Are You Creating a Multi-Million Dollar Pen When a Pencil Will Suffice?

When the United States went to space, they encountered an unexpected problem: pens don't work in space.

Apparently, the ink in a pen won't come out in zero gravity environments. Who knew?

The Fisher Space Pen company was determined to solve the problem. The result? A pressurized pen that would work underwater, at any angle, and, most importantly, in space.

It was a brilliant engineering feat and cost the company millions in R&D and wages.

The Russians encountered the same problem. Instead of spending millions of dollars in R&D and hours wasted that could have been solving how to get the rocket into space, they just used pencils.

Same problem, different results. One solution cost millions of dollars, the other was a few cents.

Is your startup or company building a multi-million dollar pen when a pencil will suffice?

When you are lazer-focused on a solution, you get a multi-million dollar pen. When you focus on the solution, you get a pencil.

Ultimately, the pen was the right way to go. They're more reliable, don't break apart in space (pencil points floating around are not safe), and aren't flammable. Turns out, these things are important. But if you're trying to operate on a lean budget, do you want to be wasting time on solutions like that?

You want to identify the areas where the least amount of effort will produce the greatest result. That is the essence of competing and winning.

How can you make sure you aren't creating a multi-million dollar pen when a pencil will suffice?

Focus on the problems; not the solutions

"If I would have asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse." - Henry Ford

Brainstorming is one of the most effective ways to get crazy ideas out there. To be fun. To be off-the-wall. It allows the team to throw out all kinds of crazy ideas to see what happens.

Often, a manager will come in with a predetermined solution. Their influence will force the solution on the team implicitly. Trust the process.

Let the team identify the core set of problems. Do not come up with a solution until a problem has been thought of. Keep options open.

Avoid groupthink

Groupthink, by definition, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people, in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome.

Sometimes a group of team members can become obsessed with a particular solution or they misidentify the problem. Be aware of the effect of groupthink, and don't be afraid to question the direction of the product.

Talk to your customers

Far too often people come up with a solution to a problem before they even talk to a customer.

Identify your target market. One of the best ways to do this is to identify your core customer. This is not a vague customer definition.

Get specific

For instance, Debbie is a 27-year-old, single, young professional in Chicago. She makes $87,000 and walks to work downtown. She travels for work 3-5 days per month. She spends $500 per month on eating out and socializing with friends. She doesn't own a car and takes quarterly vacations.

Why do you do this?

If you don't know exactly who you're selling to, then you're allowing product decisions to creep in that aren't focused towards your core audience.

Be aware of your niche throughout the product development process.