Last week’s post, Are You at the Center of Your University’s “Career Pathway” Problem?, highlighted Simon Sinek’s start with the “why” philosophy to spark innovation; the type of innovation necessary to establish career pathways under #UNCFCPI. When I went through the process of defining our “why” with the earliest employees of my company, I made the mistake of moving too quickly toward what we wanted to build without defining and clarifying the problem we needed to solve, and for whom. It was a very expensive lesson, but we can discuss that over coffee some time!
Albert Einstein once said, “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 that sounds simple, but it is a tremendous challenge in practice. This challenge is magnified in the Career Pathways Initiative, because we have three distinct audiences to consider: students, university staff, and recruiters. What’s more, we can unpack “university staff” into three to five distinct roles!
Problem definition and clarification will be a critical step in the process of developing your implementation plan because it will inform what will need to be researched and tested.
How do you currently define the problem for each audience? How do you validate that the problem you are solving is actually a problem? Unfortunately, my team started asking these questions only after making some suboptimal decisions, so please learn from our mistakes!
As an aside, Dwayne Spradlin wrote a phenomenal article published in Harvard Business Review entitled, “Are You Solving the Right Problem.” While the process is not simple and can take time, the innovation that comes out of it will have a higher probability of success.
Let’s Share a Story
About 15 years ago, my friend Bobby moved his family to the suburbs for more space and “easy living.” Bobby was always a home theater geek and had a passion for movies. He loved to host watch parties for his friends. Although his three kids, and on occasion, his wife became the primary audience of these parties (I stayed in the city), he loved going to Blockbuster to get his fix.
What Bobby didn’t expect was that the closest Blockbuster was 25 minutes away from his new home (without traffic), rather than the short walk in New York City that he had become accustomed to. His experience became lukewarm over time – defined by a mixed bag of films and longer car rides filled with frustration, three screaming kids, and a wife who questioned the expensive “home theater experiment.”
Knowing that family movie nights couldn’t, and shouldn’t disappear from the lineup, Bobby wanted to make sure Blockbuster understood his frustration. He went to his “neighborhood” location, which connected him with customer service. Customer service, not quite sure how to handle Bobby’s impassioned plea for more convenient access to movies, put him in touch with the regional director, Jim. Jim had received written email requests and letters before from residents in the area in the past, but it was clear to Bobby that Jim was unable to see the real issue.
Now Bobby lived in a burgeoning suburb with a lot of families who also had expensive equipment in their basements. They would all fight for the same new release titles each weekend and desired a wider selection suited for children and parents alike. Jim got to thinking about how to solve for the demand of popular titles, while bringing movies closer to the people who wanted them.
One day, Jim presented a proposal to the executive team at Blockbuster that called for an expansion of locations with more square footage. “Suburban families shouldn’t have to drive more than 10 minutes to a Blockbuster,” he said. “They will rent more movies and we’ll make a killing off of late fees. This is a slam dunk!” With larger locations, they could accommodate more inventory of popular titles and increase the selection for a family’s diverse needs.
In hindsight, Jim’s “Master Plan” was an utter disaster because he didn’t clearly understand the problem. This paved the way for two companies that deeply understood what almost everyone experienced: renting great movies was cumbersome and expensive. Enter, Netflix which said, “we will mail your movies directly to you;” and Redbox which said, “we will make the top titles available where you regularly shop, the grocery store.”
It should be noted that while I took artistic license in the story, the founders of both Netflix and Redbox approached Blockbuster to fund their idea. They were both laughed out of boardroom. At its peak in 2004, Blockbuster had 60,000 employees and generated $5.2 billion in revenue.
Two Key Takeaways for University Leaders
1. Most of your time should be spent defining and clarifying the problem – your research, which will yield a better Implementation Plan.
I don’t know about you, but I would choose Einstein’s perspective more often than not! When establishing sustainable career pathways, we must embrace the intersection of various audiences who have distinct problems. I believe these problems are related and interconnected like a Venn Diagram, but still very distinct. If university staff, students and employers don’t work in harmony, gaps and friction are introduced. Problem definition and clarification is critical for each audience.
2. Problem definition saves money!
A survey of 330 career services professionals, CSO, now Gradleaders, found that the #1 thing career services staff needed was more resources (staff, funding). This “solution” reflects the understanding of the problem. Don’t get me wrong – we all need more resources – but I’m curious what these resources are being used for.
What would the staff do? What would the money fund? What would make them confident that their plans would achieve the desired outcome? How did they validate this? Is the desired outcome the most important outcome? Why or why not? Inadequately addressing questions like these would result in a lesson that I learned first hand! Not fun.
Jim’s plan to open more stores, increase square footage and inventory, would have taken a lot of resources. Furthermore, these resources would have been allocated well before the intended benefit of his plan. Netflix and Redbox solution took advantage of existing resources and used them effectively: the US Postal Service and open space in the grocery store. The friction that Bobby suffered was immediately resolved.
Get Started. See What Happens.
Hopefully, you’re sold on the importance of problem definition. Now what? One thought is to have a meeting and have everyone write what they think the central problem is from the perspective of each stakeholder. Collect the sheets of paper and transfer the answers to the white board. Next, come up with ways to validate each problem mentioned. We’ll go more in depth next week – but “research” that is based on observation is often the cheapest, least time consuming and yields great results. Steve Jobs, before creating the iPhone, observed that the most natural thing we do is reach out and touch things as babies in order to understand them better.
- Are You at the Center of Your Problem?
- Are You Solving the Right Problem?
- How to Make Good Decisions