Shiny Projects vs. Clear Problems

Everyone loves shiny objects. We’re hard-wired from a very early age to be lured in by new things. Look no further than the “unboxing videos” phenomenon and you’ll realize the truth of this. Even I must confess that I REALLY enjoy getting my hands on something new, opening it up, and testing it out.

Here’s the issue. Shiny objects can create wasteful projects. They often started based on a new technology, business model, management method, or a consulting pitch packed with the latest buzz words. While sometimes these can be very good things -there is a potential downside.

Case in point. Once I was working with a business leader who wanted to automate an important business process. He explained that he was sponsoring a project to use artificial intelligence to improve the process. Why? Because AI is what all the other leading companies use and he had just read several articles about it. After some discussion about the problem, we determined that artificial intelligence was overkill. The process could be automated using much simpler and less expensive methods.

And that’s the trap. Shiny objects can get us laser focused on a solution before we’ve adequately explored the problem. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Even Albert Einstein was quoted as stating:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

Now some might argue Einstein was wrong about a lot of things, including the cosmological constant and gravitational waves, so he might also be wrong about the amount of time to focus on problem definition. Fair point. But based on my experience I’m going to give Einstein the benefit of the doubt on this one.

The next time you start to feel the strong attraction of a shiny object I suggest taking a step back to explore the problem.

An easy technique is what I refer to as the “how might we?” problem statement. To see how it works let’s revisit the case of the business leader launching an AI project to improve a business process. Instead of jumping to an immediate solution, we would begin by defining the problem. It could go something like “How might we reduce the time our team spends on process XYZ by 50%, while decreasing defects by at least 25%, with an investment of $15,000 or less?”

Notice that in one statement we:

1. Defined the desired outcome

2. Established specific metrics to determine success

3. Included a constraint.

This simple technique sets you up to creatively explore multiple different types of solutions. There’s a lot of practical ways to do this which are outlined in more detail within the Design Thinking methodology developed by IDEO and Stanford University.

No doubt that problem definition is a great tool to use, just keep in mind there are two sides to the equation. We shouldn’t forget that shiny objects do have the power to help us envision new possibilities or understand problems in a way we never considered. They contribute to the zeitgeist that fuels innovation and progress. Thus, don’t avoid shiny objects. Just take a balanced approach and avoid getting lured by the attraction of one particular solution.