What research can learn from start-ups

It seems like the best problems to solve are ones that affect you personally. Apple happened because Steve Wozniak wanted a computer, Google because Larry and Sergey couldn’t find stuff online, Hotmail because Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith couldn’t exchange email at work.

Paul Graham, Founder, Y Combinator

It’s my problem

Most start-ups fail. But those that succeed have something in common: they are focused on solving a problem that their founders care deeply about.

Caring deeply about what you do helps you go the extra mile. But solving a personal problem also bestows another crucial advantage: understanding.

You may have started a business to make a product for your daughter, or want to fix an annoying bug that afflicted your old job. If that’s the case, you’ll know when you’ve found the solution. Because it’s a problem you have personally felt and experienced, emotionally as well as rationally.

It’s no coincidence that many technology start-ups are dismissive of research (beyond rapid iterative testing loops). To put it simply, why bother figuring out the problem you are solving when all you need to do is ask yourself?

It’s not my problem

Which brings me to the question: how many people in large organisations are personally invested in the problem they’re solving? I mean truly invested.

It’s an unfair question, of course. People in large organisations – with different incentives and priorities – will rarely pursue a problem with the swivel-eyed obsession of an entrepreneur. You wouldn’t expect them to.

But if we accept that ‘embodying’ a problem is the key to truly understanding it, what amazes me is how little large organisations do to personally enrol their employees in the problem they are being asked to solve. To engage anything more than their rationality.

Research is treated purely as an information gathering activity. You task an agency. They collect the data. They analyse it. You read the report. You make a clear-eyed, objective decision. Fix the problem. Simple.

Make it my problem

But it rarely works that way in practice. If research ultimately comes down to consuming a set of bullet points and graphs – disembodied, rational arguments – then you don’t really understand your problem. Not in the way of someone who lives and breathes it. Who feels it. This leads to two issues:

You make the wrong decision – because your decision is based on a one-dimensional understanding of the problem, not a truly embodied one

You make the decision but nothing happens – because you and/or your team ultimately have nothing personally invested in making it happen

My suggestion is that if you want research to have a true impact – to affect change – you must do more than collect data. You must help people to embody a new perspective.

Research should help people re-categorise problems: from ‘a problem I have been tasked to solve’ to ‘a problem I care about solving’.

We’ll be using this blog to continue to explore how to do that.