When solutions are the problem

One of the most common problems in businesses and nonprofits is the tendency to forge ahead with "solutions" before identifying the problems to be solved.

The chosen "solution" shows up as a project/activity decision: whether it be to create a mobile app, a video series, an ad campaign, a new website, or run a test. Sometimes the decision is to mimic something another organization is doing. 

Pursuing solutions that aren't rooted in enterprise priorities drains organizational resources, reinforces silos, causes revenue opportunities to be missed. And it leaves real problems unsolved. 


Left unchecked these pursuits can lead to full-bore "Shiny Object Syndrome"―a popular phrase used to describe chasing projects that are untethered to a legitimate purpose or strategy. 

 It can be difficult (or impossible) to reverse course once an organization is in thrall to Shiny Objects. This is particularly a danger to non-profits, who, unlike for-profits, can obtain revenue (donations) well past failure to create a viable strategy. But it afflicts many for-profits as well, from micro-businesses to enterprise-scale organizations.

… Which Leads to Vanity Metrics

Shiny Object Syndrome leads to a reliance on vanity metrics. Relying on vanity metrics leads to use of excessive salesmanship and story-telling to get big-pocket donors to pony up or to get venture capital.


We've all done it. Research from evolutionary biology, cognitive science and psychology indicates that we are prone to "jumping to solutions" before defining problems. 

Here are some common signals that you may be heading into shiny object territory. 

  1. Team members cannot articulate, in a few sentences, a clear reason why the solution is being pursued. Research cited in MITSloan Management Review shows that lack of a crisp "why" can doom a project to failure. What's more, the post-mortem frequently misses the root cause, and flags instead politics, weak execution, or people.

  2. Team members are not clear on the top objectives of the organization. 
    Speak to a different team member and you'll hear a different string of objectives. Competing personal agendas can grow like crabgrass and overtake the space that objectives should occupy. Politics and turf wars ensue. Soon everyone is solving for competing personal agendas and Shiny Objects are multiplying faster than Tribbles

  3. Silos. (See #1, #2, #4)

  4. A leader creates a strategy without first formulating, clarifying, or articulating the top objectives of the business.

  5. Hidden agendas: A leader's personal agenda may eat the weak organization's raison d'être for lunch, then cannibalize and redirect resources to Shiny Objects. (Otherwise known as "May the Most Aggressive Personal Agenda Win") (See #2). 

  6. "Changing the drapes": a knee-jerk reach for new logo, new colors, new website, new offices, new SaaS, etc.

  7. Lack of understanding of, and attention to, conversion optimization.

  8. Reliance on vanity metrics (total page views, video views, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, etc.), which are passed off as success metrics. Avoidance of meaningful metrics.

  9. A trail of abandoned projects and strategies.

  10. There's a dumpster fire in your bank account.

  11. Confusing slogans with solutions. (e.g. Saying "We need to be data-driven" but not following up with the "how" or "why.")

  12. Making decisions primarily based on 'creative thinking'/gut feelings (automatic processing).

  13. There is no problem formulation methodology.

  14. There is no test and learn framework. The experimentation that is required for digital success is replaced with biased testing after a solution is chosen and built (something Clearhead's Matty Wishnow calls the "CYA Experiment").



First, consider whether there are foundational issues that may be sparking SOS? Here are some common ones, with preventive measures.

  1. Lack of a clear, compelling purpose
    Non-profits: do you have a viable, clear purpose? What are you doing on a daily basis, for whom, why, with what results? (Caution: If you are very good at what you do, but there's no market for it, then what you have is a hobby.)

    For profits: Do you have a viable value proposition and profit proposition?

    2. Lack of clear top-line objectives

Your strategies need to be directly aligned with your top-line objectives. Clarify the objectives first. Make sure everyone is on the same page. [Take a step back and look at your business through Acquisition-Behavior-Outcome lens. Then identify/clarify top objectives with the Digital Measurement and Marketing Model. Set aside the what (myriad activities) and focus hard on the why―why does your venture or project exist?]

3. Lack of alignment
Before you create "solutions" find a tool/method to maintain alignment, across the enterprise, with top-line objectives. I recommend the Digital Measurement and Marketing Model, created by Google executive Avinash Kaushik. The model facilitates structured thinking and if used correctly, can be valuable in maintaining alignment between your top-line objectives, digital strategies, KPIs, targets, and audience segments.  

This alignment framework will also help protect against tendency to lose sight of the original problem. 

Other causes may be related to how you think about your business and your approach to decision-making

  1. Not catering to audience intent.
    Much of the promise of digital is wrapped up in our ability to capture and speak to audience intent. To be successful you must excel at addressing all audience intent stages. Do this right and silos will dissolve.

  2. Not differentiating between types of decisions and modes of thinking
    "[W]e evolved to make a first-fit pattern match based on partial data scanning, not to do a best-fit match . . ." explains scientist Dave Snowden. Indeed, "the brain is prone to leaping straight from a situation to a solution without pausing to define the problem clearly."

    Understanding the differences between the automatic processing (fast and intuitive thinking) and conscious processing (slow and deliberate) is helpful. Both modes of thinking tackle problems differently.

    When it comes to low impact as well as high urgency items, quick automatic processing decisions can be the best. The tendency will be to act quickly based on what worked in the past. The danger comes when this approach is applied to all decision making especially decisions pertaining to complex issues. Decisions may be of the "one-size-fits-all" variety. To a person with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

    "Executives rarely take the time to frame decisions thoroughly," write the authors of "Stop Jumping to Solutions!" "Rather than exploring the full scope of options, they stick to obvious ones and use a limited set of criteria. Unfortunately, once decisions are framed this way, the outcome is frequently sub-optimal."

    When it comes to high impact decisions that take significant resources and can't be easily unwound, taking more time and scanning more data is crucial.

    Option: When using a decision matrix, increase the number of options and criteria in order to expand your view of what's possible.

  3. Not having a framework for dealing with uncertainty and complexity
    Managing in a complex domain, while treating all decisions as if they have clear (whether simple or complicated) cause and effect patterns, generates problems. Having a theoretical framework for dealing with complexity is critical for businesses.

  4. Not engaging in problem formulation
    Called "the most underrated skill in management," crafting a clear problem statement is key.

    This MITSloan Management Review article provides pitfalls to avoid in formulating a clear problem statement. Explore their use of the A3 form to tackle problem formulation.

    Highly recommended: Clearhead's Problem-Solution Mapping Methodology (PSM). At the core, PSM requires that teams:

    (a) Transparently agree upon the business goals you will use to measure success.
    (b) Determine the biggest problems that stand in the way of achieving those goals.
    (c) Develop hypotheses for solving those problems.

    Also key to PSM: the problems to solve aren't just any problems, but "Problems Worth Solving": these are problems directly related to your top business goals/objectives; they are internal business or end-user problems. Problems and hypotheses need to be ranked by priority. Explore Clearhead's approach to crisply articulating problems and hypotheses.

    After you thoroughly explore Clearhead's PSM, take a few minutes to absorb the lessons they learned on the road from being a solution-led, to a problem-led firm: read: "The Physics of ROI" and "How Problem Solution Mapping Methodology Was Invented ... and Why It Wins More Revenue."

    Clearhead's PSM provides a rational framework for problem-solution formulation and for conducting the experimentation that is necessary for digital success. It provides a means to harness the best of your team's "automatic" and "conscious" thinking modes.




How Strategy Shapes Structure
W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, Harvard Business Review

Problem Solution Mapping: A Primer for your Digital Dial Tone
Sam Decker, Clearhead

The Physics of ROI
Ryan Garner, Clearhead

How Problem-Solution Mapping Was Invented ... and Why it Earns More Revenue
Matty Wishnow, Clearhead

10 Solution Traps that Take Your Eye Off the Prize
Matty Wishnow, Clearhhead

What Problem Are You Trying to Solve? A Structured Approach to Problem Solving
MIT Sloan Working Papers. Last revised 10/16. Also see this edited version, which appeared in the MITSloan Management Review: "The Most Underrated Skill in Management"

Stop Jumping to Solutions!
Expanding the options and criteria of a decision matrix to yield better decisions. MITSloan Management Review

The Questions Every Project Team Should Answer
How to develop useful "why" statements. MITSloan Management Review

I’m Sorry, But Those Are Vanity Metrics
First Round Review, a publication of First Round Capital Management