The Preservation of the Problem

“Well, organizations that are founded to solve problems end up committed to the preservation of the problems. So Trentway-Wagar, an Ontario-based bus company, sues PickupPal, an online ride-sharing service, because T-W isn’t committed to solving transportation problems. It’s committed to solving transportation problems with buses. In the media world, Britannica is now committed to making reference works that can’t easily be referred to, and the music industry is now distributing music that can’t easily be shared because new ways of distributing music undermine the old business model.”

– Clay Shirky, in conversation with Dan Pink in the June 2010 issue of Wired Magazine.

Clay Shirky in thought, courtesy Joi Ito's flickr photostream.

Clay Shirky in thought

Good organizations are flexible and not constrained by this need to preserve the problem as Shirky has noted. When I was a tutor for BrainBoost Education, we used to regularly discuss our overall and individual goals. On one hand, the goal of tutoring a student was to create a situation where tutoring was no longer necessary. The goal of the organization was to show that for-profit private education was compatible with tax-supported public education. So, in both cases, we were against framing our service as a solution to a problem. We didn’t say, ‘for students who need tutoring’ because if that was the case then we would always need students to need tutoring in order to have jobs. In the second case, we didn’t say, ‘we exist because the education system is broken’ because that would mean we always needed it to be broken. Instead, we focused on goals that constantly sought to put ourselves out of jobs, because only in that mindset will be flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions and thrive in a sort of evolutionary atmosphere.

At OpenCal, we talk about solving the frustrations of online booking. But in truth, we want to go beyond this. We want to help entrepreneurs and small businesses to grow and thrive by creating online tools that solve actual problems they face everyday. Right now, our context for solving their problems is to build a great calendar and booking system. But we are not focused on the preservation of the problem – we are focused on outcomes that entrepreneurs and businesses want, which, in general can be translated to more time and/or more money.

For now, we have a flagship product that is online appointment software. Deep down, I knew we stood for more than this, but in order to figure that out, I needed to change my perspective of what we were doing. In hindsight, the only metaphor that makes sense to me is imagining one of those 3D puzzles that featured a secret image inside all the noise. One the surface, there is one vision, and underneath, another. Both are related but it isn’t clear from the outset what lies underneath.

Autostereogram, courtesy wikipedia

Is it just a bunch of dots? Relax your focus... (and click for big)

Consider the case of Zappos. Now, if I say Zappos to you, probably the first thing you think of is shoes, or buying shoes online. If Zappos were committed to selling shoes online, they’d be trying to preserve a problem, which could be defined as delivering shoes to customers through online shopping and sales. And eventually, they’d probably find themselves out of business. Instead, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, says his company stands for ‘Delivering Happiness’ or ‘Delivering Delightful Customer Experiences’. And because that is what Zappos stands for, it can become anything that fulfills that goal. As Tony has said on numerous occasions, it’s no stretch to imagine Zappos one day running an airline.

So tell me, dear readers, what do you stand for? Are you committed to solving and preserving a problem, or are you committed to something grander, like delivering happiness?