Wednesday, July 27, 2016
What's the problem you are trying to solve?
The meeting room is dead silent, people are standing in a shock unable to grok what just happened. A few minutes ago I shared my idea with them. Mark glimpsed at me and asked a short question. “So what’s the problem you are trying to solve?” The next moment I jumped over the empty chair between us, grabbed his head, and bumped it to the desk. Two times, to be precise. There was an awful thump sound. Now we are waiting for something to happen. Mark looks up, blood smeared all over his face, his nose stands in an acute angle that doesn’t suit the original plan of the human face. He’s trying to say something, but he has difficulty breathing. He finally collects himself to utter a sentence, “I’m sorry I asked that question”. I smile and pat his shoulder, “it’s OK, dude, we are over it”.
Rest assured, it didn’t happen and it never will. This is the movie that runs in the dark chamber of my mind every time I hear that question. Bump, bump, silence, apology. I should go and see a shrink to find out why.
No, I should not. It’s a perfectly normal reaction to corporate bullshit. If you are hungry for human interaction and I offer you a bunch of low hanging fruits at the end of the day, you’ll go mad I bet. There is a list of clichés, some are just innocent bla bla bla to your ears, you unconsciously filter them out. Some are boring, even slightly annoying. And yes, I am absolutely sure there is a phrase or two that could transform you to a raging monster. Now you know my trigger sentence. But why does it go under my skin? And more importantly, what can I do about it?
After some soul-searching I realized this sentence has two meanings. The first meaning translates to “You have been talking about something that made me curious, but I can’t connect it to anywhere. Please, give me more context. Help me understand how it fits into the rest of the world I know.” This is an authentic request for information that shouldn’t make me upset. But it does.
Logically, every situation where I want to perform an activity can be formulated as solving a problem. It just feels contrived or absurd in some cases. Suppose you are queuing at a fast food booth to buy a ham and cheese sandwich. I come and grab your elbow and say “Stop, my friend and tell me what’s the problem you’re trying to solve by buying this sandwich?” Well, the problem of being hungry? Or starving? Logically, they are valid answers, but they don’t ring right. You don’t have a problem–unless you are actually starving, in which case buying a sandwich wouldn’t be a great idea, you probably wouldn’t even engage in a conversation with me. This question forces you to operate in a problem-oriented mode.
Noticing and facing problems is great, trying to solve them even greater. There is nothing wrong with this approach by itself. It just doesn’t cover the whole world around us, there are huge areas of human endeavor that won’t fit. When you have to shoehorn an idea into a framework of problems, what can you do? Admit it’s not really a problem? You don’t want to do that because it still matters to you a lot. So you’ll tend to overdramatize it, maybe by telling a shocking story of blood and violence in the office which didn’t actually happen but highlights your point.
This is the first meaning of the sentence. I don’t like it but I can live with it because it shows some genuine interest at least. The other meaning is “I see you care for this topic, but based on what I’ve heard so far I don’t care. If you think I should care, then tell me more about how it would affect me. If it doesn’t affect me, make it explicit and make it short. I’m happy to listen to what you care about but I have limited resources of time and attention.”
I’ve put a lot of effort into sharing my thoughts with you and you don’t care? Now this is what brings out the furious beast in me. And after the second round of my soul-searching I realized you have the right to not care, however bad it hurts.
If we move out of the realm of personal relationship into the jungle of business, not caring is the norm. I go to the grocery store and ignore most of the shelves and the products on them. I don’t care about the special offer on the pink gadget the removes the hair in my ears, I don’t care about the chocolate-covered Siamese chicken noodle. It doesn’t matter how much energy and money went into developing these products, I do not care. If you want me to buy them, the burden of proving their value is on you, I don’t even have to explain my indifference.
Hollywood film industry is one of the very competitive areas where a script has to go through many gatekeepers to land on the producer’s desk. Screenplay readers and their ilk handle numerous manuscripts every day. They want to save their time and energy to the most promising ones and recognize subpar work early. One of their strategies is to look for high concept, an idea that’s easy to grasp and to communicate. What if dinosaurs came alive in our times? What if people were stalked and killed in their dreams? Jurassic park was shot more than 20 years ago and we can identify by a single sentence. The success of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” started over three decades ago, it saw a line of sequels, TV series, and a remake.
Not all Hollywood blockbusters are high concept movies but they are the easiest to pitch. They don’t need pages of elaborate prose, nor expensive visuals to show their value. They need only twenty seconds of the gatekeepers’ or the producers’ time, and bang, they can recognize the potential right away.
When you ask me, “What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?”, you look for the high concept. You hear dozens of ideas every day, you have your own little idea generator in your brain, you’ll need a quick method to tell them apart. Looking for a high concept is one of those methods.
My apologies, Mark, for being so arrogant and violent with you, even if only in my mind’s movie theater. I should’ve been grateful to you, you just expressed you couldn’t see the high concept in my idea. I’ll need to work on it.