Solve Big Problems for Big Gains

big_challengeThis is a longish post 1900+ words. Reading time: 6-10 minutes.

Do you belong to the league of people who think about best use of time? If yes read on.

We spend time working on either trivial or essential things. The idea is to cut down on trivial and spend more time on essential.

How you define essential or trivial is important?

For me essential task is to identify significant problems and work on solutions for big impact.

What are essentials you are working on? Does it include working on a significant challenge? If yes, what is the challenge you are working on?

Why it is important because the value you get out of your time is directly proportional to the complexity of a problem. We are not talking about mathematical problems here. But the challenges facing the world. A challenge becomes complex when solution impacts a lot of people.

The dimension of finding solution to significant problems is different from managing time. It is about what you spend your time on?

Think about successful entrepreneurs. Explore about how people like Lakshmi Mittal (of ArcelorMittal), Jeff Immelt (of GE) spend their time? These 2 gentlemen are highly successful in what they do. Morning workout is part of their daily ritual before they start their day running global business empires. Explore how successful entertainers spend their time?

Who should think about it?

Anybody who wants to improve ROTI (return on time invested); want to create an impact and is not satisfied with how things are.

This is also important for entrepreneurs building start-ups or ambitious people who want to be remarkable at work.

How does it make a difference?

  • You stand apart immediately by picking big challenges to solve.
  • Something within you also changes when you consciously find challenging problems to solve. You need razor-sharp focus if you want to solve big problems. You may not do something really large without a team so you hone your team building skills. Your spirit of team work and interdependence also improves.

Set aside time to think

Think about how you spend your time. Can some of your work be delegated or outsourced to someone with a basic skill set. Can you use canned responses to reply to regular emails? The task that you are working on, has it been done by someone earlier.

Leave a slot of time to think about challenges world is facing. Look for challenges in space that you are better aligned with.

A 3-step process can be;

1. First think about what world wants. World for sure wants;

  • More money
  • Better health
  • To stay in touch
  • In control – remote monitoring
  • Explore places independently – GPS
  • Cheaper and pollution free spaces
  • More fame
  • Easily accessible and reliable information – Wikipedia did it and it is about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica. Can you do it better? Quora is using technology and wisdom of crowds to create a remarkable solution. Problem solving with participation is a good idea. I am thinking. You can also think. Don’t just think – work on making things as well.

2. Then explore and look around (books, people, ideas, prototypes, working models) for solutions

Use frameworks to solve problems. Also read and do some research. See if solutions are already available for a problem that you plan to work on. This will save you from reinventing the wheel.

Connect (online/offline) with people who are working in the same space.

3. View this from the perspective of a maker

Somebody who creates businesses or solutions for a large number of end-users.

For example when I write I think about content as a solution to a challenge people like me face. I think about what will help you benefit most out of your time on this site. Even when I share my personal story, I share it with a perspective of helping you.

If you are a hacker then start with participating in open source contribution, make a showcase to help others. You will be surprised by the speed of your learning.

Start small, but think and do big eventually.

Work on providing better solutions to old but significant problems

All the challenges of the world have not been solved.

Even if the problems have been solved better solutions can be found. Hotmail came as one of the earliest web-based free email clients; later yahoo, AOL came with their offerings. Then in 2004 Google released Gmail in form a better offering (in form of AJAX powered interface). Hotmail is still world’s largest (as on August 2010) free web-based email service but Gmail is catching up.

Same is true of browsers. It started with NCSA Mosaic, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. Later Opera, Safari and Firefox came to fore. Now Chrome is making its mark. In between there were attempts like Amaya and Flock. Innovation continues with newest effort – RockMelt.

Same is true for travel. LCCs (low cost carriers) made the air travel affordable for a large section of people.

Take the case of blogging platforms. Movable Type, Live Journal, Blogger, WordPress, Posterous, Tumblr – where do you think it is going to stop. It will continue. There will be mash-ups, simplified versions, enterprise versions, mobile-only, newer and better platforms as we move ahead.

Innovation does not depend on platform.

It comes from good ideas.

Still at times you may need to develop your own platforms to run projects. Think custom CMS. Wikipedia Foundation developed MediaWiki to run its various projects. Wikipedia runs on this platform.

Wikipedia runs on MediaWiki but it’s success stemmed from an idea. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger took a powerful idea – idea of voluntary contribution to create something useful for the world – and built on top of the platform.

Faith is important

It is important when you are working on solutions.

I see [mohitpawar.com] as a space to stir new discussions and also share thoughts on ideas close to my heart with an intent to deliver value to readers.

At times I think about effort and time I invest in writing here. Then I move ahead with faith – to help and to evolve. I do this also based on reference that moving with faith has worked for me in past.

You may not be having such references to bank upon if you are moving in the uncharted territories. But you got to start somewhere with faith and some skills only. Seth calls this having the guts to test the untestable.

Another perspective

Mark Zuckerberg knows best what he was thinking when he started working on thefacebook.com that eventually became facebook.com

May be he was not thinking about challenges (other than Winklevoss twins). He must have been thinking about that it will be useful for a lot of people at school; or at least some people would like to use it. He had some reference with his FaceMash effort. Success of ConnectU may also have fuelled it.

Facebook grew because it helped people connect but it continues to grow real fast (600million+ users) because – Zuckerberg and company – continue to work on challenging problems.

SlideShare solved a problem by making it easy to share presentations with anybody anywhere in the world.

What problem are you going to solve, with your start-up or whatever it is that you do?

How to find time to work on challenges?

1. Best idea is to make large scale problem-solving your core work.

This can be done through a start-up.

Those in job should consciously look out for challenges to make it the core of your work. If you current work does not let you do it then work 4×4 on regular stuff and spend rest of your time on your path breaking effort.

If you work in a job and your employer thinks old world then spend an extra hour working on important challenges which can impact the bottom-line or company’s brand in a positive way. This will help you stand apart.

Start with small impact and then you will find opportunities for greater impact surrounding you.

2. Delegate or outsource

You need to install an anti-virus on your home machine and you need to run errands, but is this something that only you can do. No. then put somebody on task to do it for you.

Sure do not be in outsourcing only – think, plan, strategize and do the most important tasks yourself and rest let others do it for you.

If you run a start up then at least for sometime; for 6 months to 1 year do business development and customer interface yourself. This will expose you to challenges that a real business faces. This way you will be able to find solutions and empower your team (when there is one) when they go out and build business on your behalf.

3. Trade money for time.

Always or whenever possible.

Then use this time to find 2-3 big challenges that you need to be spending your time on. Work on finding the best solution for these challenges. Do not think about solution in your mind only, work on it.  See if the market demands it. Make a start, avoid mistakes that can be avoided and then make your own path.

How to pick a challenge?

Good if you pick it with instinct. If not then – look back at your life, unique experiences and pick a challenge around that. Think whether you have a unique understanding about a particular topic.

There is no perfect problem. Pick one with faith and see if ignites the desired interest. If yes then stick your neck out or move on. When you find a problem that is close to your heart, be at it for sometime (at least a year).

Think about your reason

Why you picked the problem. Is it because you really love it and enjoy working on it or just because it is easy?

For an employee the challenge is to do research, generate business, make software or engage in customer service; and do it smartly like nobody else can do.

Where to start?

Start Small. With a small challenge but go beyond your own sphere. Reach out to a bigger sphere.

A hacker starts with a simple line of code before she can create apps. It may take her years to reach there. The challenge of an entrepreneur is to back an idea with a business model to generate value for enterprise and customers.

Start with experiencing stuff what others have made. Think of ways of improving it by making it faster, cheaper or more accessible. Then create your own.

You can also think about niche applications of existing products to begin with. Yammer made a twitter-like experience and micro blogging environment for enterprise. Jumo created a social platform for non-profits. Diaspora is another experiment built on the back of facebook privacy woes.

The list is endless. Stir your greycells by exploring ApplyInTheSky, MyGola, and LikeaLittle. Then, decide on your space and solve a problem.

Recap

  • Think about big challenges
  • Pick one that you have know-how and an inclination to solve
  • Upgrade to bigger and more challenging tasks as you solve one
  • Do not leave what you are doing currently – give your best there – and gradually move on.
  • Remember to spend your most productive time of non-trivial and activities of importance. Sure not all of your time cannot be productive, keep such time aside for errands and running commodity tasks.
  • Keep working towards a better solution.
  • Look for recommendations and feedback on the solutions. Get it from people who are building worthwhile stuff.

Remember where you reach is more important than where you start and (for those who care) how you reached there? Whether you reached there alone or took others with you.

Happy. Now, just do it.

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