The problem is “what is the problem?”



Yesterday I went to see my 97 year old mother, who was a practicing attorney for 50+ years and tried many cases very successfully. Somehow we got around to discussing what factors contributed to her high success rate. She had a ready answer: she was able to quickly and accurately find the problem. In other words often her clients or other people involved either did not know what the problem was or were focusing on the wrong thing as the source of their problem. She told me that once she had zeroed in on the problem it was no problem to find the solution! And finally she told a the story of about Gertrude Stein.

Stein asked her lifetime partner, Alice B. Toklas about the meaning of life: “What is the answer?” she inquired.

 When Toklas failed to reply, Stein laughed and said, “In that case, what is the question?”

That conversation was a funny coincidence, as I had just been reading the Sunday newspaper that morning and came across the quote, If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution. While Einstein is often credited with this quote the exact source is not clear; if you are interested you can delve into the quote’s history on

I’ve found in working with many entrepreneurs, who all are very bright and well-educated, that it’s a mistake on the mentor’s part to take their definition of the problem they are presenting at face value. We really need to drill down by asking relevant questions before jumping to the solution phase.

So for example, if a founder comes into a mentoring session bringing with them the problem of how to price their product, as often happens, a mentor can’t jump to the common solution of value pricing vs. cost plus pricing. First we need to elicit what assumptions lead the founder to this conclusion that pricing was their problem. Were they losing business to a competitor? Were customers excited about the product but stalling out when they found out the price? Is the founder more interested in gaining market share (the Microsoft Windows model) or in generating profit (the Apple Macintosh and iPhone model)? It is only by deeply understanding the goals of the founder and what exogenous factors may be influencing their decision that we can start to help to lead them to a good decision. In one particular instance they didn’t want to have outside investors potentially exerting control over the company, but they needed capital to expand the company. Having had bad experiences with VCs in the past the founder wanted to finance the company via customer revenue. So after asking a few more questions the founder realized the answer to their question: price as high as the market would bear, value pricing, because profit was far more important than market share, as revenue was needed to finance the company.

This is a rather common and perhaps simplistic example. My approach to problem solving is a bit different than Einstein’s or whoever come up with this heuristic. I tend to make a lot of careless errors. I always have, ever since grammar school. So I would probably spend 45 minutes finding out exactly what the problem was, 10 minutes on the solution, and a final 5 minutes checking my solution. YMMV ( your mileage may vary)! But however you allocate your time in a mentor meeting be careful not to take founder’s problem statements at face value, dig deeply to understand the source of their problem, then help them to find the solution.

Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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