What Sucks???

Stay in the Problem Space to Innovate Better

One of my favorite comedians is Adam Carolla.  Several years ago Adam would do a show segment titled “What Can’t Adam Complain About?” A caller or audience member suggests a topic that, at face value, sounds like it would be really hard to complain about.  Adam steps up and for the next five minutes outlines a long list of complaints, anecdotes, and stories that suck about the topic.  Perhaps the caller would suggest “your kid’s birthday”, “a puppy dog” or “getting a Christmas present” — and Adam would be off to the races.  He never failed to produce a real set of complaints on the suggested topic, no matter how “delightful” the topic appears at first mention.


I have a version of this curse.  I can find ways to complain, to see the defects, inefficiencies, or limitations in almost everything.  Part blessing, part curse, it’s just how my brain works.  But the game I’m going to discuss isn’t done to tear situations apart or to be negative.  We play this game to innovate and to improve the experience of our customers.  But the game “What Sucks???” has a strategy, rules, and a tool to help.  Let’s take an initial look at the game of “What Sucks???

The Strategy of “What Sucks???” --  Stay in the Problem Space a Bit Longer

A fair question would be “why have three question marks (???) after “what sucks”. Wouldn’t one question mark do the job?  I put three question marks in “What Sucks???” as a reminder.  The reminder is to slow down and stay in the problem space for just a while longer.  In The Lean Product Playbook, the author, Dan Olsen, writes “the problem space is where all the customer needs that you’d like your product to deliver live” and the “benefits of problem space thinking:  having a more accurate understanding of the market in which your product is really competing”. 

I would propose, and hope to demonstrate to you over time, that the benefits of staying in the problem space a bit longer include improving the ability to develop a compelling value proposition, quicker identification of what the “killer feature” might be, accelerating the definition of your ideal customer segment, and a better initial understanding of priorities of concepts or features to test.  

My natural inclination, like many “experts”, is to rush to a solution.  The strategy, or the reason why we spend the extra time and effort of playing “What Sucks???” is that it helps us explore and gain better insights into our customers and the real problems they face before we jump to potential solutions.  Doing this deliberate act of slowing down feels like a tax or drag, but makes a tremendous difference in the ideas and options we will consider, and this is actually a catalyst for true problem solving and innovation.  

A Framework for Problem Understanding & Innovation 

I like simple rules, frameworks, and tools that help me think better.  Here’s one of the first The Digital Leader Newsletter will introduce.  The What Sucks??? Problem Canvas is a “minimally viable product” — the MVP of the framework.  The canvas will quickly improve and I hope you send me ideas and feedback.

The What Sucks??? Problem Canvas is a “hack” — it accelerates and encourages a structured way of thinking resulting in helping us explore the problem getting us to deeper insights on customers and the experience they deserve (even when they don’t realize it).  We will do it in a faster, more repeatable manner assisting in better thinking and a deeper understanding of our customers.  Another benefit of using the problem canvas facilitating improved communication to everyone involved to gain a deeper level of insights before developing solution options.  

In future editions of The Digital Leader Newsletter, we will use the What Sucks??? Problem Canvas to demonstrate its application.  I have a long list of topics to apply the What Sucks??? Problem Canvas.  The topics all share the unique trait — they suck in any situation.  For example, “needing help” or “waiting in line” sucks in any context, in any industry.  I can’t imagine a situation where a customer would say “I wish I needed to ask for help more often” or “I’d like to wait in line longer”.  To put the canvas to work, I will zero in on a specific context for the problem to make it more relatable and realistic.  But let’s not wait.  Let’s use the What Sucks??? Problem Canvas to better understand something that really sucks --  running out.

Summer Fun -- Until You Run Out...

A favorite summer and fall activity for many is outdoor grilling.  I have a gas grill with a 20-gallon gas canister.  Imagine…you've turned on and heated up the grill.  The steaks and chicken are on the grill and starting to really heat up and then... the worst possible thing starts to happen.  You notice the temperature gauge starting to slowly, ever so slowly, go down.  What?!  You start to check and re-light the burners of the grill, but they won’t catch.  Open the grill and jostle the gas canister and it confirms your nightmare — you have run out.  And what REALLY sucks, is that Home Depot is 20 minutes away and it’s a Saturday afternoon and it’s going to be long lines at the Home Depot.  This sucks!

Today, we are just staying in the problem space, trying to get to know the customer, the job they are trying to get done, the context they are operating in, what the real pain points are.  Don’t worry or jump the gun — suggestions for innovations will be forthcoming too.

The Homework Assignment

I have a long list of customer experiences that suck in any situation, in any industry, in any context. I’ll publish the entire list at some point and keep exploring the “What Sucks???” approach using these situations. Want the What Sucks??? Canvas?

Download the What Sucks??? Canvas by clicking on this button

What Sucks??? Canvas

Your homework assignment is to ask yourself — “What Sucks???” for your most important customers. Use the What Sucks??? Problem Canvas to better understand your customer and the problems they face. Stay in the problem space a little bit longer!

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About The Digital Leader Newsletter

This is a newsletter for change agents, strategists, and innovators.  The Digital Leader Newsletter is a weekly coaching session with a focus on customer-centricity, innovation, and strategy. We deliver practical theory, examples, tools, and techniques to help you build better strategies, better plans, better solutions — but most of all to think and communicate better. You’ll be able to follow up with questions and advice.