Solving a Problem? Here’s the one question you MUST ask first!

Answers come fast. When times are tough or something bad happens, it seems like there’s always a line of people waiting to offer advice. Everyone has an idea. Everybody has an opinion. But do any of them truly understand what the problem is? Probably not.

After facilitating strategic planning sessions for financial institutions over the past decade, I’ve come to a conclusion. Few things can kill success and momentum faster than running forward with an idea before truly understanding the problem it’s trying to solve. To say it another way, a good solution applied to the wrong problem will always be the wrong solution. Understanding a problem should always be the first step to solving it.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Three transportation companies got their start between 2009 – 2012. Uber was founded in 2009 to solve the problem of people waiting for taxis. In 2010, Gett was launched to help taxi drivers find more passengers. Two years later, Lyft opened for business. Unlike the previous taxi-focused companies, Lyft’s founders sought to solve the problem of college students driving home with empty seats in their cars while students without cars were stuck at school.

None of these ventures started because their founders were trying to develop a cool app to make their existing companies more relevant. The apps weren’t launched just because “people want apps.” Even though all three wound up offering similar transportation solutions, they each targeted a different problem. That little detail made a massive difference in their growth trajectories.

So again, I ask: What problem are you trying to solve?

When you’re sitting in your strategic planning session this fall or gathering with your leaders to consider a new idea for your credit union, reframe the conversation with that pointed, purposeful question. What problem are we trying to solve? When you do, there’s a good chance the conversation will take an unexpected (but not unwelcome) turn. New ideas will come to the table, ideas you never would have discussed before. When they do, lean in and watch how some of those ideas turn into something big.

Does this one piece of advice sound too easy? Of course, it does. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Identifying the specific problem you’re trying to solve will spark some incredibly productive conversations. If you want to dig deeper into more meaningful discussions, here are three follow-up questions to ask:

  • WHY is this problem important?
  • WHO has the problem?
  • HOW MUCH are the people with the problem willing to pay for a solution?

The next time you and your team are considering a new idea or trying to solve a persistent problem, try asking these questions. The questions may not be groundbreaking, but the ideas and solutions they uncover just might be!

From strat plans to rebrands, YMC President and CEO, Bo, is passionate about helping financial institutions come up with a winning formula. If you’re ready to go beyond the SWOT, you can email him at

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