Focus on the Goal, Not the Solution

You know how it is – a team gets together to solve a problem, someone proposes a solution, and the team eagerly sets out to implement the solution, tearing down any obstacles in the way to achieving success. But many times, the obstacles becomes larger, and the team starts solving problems related to the chosen solution, and completely loses sight of the original problem. In other words, the team becomes focused on a particular coarse of action, not the goal.

I was once part of a team building a home IoT device. Like most IoT devices, we needed a way to communicate with the device from our phone. After doing some quick research, we decided to follow a common solution and connect up the IoT device to wifi, passing credentials through an access point mode and reconnecting to the home wifi. After spending months programming this all up, we hit some serious roadblocks with the wifi module design that severely limited the bandwidth and range. So we started trying all sorts of creative workarounds with the wifi, from adjusting the power levels to permanently connecting directly over the device access point (instead of through the home wifi network). None of them worked particularly well, yet cost us months in development time.

At some point, it hit me – Why do we need wifi again? I had completely forgotten why we were using wifi and what the original goal was. We just needed a way to communicate with the device. Were there other options? What about bluetooth? Turns out, bluetooth was a much better solution, and one that we should have explored earlier on, but we were married to our wifi solution.

Taking a step back is never fun. One of the hardest things about abandoning a coarse of action already in progress is that you feel all the time was wasted. We need to keep going in this direction because we’ve already put so much work into this you say to yourself. This is a bias that causes us to not let go, known as the Sunken Cost. The “right” answer is to always take the best path based on the present, not based on past or what you have already done. But it is much easier to switch courses of action when we are focused on the goal. Instead of feeling like everything has changed, the team just feels that a better path has opened up and we are still going the same place.

Don’t focus on the solution, focus on the goal. Focus on what and why you are doing something. It sounds obvious and a bit silly, but it’s very easy to get caught up in the detailed tasks you are working and forget how it connects with the bigger picture. Stop and think. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and energy.