Solving the Right Problem: Part 1

Understanding the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) is a tough assignment, but in my opinion worth the effort. In his Philosophical Investigations (No 539) Wittgenstein discusses context:

“I see a picture which represents a smiling face. What do I do if I take the smile as a kind one, now as malicious? Don’t I often imagine it with a spatial and temporal context of kindness or malice? Thus I might, when looking at the picture, imagine it to be of a smiler smiling down on a child at play, or again at the suffering of an enemy. This is in no way altered by the fact that I can also take the apparently genial situation and interpret it differently by putting it into a wider context.”

Solving the right problem is all about context. A problem comes embedded in its own context; apparently similar problems in different contexts may have very different solutions. Likewise, solutions have their own contexts. In Part 1 of this blog we will look at one way of identifying a problem which may also bring out its context and suggest possible solutions. Next, in Part 2 problem solving and decision making in Rainforest ecosystems will be discussed.

In seeking a solution to a defined technology commercialization problem a common approach is to ask “how did others solve this problem?” Have others had the same or a similar experience? What approaches have others tried to solve the problem or address the need? What does this problem look like in other countries or environments and what have others done in similar situations? However, solutions which were effective elsewhere may have been – almost certainly were – applied in different contexts.

In the formative days of research commercialization in Eastern Europe a common problem was identified as “not enough developments are progressing beyond the proof of concept or prototype stage resulting in products and services not reaching markets.” A frequently proposed solution was that more funds should be made available for product development as this had been effective in Western Europe. But Western European countries had, for example, efficient support ecosystems necessary for these funds to effective, including developed intellectual property legislation, and knowledge of potential markets for commercialized products and services.  The context was different.

Sometimes we might think that a proposition or hypothesis is context independent. We learned as children that if we add together all the angles of any triangle the result is always 180 degrees. What the teacher might not have mentioned is that this is only true for a triangle drawn on a flat surface. If we draw one on the outside of a balloon the angles will add up to more than 180 degrees. The truth, or not, of the statement depends on its context.

So let’s analyze steps we take to do a better job addressing the Eastern European problem as one example. To solve a problem we have to (1) identify the right problem, which might not be obvious, and its context unclear, (2) make a decision about what might be an effective solution in this context, and (3) apply the solution. A fourth step is to measure and evaluate results, but we don’t have space to cover this here. Step (2) may involve selecting from a menu of solutions used elsewhere, as we mentioned earlier, and will always require us to make decisions under uncertainties and using what decision researchers refer to as ‘multiple fallible indicators’ (more on such indicators in Part 2).

Imagine we want to decide whether to license a university-developed technology or use it as the basis for a spin-off company. Many questions need to be asked in order to make a decision, but a few are:

Questions to ask

Consider licensing the technology

Consider building a Spin-off company

What is the competition?

Competition with established companies with strong market shares.

Market niche with few competitors.

What are the development risks?

Large risk or unknown risk. Long path to development, possible regulatory or other hurdles.

Manageable risk. Development path well understood.

What are future income projections?

Royalty payments are reliable and can be estimated.

Potential of future profits from holding equity in the spin-off company are estimated to be greater than expected royalty payments from a license.

Context is embedded in columns 2 and 3.

Another way to understand context is the Toyota production 5 Whys strategy from the 1970’s. Simply ask “Why?” 5 times until the root cause of the problem becomes apparent. There is nothing special about 5, but this is typically a sufficient number of times.


A region is unhappy that new business incubators designed to create technology-driven high growth firms are not doing so. [Desired outcome: more high growth firms produced by existing incubators].

  1. Why are existing incubators not creating the expected number of high growth technology-driven firms?  Because firms started in incubators are remaining in the incubator.
  2. Why are these firms not achieving self-sustaining business operation so they can leave? Because they do not have access to capital needed to support growth.
  3. Why don’t they have access to capital needed to support growth? Because they cannot show potential investors that there are large markets for the firms’ products.
  4. Why can the firms not show investor that that there are large markets for the firms’ products? Because they cannot demonstrate user needs or access markets.
  5. Why can these incubator firms not demonstrate user needs or access markets? Because there the incubator don’t provide the needed services, such as mentoring by experienced entrepreneurs, market intelligence training, market surveys, or access to potential marketing partner companies. 

Notice that reacting to what was thought to be the root cause of the problem might produce the wrong solution (a ’jump to’ solution). A proposed incorrect solution might be raising incubator rents to encourage firms to leave.

Next month In Part 2 of this blog we will investigate how problem solving in less structured Rainforest ecosystems may differ from problem solving in more structured environments? What Rainforest elements impact on problem solving? Is identifying problems and possible solutions easier or harder in the Rainforest?

3 Comments on “Solving the Right Problem: Part 1”

  1. […] to context? To be honest, maybe – a little. In Solving the Right Problem: part 1, March 24, 2013. I stated “Solving the right problem is all about context. A problem comes embedded in its own […]

  2. […] a spin-off company which was introduced in an earlier blog Solving the Right Problem: Part 1 has a rather small context cloud; it is largely context independent. By contrast, a tool for use in […]

  3. […] the March, April, and May 2013 blogs in this series we speculated about, not just complexity, but solving […]

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