A transparent cub sitting on a black and white dotted pattern

Are you solving a central problem or gaslighting?

management risk strategy Feb 01, 2022

Florian Zeller’s film, The Father, has just opened to rapturous reviews. It’s the one Anthony Hopkins recently won an Oscar for, starring as an aged father struggling with dementia. Based on Zeller’s hit West End play, the big idea is that we witness the increasing confusion. Sets, clothes and even actors change from scene to scene, unexpectedly and unannounced. This subtle discombobulation heightens the emotional impact, forcing us to consider the psychological strain of an ever-shifting reality.

This idea can be traced to another, darker 1938 play, called Gas Light. In it, a manipulative husband wages psychological warfare on his wife, by moving objects around and gradually lowering the lights, while denying that anything has changed in order to make her doubt her sanity. This is now called gaslighting, where people force victims to doubt their memories, perception and judgement.

Gaslighting exists in the workplace. Now that the covid tide is receding, we are seeing more and more articles about the need to return to the office. Employers are keen to remind workers of how superior office working was for them, in terms of happiness, social interaction and career enhancement. This has a distinct whiff of gas about it, because there is plenty of data to suggest remote workers believe nothing of the sort, and greatly prefer the freedom and flexibility derived from staying at home. While the old paradigm of ‘being seen in the office has yet to be supplanted by ‘being seen on zoom’, it is pure fiction to suggest that employers know more about the social lives and happiness of employees than they do.

Companies also gaslight. Some do it intentionally, calling up customers to tell them their driveway is crumbling, their trees are dying of some mysterious disease, or their windows are likely to fall victim to some arcane future Government eco-regulation. You know the ones. The calls are usually uninvited and persistent, both of which are necessary elements in constructing the fiction.

But most firms gaslight unintentionally. They end up gaslighting investors, customers and, more damagingly, themselves. What do we mean by unintentional gaslighting? These firms aren’t maliciously rearranging furniture and turning the lights down. But they are creating illusory worlds and doing everything they can to convince us that these are real. As you would imagine when gas and light are put together, it can be explosive.

Arguably all entrepreneurship is based on illusion. Entrepreneurship is about creation. Creativity requires both imagination and vision. All visions must necessarily be illusory until the passage of time renders them real, in the form of customer traction and cold hard cash. Founders have to be fantasists to create and own these visions. They also have to be skilful illusionists. Start-ups by their very nature are temporary organisations, with a delicate blend of strength and weakness. To attract staff, customers and investment, it is the founder’s job to present their endeavour in the very best light. There is no point in doing otherwise, as they are competing with organisations no better than their own. In many ways this is a thrilling duel between rival magicians, like a modern day version of The Prestige.

Fantasy, illusion and projecting the best version of yourself, are all natural and positive. But there is a point where they cease to be, and the balancing act of perception versus reality tips into gaslighting. This point is reached when we learn the truth about the business’s central problem.

We know that start-ups have low survival rates, and that the largest single cause of this has been attributed to the absence of market need (42%, CB Insights). We have argued before that this is an overly simplified view, but for once we will accept it at face value. The problem most start-ups face is the absence of a decent problem.

Yes, they have carefully crafted problem charts in their pitch decks. They have software solutions, which means there must be something that needs solving. They have data to show some level of unhappiness in the marketplace. They have warm words of encouragement from partners and early adopters. But there is something lurking beneath the surface, like the mass of undetected great white sharks that drones have discovered swimming off the coast of California. It is that all these trappings of success mask the fact there is no real problem to solve.

There can be lots of reasons for this. It might be because there is no perceived problem. Or there is a problem, but existing solutions or simpler alternatives are deemed good enough. Or there is a problem, but it is not so much of a problem that it really bothers people. Or they recognise it as a problem, but they just aren’t willing to pay for a solution. Or, perhaps most likely, there is a real problem, but it is not the central problem that they face as a business or a customer. There are other, more urgent problems that need to be solved first. So however convincing the illusion of need is, and regardless of how good the proposed solution, the truth is there is no demand. This results in rapid spontaneous combustion, which is what happens when a business finds itself on the wrong side of market reality.

Gaslighting occurs when businesses sense that they lack a central problem, or have evidence that this may be the case, and ignore it in the hope that they are wrong. This rarely works as a strategy, unless the intention is to leave everyone concerned with a bad taste in their mouth. Instead, if you find yourself in this situation, you should ask this question: if this wasn’t the central problem that we can solve, what is?

How do you find a central problem? Something robust that will propel your business towards a hungry customer base? 

Firstly, you will focus on solving one big problem, rather than lots of small ones. Solutions do have lots of benefits and can solve many problems, but there should always be one core one. Something people can recognise and really care about. Something easy to communicate.

Next, this problem will be something that affects your customers both frequently and acutely. They feel pain whenever it happens and are constantly reminded of it. These are important because they create a sense of urgency and break down that crucial barrier that you have to hurdle: the need to get them to pay. Someone refusing to pay for a solution is the surest indication that there isn’t a strong enough need. You may be able to temporarily prolong the life of your company by offering freemium access, but the truth won’t change: the people you need to become your customers aren’t paying. The true test of a freemium model, or a free service you hope to monetise in some way, is that customers would be willing to pay for it.

Finally, it must be a problem that lots of people have. Something that is as universal as possible, so it can cross artificial demographic and psychographic boundaries, and reach large markets.

So if you have a single central problem that inflicts pain, frequently, on a large number of people, you have what you need. If you don’t, then you are either in that phase of discovery which all entrepreneurs must progress through, or you are gaslighting. Which is it? 


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