Startup founders should focus on market and problem validation during the ideation phase. Try to avoid mixing it with solution validation since it leads you to leave out your potential customers from the solution definition phase. Also, focus on defining a problem that is not too wide for effective product innovation and pivoting.
Tip 1 — Confidence that a product solution exist is good enough for the ideation phase
I am part of a founding team of a new startup and we just recently finished our ideation phase. Our team kicked things off because it was the right timing from our side and not because we had a killer idea in our hands. So inevitably, we started a few months process to find our game changing X billion dollars idea :)
In short, our process was divided into 2 parts. First part was the idea generation phase which was either:
- Come up with a product idea
- Articulate the problem the product solution will solve and for whom
- Find a problem we think is worth solving and for whom
- Define a product solution for the problem
Afterwards, we started the idea validation phase that validated the:
- Problem is meaningful and the need is underserved
- Market is growing, big and open for competition
- Solution is good enough or at least the product direction
After a couple of months in, we came to the conclusion that
defining a solution during ideation led us to do less effective customer interviews
Why is that? When you mix idea validation with solution validation, you are already biased towards the solution you have in mind. This can easily lead the customer interviews towards directions which are not optimal for defining the problem space or finding a different problem worth exploring.
In addition, solution definition and validation should not be part of the ideation phase simply because the ideation phase is driven by a mindset to eliminate bad ideas fast. Solution definition should be in a longer phase where the mindset is to find a solution for a problem you are already committed to solve.
If you find a real pain point that is underserved, the market is growing and big enough — the only thing left is to have enough confidence that you can find the right solution with the help of your potential customers . While it is obvious that customers should be part of the solution definition, mixing it with idea validation misses the true point of the ideation phase — find a true pain point in a market with high potential.
Tip 2 — Focus on defining a problem that is narrow enough to boost product innovation
Usually, when we started with a product idea rather than starting from a problem, we had a tendency to come up with a problem definition that was too wide. To clarify what I mean by that, let’s take an example…
Let’s say that you come up with a brilliant idea that aims to solve the “Employees turnover costs are very high in software companies” problem and you have a specific solution for it. Sounds great no? Well… not really, because if realize during customer interviews that the solution you have is not good enough, it will be very hard to pivot to a different solution since there can be unimaginable amount of solutions from very different angles to this problem. Every company will have different retention challenges and you are not focused on what to ask so it will also be very hard to get real insights from customer interviews.
I believe a proper ideation phase should define the problem in the following structure:
[general problem] for [well defined target customers ] because [specific underlying cause of the problem and its impact]
In the example above, we could have transformed the problem definition of “Employees turnover costs are very high for software companies” to “Employees turnover costs are very high for mid-size, US based software companies because losing the knowledge key employees have, when they leave, lead to significant delays in product delivery”. The latter, is a problem you can come up with many solutions for as well but it is not overwhelming. You have a clear set of customers to talk to and you can easily define a set of super focused questions on the problem and domain insights needed for defining a business viable solution. I believe that keeping the problem scope at a reasonable size is critical for product innovation at early stages.
thinking out of the box is great but keep the size of the box (problem) reasonable if you want to foster effective idea generation in a team environment
To summarize, I believe that the ideation phase goals should be to come up with an idea on which you know that:
- The problem is meaningful to the customer and the need is underserved
- The market is growing, big and open for competition
- You are confident, to a high certainty, that you can find a solution for the problem
Leave the solution definition to the next phase in which you are in a solution-committed mindset, define it together with your customers and maximize your product innovation potential with a problem that is narrow enough.