Are you solving the right problem?


Are you solving the right problem? It’s a question few stop to ask before diving in head first in an attempt to demonstrate action and produce results.

The trouble with that approach is that the surface problem is many times not the real problem. You can spend considerable resources addressing what you think needs to be fixed, only to find that you get the same outcomes (or worse!).

what we see is just the tip of the iceberg

I recently attended a three-day workshop on human-centered design at the University of Texas at Austin. One of the many concepts presented was the “iceberg” principle, which simply states that any problem identified by what we see above the surface typically has much more going on beneath. Rather than address what we see above the surface, it’s our responsibility to go deeper in order to identify, understand and solve the real problem.

Case in point: a new client came to me just over a year ago because they were disappointed in their win rate when responding to RFPs. After missing out on two big projects in a row, they decided it was time to seek help.

Their request was for layout and editing of their proposals. They wondered if the proposals were not sexy enough or were too wordy (surface problem). They wanted help telling their story in a way that would win contracts.

going below the surface

I didn’t know much at all about their industry, but I did know that the people reading and evaluating these proposals are real people—people who have agendas, concerns, and things that keep them up at night. I didn’t know what those things were, and my client wasn’t 100-percent sure, either. So, we took the next logical step—we interviewed the prospects. 

The one-on-one interviews themselves took less than 12 hours to complete. Through the process, we gained a much better understanding of what is really important to my client’s prospects.

Guess what?

We had misdiagnosed the problem. We weren’t missing the mark because our proposals weren’t sexy enough, or because they were too wordy. It wasn’t even because we weren’t telling a good story.

It was because we weren’t speaking directly to the prospect’s pain points—the ones that may not always be spelled out in the RFP they submitted to us.

By undertaking this interview process we saw the underbelly of the iceberg. We were able to tailor proposals to speak to the prospects’ pain points while still hitting all of the technical requirements outlined in the RFPs.


We know we’re right now because, at last count, my client is batting 1000 (literally) with their proposals. They are so happy with the results that we recently compiled a slide deck outlining what we learned so we could share it with other regional offices of the company.

Simple research (like the kind described here) does not have to be expensive or time consuming. And, if you’re interested in solving the real problem rather than what you see on the surface, it’s imperative. Let’s talk about the business problem you’re trying to solve and find out what’s beneath the waterline.

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