest, create a record of it. You do not have enough alternatives if you can keep them all in your memory.

Recognize that this is curated content, chosen and written with the goal to report important news/problems. Not all news media report important problems, or even try. There are other news media sources that also report on important problems, but the Globe and Businessweek are especially broad and reliable, and hence why they were provided as examples above.

Why not recommend non-traditional media?

Blogs, special interest news sites, news aggregators and such sources are often of uneven quality and accuracy. They frequently contain unreported conflicts of interest and covert ads. And even when they are accurate, they are narrowly focused. That means they are a very inefficient way to find a large number of important problems across a wide range of possibilities. You would have to read a very large number of non-traditional media to get the same content as in the Globe or Businessweek.

Warning: Some news sites are dangerous to you because they use your past choices to recommend further information. These recommendation engines may be efficient to satisfy personal interests, but they actively stop the generation of business alternatives by narrowing your focus, sometimes without your noticing. Alternatives must be different from each other to be real alternatives; they should not just be versions of the same alternatives. At this stage, you want breadth, not depth.

Business media

In addition to consulting the current media, it is also essential to look for problems methodically, over time. You do not want to take action based on a single report or posting. Continuous coverage is not usually available on Google since it is copyright protected. You can use one of the proprietary databases that are available to you through the University’s library website. Factiva is particularly useful. The goal is to fully develop your personal information strategy.

Test yourself

Workplace experience

Review all your workplace experiences to find problems and then rank them according to their importance. Focus your review based on problems you may have previously identified from the business news media, course content, or other sources.

Why focus on workplace experiences?

It is an efficient way to find important problems because all goods and services are produced, sold, or distributed in the workplace. As a result, the workplace is the arena in which problems are solved, ignored or left unrecognized. In the workplace, you are surrounded by problems and you can find those that are most important.

Look for anything that is constantly failing to perform its function and requiring fixing or replacement. That could include anything from software to machinery, from services to facilities. Identify whether this failing function is being bought from an external supplier. When it is from an external supplier, it is logical to consider whether you should create a company to be a better supplier to the workplace. Ask why no one is apparently dealing with these instances of repeated failure. Maybe the failure is not important enough to care about. Or maybe there is an internal institutional barrier interfering with its solution.

Look for any source of either high cost, or rapidly rising cost. Notice what cost containment measures are being taken to control or reduce it. Ask what else has been done, or why more is not being done. Again, if the cost is arising from an outside source — this may be a start-up opportunity.

Look for the problems your employer’s customers have with what they are buying. Ask the customers if you have, or can get, access to them. Ask everyone at work about what they know or think they know about the customers. If you hear employees blame the customers for product failure, you may be near treasure. You may of course be able to access customer conversations when you have left your workplace, if policy or possible confidentiality agreements allow.

Look for efficiency opportunities. But take this step only after you have done all of the above. Even though you ought to look for opportunities to improve processes or methods to increase productivity, to make the system “better”, better is hard to sell to an employer or customer. While you will look for general or systemic improvements to add to your understanding of the environment of the workplace, this is not likely the most effective way to quickly accelerate your career or launch a successful start-up. It is almost always easier to sell a solution to an acutely felt problem, or one that is acutely felt when pointed out. This is especially the case when you are young without an established reputation.

Listen carefully because there is still a lot you do not know. You are trying to become better informed, to be so well-informed about specific opportunities that this knowledge base is your competitive advantage. You do not want to come across as a young know-it-all. If you give that impression, you will shut down your own communication networks. Remember, however, that you are not necessarily expecting someone else to identify a killer problem for you; you are trying to find the information that shows you what problem is important and what problem is more important than others. But notice that if you ask why, and someone in authority says that “this is how we have always done it” you may be near treasure.

Look for problems of strategic importance, meaning that they are responsible for a cascade of secondary problems. Solve the strategic problem, and you simultaneously solve the secondary problems.

Having identified problems with or without media guidance, search the news media again for updated information or new insight.

Shared workplace experiences

Discuss your workplace experiences with fellow students to identify important problems. The above framework may serve to shape those discussions. Focus your review based on problems you may have previously identified from the business news media or other sources.

Why focus on workplace experiences of others?

The Waterloo advantage

If you are prepared to share workplace experiences with fellow students, you are able to access intimately and in nearly real time the workplaces and problems of potentially more than 4,000 employers, covering the widest range of industries, technologies, and marketplaces. No other group of university students on Earth can access such a rich environment in which to search for the treasure of unsolved and important problems. Other students read business case studies; you live them.

Having identified problems with or without media guidance, search the news media again for updated information or new insight.

Test yourself

Next steps

Having identified a large number of problems, it is then necessary to select several of the best ones for you to focus on. Which criteria would you use to choose?

  1. Which one is most inherently interesting to you?
  2. Which one might use skills and experience you already have?
  3. Which one is most important to your employer, prospective employer or a set of defined customers or donors?

Identifying a problem or solving a problem?

Though you will eventually want to be able to both identify and help solve important problems, there is career advantage to the employee who simply draws an employer’s attention to important problems facing the organization. Doing this well is itself an essential skill in the workplace. There is no need to have a solution when you speak about the problem.

Moreover, in many circumstances, the solution to an important problem will be created by a team of employees [or in a start-up a team of partners], not by a single individual.

Learn more through events and workshops offered by The Problem Lab.

Test yourself

University of Waterloo

Centre for Career Development