Solving for experience, not just for X


You may have heard of a chain restaurant called “Dick’s Last Resort” famous for humiliating paper hats and rude wait staff. If you haven’t, it’s a restaurant with standard bar food and a very unique spin on what great service means. We don’t have time to get into it more than that, but I will say that Dick’s Last Resort is an apt example to use in exploring a very important and often overlooked aspect of problem solving.

Most of us probably remember sitting in math class and toiling over a problem set where we were asked to “solve for X.” Many of us may also remember being asked to solve for X using a specific method. Our teachers wanted to show us the different ways we could arrive to the same answer, and therefore there would be times when we are constrained to using whatever approach was being taught at the time. I personally remember feeling the frustration of receiving a graded test paper and seeing that a correct answer lost points because I didn’t use the “Chicago style” of division, or whatever the method of the week was.

I got the right answer, didn’t I? Why does it matter how I got there?

Maybe it doesn’t, when it comes to a math problem. But we all know that there are many reasons why a methodology might have huge implications on evaluating the overall success or impact of a solution.

Patching a shoe with duct tape doesn’t have the same impact as bringing it to a cobbler. We might appreciate a new invention less if we find out it had major negative ramifications for the environment. The HOW often matters just as much as the WHAT. This is where things like Value Engineering come into play. No customer wants a solution that they can’t afford. They gave you a problem AND a budget to solve it with. Similarly - it isn’t much of a solution if we run out of time before we can implement it. Engineers understand this. The parameters are part of what makes the problem-solving so fun and challenging.

But then you ask an engineer - does your solution provide a good experience? They might not be able to answer one.

Let’s go back to Dick’s Last Resort for a moment, and examine the problem solving approach there. At a very basic level, we might say that the “problem” a customer of Dick’s might have is that they are hungry. They go there to be fed. Well, a pragmatist might argue, why pay $15 for a burger and fries when you can get that at McDonald’s for $4? Or why pay for it at all when you can probably make something better and healthier at home? If your goal is fueling your body, probably you can make a better choice than a burger.

The response, of course, is that you aren’t just paying for your food. You are paying for the service, the atmosphere — the experience.

Well, then, the pragmatist (and many others probably) argues, why would you pay for a BAD experience? Why would you pay for your waiter to insult you and make jokes at your friends’ expense? How can that be an apt solution to your hunger problem?

The answer is, of course, that experience is personal and subjective and incredibly complicated. Much more complicated than evaluating a solution or even a method.

Did you solve for X? Yes. — I’m no longer hungry.

Did you do it in an appropriate way, based on agreed-upon parameters for solving the problem? Yes. — The food was tasty, reasonably priced, and the restaurant was easy to get to.

Did you provide a good experience? Yes. — We laughed a lot, and we certainly won’t forget this night together. We made fond memories.

Of course, the response to the last one depends on your expectations, your sense of humor, your idea of a fun night out.

So why this long-winded discussion of a restaurant and its unusual business model?

The point is that while Dick’s Last Resort is technically a restaurant, their entire premise is based on the understanding that food isn’t really what they are selling - it’s an experience.

While this might seem an obvious conclusion to make for the hospitality industry, it is no less true for industries like science and engineering. We can’t stop our evaluation of our solution just at whether the problem is resolved and whether the method was sound. We also need to look at the way that this solution was delivered, and what sort of experience that delivery created. In other words - how were the people involved in this exchange impacted, included, and influenced during the process?

The more choices we get, and the more advanced technology becomes, the more this question of experience comes into play. When all the solutions work, when all of them fit my preferred parameters, my decision becomes about things outside of the solution itself.

Think about it - what sort of experience do you provide the people you work with and the people you sell to? If you haven’t considered that layer of problem solving yet, now is the time. As our world gets flooded with more and more incredible solutions to life’s biggest and smallest challenges, the experience that accompanies those solutions only increase in importance. After all, there is a human on the other end of that transaction, which means no matter what you’re selling you have the opportunity to give someone a great (or a not-so-great) moment.

If you can figure it out, then you become the top choice, and not the last resort.