Founders believe that they can do the impossible. They wouldn't be founders otherwise.
This cute belief doesn’t make impossible things any less impossible. Someone with no money will not buy your product no matter how hard you try.
In the world of reality, some problems are fixable and some are simply not.
Fixable and Unfixable Problems
Imagine yourself driving and seeing a pothole coming up the road. A pothole is fixable; you stop, fill it up with sand, and continue driving. As you continue driving you now come up against a massive crater. A crater is not so fixable; you can fill it up with sand but that will take a million years. Your best option is to accept the crater, change your plan, and detour around it.
Let’s look at some fixable potholes:
An employee underperforming because they lack a certain skill is fixable
Your product not delivering value because your UX is bad is fixable
Selling slowly because your messaging is confusing is fixable
These potholes are fixed by training the employee, iterating over your UX with users, and testing your messaging with customers.
Seemingly small tweaks transform these problems into unfixable craters:
An employee underperforming because of a bad culture fit is unfixable
Your product not delivering value because you’re not addressing a real pain point is unfixable
Selling slowly because that’s the pace of your industry is unfixable
These craters won’t go away by trying longer and harder. A detour around them is required. The employee must be replaced, the product needs a pivot, and your sales strategy needs to account for the long sales cycle.
Like a relationship that’s not working, the danger with unfixable problems is to waste time trying to fix them. Your goal as a leader is to minimize the delusional time when you try to fix a crater and go for the detour.
I tried fixing unfixable problems many times and for too long. It never worked, but I did discover a 5-step process to identify them.
Speak with a few experts who have experienced the problem and know more about it than you do. Ask them everything they know about the problem and focus on their past experiences with it.
Experts can be wrong, so don’t let them decide for you. Learn from them, then make the final verdict yourself.
Conviction is a powerful indicator in two ways.
Hard problems can’t be solved without conviction. If nobody on your team has conviction then the problem is not going to be fixed.
The reverse works too. A single team member with strong conviction that a problem is fixable often means that it is. One of the biggest problems in my startup was fixed thanks to the conviction of a single team member.
Use logic to convert fuzzy conviction into a concrete argument. When a problem is fixable, it is always possible to logically explain the solution and rally your team with a real plan.
Conviction without logic is just a belief.
For nearly all fixable problems you will be able to make small and frequent progress with experimentation and iteration.
Not making any progress for weeks and months probably means that the problem is unfixable. There are exceptions to this rule, but as a startup, they don’t matter as you can’t afford to not be making progress.
An old Israeli joke goes: A politician gets a call from his wife during his evening drive home.
Wife: “I heard that there’s a lunatic driving against traffic on the highway, please be careful.”
Politician: “One lunatic? There are thousands of them!”
Check-in with your team. Take a step back to test your sanity. If everyone tells you that you are a lunatic, then you might be a lunatic.
There’s no benefit in trying to fill up craters. Startups are hard enough as is.
When a roadblock comes your way, take a moment to identify if it’s a fixable pothole or an unfixable crater.
You can do it in 5 steps:
Experts - What can you learn from experts who experienced a similar problem?
Conviction - Does anybody on your team strongly believe the problem is fixable?
Logical Argument - What’s the logical argument that can spread your conviction?
Constant Progress - Is frequent progress being made or are you just standing still?
Sanity Checks - Do the people around you believe in you or believe that you’ve lost your mind?
Unfixable problems are not the end of the world. Accept them as such and take a detour around them. Even if costly, that’s the smart thing to do.
Don’t fix craters. They’re really big.