Idea Generation vs Problem Generation
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Idea generation is one of the most difficult aspects of teaching entrepreneurship. At colleges around the world, you hear the same business ideas over and over again:
- A dedicated driver service.
- A way to not you lose your keys or wallet.
- An alcohol delivery service.
You’re also hearing ideas that are low impact:
- Put a logo on a t-shirt.
- Put a logo on a koozie.
Or you hear ideas that are simply infeasible from a business or realistic perspective.
A Better Way
Below we’ll describe an alternative approach to helping students generate ideas, and provide an experiential lesson plan for you to use in your classes.
Your goal is to help your students identify better business ideas. The higher quality their ideas, the higher quality businesses they’ll build, and the higher quality skills they’ll acquire in your class.
Ideally, student ideas would be simultaneously:
- Impactful and
To accomplish the above, we typically start with a variety of idea generation exercises.
The problem is, traditional idea generation isn’t the best way to come up with these ideas.
It is almost impossible for anyone to come up with creative, impactful, and feasible business ideas. The best entrepreneurs in the world struggle to come up with ideas that fulfill these requirements; it’s no surprise that we have a difficult time helping our students come up with them.
Why Idea Generation Doesn’t Work
Before you read past this next image, I want you visualize an entrepreneur coming up with a great business idea. What does that process of coming up with an idea look like to you?
Most of us imagine an entrepreneur having a “light-bulb moment”, where she is inspired to create a genius new product that is impactful and financially successful. In other words,
We think “idea generation” is synonymous with “product idea generation.”
After coming up with an impactful, creative product idea, it’s easy to imagine our entrepreneurs introducing their products to customers, who immediately embrace them for their bold thinking and innovative approach.
As you already know, this never happens in reality. Almost universally, customers reject new products whether they’re developed inside, or outside, the classroom. Why?
Because customers don’t buy products. Customers buy solutions to problems.
When we teach our students to think of business ideas in terms of products, it’s no wonder they struggle. Customers don’t want products!
If we can focus our students’ attention on what customers really care about – their problems – our students can use those problems as inspiration to generate creative, impactful and feasible solutions to those problems.
What if instead of focusing on idea generation we focused on problem generation?
Starting with Problems
If we know customers buy solutions to problems, it makes sense that any entrepreneurial journey should start from a problem, not a product.
When our students focus on solving problems instead of inventing products, the customers they approach will shift from being wary and rejecting to being curious and enthusiastic. Why? Because someone is finally listening to their problems and helping them do something about it.
That’s when this problem-focused approach begins to produce empowering results:
While customers reject products, they will prepay for solutions to their problem.
It’s not up to us as instructors to decide whether business ideas are good or bad. It’s up to our students’ customers and there’s no better metric for our students to know they’ve found a good business idea than if their customers prepay, or sign a Letter of Intent, for it.
Of course, there’s no better way for your students to collect prepayments and LOIs, than for them to convince their customers that they will solve their problems.
Teaching a Lifelong Skill
When we teach problem discovery skills, we teach our students how to make empathetic connections with their customers.
Knowing how to empathetically connect with others is a lifelong skill that will reap rewards throughout their personal and professional lives, like when they’re:
- Interviewing for jobs
- Collaborating with co-workers
- Connecting with their family
- And of course, when they start their own company.
How to Teach “Problem Generation”
The first step to teaching problem generation is to help students brainstorm problems they are uniquely suited to solve. To do that, you can use this exercise, which is fully documented in the downloadable Lesson Plan below.
Invite your students to write down three customer segments they are members of. This can be just about any three groups of people they feel like they belong to.
Some great examples would be:
- Only children
Next, invite your students to write three “passion segments.” Their passion segments will be groups of people, whom are different than their previous three segments, who they are genuinely excited to serve; people for whom they would like to solve problems.
As with Step 1, there are no right/wrong answers. Some examples would be:
- Members of a specific religion
- Under-resourced youth
(Note: it’s fine if they are members of their passion segments – in fact, that’s ideal – they just can’t duplicate any of their previous segments.)
Of the six segments they’ve brainstormed, students should now pick their top three.
It doesn’t matter whether they pick all three of their passion segments, all three of the segments they are members of, or a combination of the two. As long as they are excited about helping people in those three segments solve their problems, they’re on the right track.
(Note: a nice consequence of this exercise is you’re demonstrating creative brainstorming techniques to your students. By ideating on a number of different potential segments to serve, and then filtering/prioritizing that list of segments, you’re modeling a creative thinking technique they can use in the future.)
With their top 3 segments identified, invite your students to hypothesize three problems members of those segments might be trying to solve right now.
For example, if a student chooses skateboarders, the student might hypothesize their customers would express a problem like, “I am having trouble transporting my skateboard on public transit.”
For Crossfitters, maybe they’d hypothesize a problem like, “I don’t how do I make sure I’m getting the right mix of nutrients in my meals.”
It doesn’t matter if the problems the students hypothesize are realistic, the goal is simply to identify several problems the entrepreneurs are uniquely suited to validate. After completing this step, each student will have identified at least nine problems they are uniquely capable of validating, because they either:
- Experience the problem themselves or
- They are passionate about helping the people who are experiencing it.
Of these nine problems, they can pick the problem they are most excited to validate during your course. As a bonus, if that idea gets invalidated, you’ll have helped them proactively come up with eight alternative/backup ideas they are excited to validate!
No matter which problems your students choose, their business ideas will be:
- More feasible than typical student ideas because they’re focusing on serving people they care about.
- More impactful because they’re paying more attention to problems than they are products.
- More creative because they’ll get to use those problems as inspiration (as opposed to relying on a “light-bulb moment”/devine intervention).
Get the Complete Problem Generation Lesson Plan
We’ve created an experiential, 45-minute, Entrepreneurship Problem Generation Lesson Plan that encapsulates everything we’ve talked about above.
Use it as a basis to teach your students to identify problems they are uniquely suited to solve
It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers. Please feel free to share it.
All we ask is that you leave us some feedback on it the comments below so we can improve it!
Problems, Not Ideas
You want students to develop creative, impactful and feasible business ideas. Don’t focus their attention on idea generation, because customers don’t buy ideas.
Customers buy solutions to problems.
Creativity plays a critical role in entrepreneurship, but it’s not in coming up with products. Creativity is best used in entrepreneurship to brainstorm solutions to problems.
If you want your students to generate ideas that are more likely to become successful businesses, try this Problem Generation technique in your next course.
If you’d like more lesson plans like this, subscribe here to get the next one, How to get your Students Bought-In to Customer Interviews, in your inbox.
3 thoughts on “Idea Generation vs Problem Generation”
I found this to be interesting. In light of this pandemic, students call fully utilize the problem first approach to create a product or service.