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  • Emmet Consulting

Product Innovation: Are you solving a known or unknown problem?  

Updated: Mar 28

Foundational Go-to-Market thinking for start-ups, scale-ups, and established companies.  

Many of us have a product or service love that seemingly solves a problem and beautifully enhances our daily lives. The bottom line is these solutions can come from known and unknown problem sources.  

Known Problems versus Unknown Problems  

Known problems are issues acknowledged by your customers. Products are often identified through research, focusing on understanding existing solutions, competitor offers and identifying unmet needs or inefficiencies. These problems, when solved, are easier to scale and commercialise as you’re meeting an identified, known need.  

The type of problem you’re solving impacts your Go-to-Market strategy

In our experience, discovery-driven innovation presents different market challenges often overlooked in the business casing and underestimated in planning stages – ultimately impacting scaling and commercialisation. Distinguishing these early can be mission-critical to achieving success and risk reduction.  

Known-Unknown Differences

The risks of the unknown problem

Solving unknown problems is inherently riskier. The uncertainty surrounding the problem requires prospective customers' discovery, understanding, and acknowledgment. The problem must ‘feel’ sufficient to warrant behaviour and attitudinal change.  


Discovery-led innovation mostly requires market creation – which demands different strategies, capital requirements and ramp-time to market.  

If the reward isn’t forthcoming  

Research shows that 85% to 95% of new products and services launched fail to scale and commercialise*. Early identification of the problem you’re solving, and a sound Go-to-Market strategy certainly help mitigate risks.  


This should always include a solid product strategy and the open-mindedness and agility to adapt offerings or broaden application considerations if the problem isn’t sufficient to sustain a market. It’s always worth remembering that Post-it Notes, Viagra, Teflon, Pinterest, WD-40, Penicillin, and microwave popcorn have all achieved ubiquitous product or service status yet started as solutions for very different problems.   


If your growth trajectory isn’t delivering what you’d hoped, take a step back and challenge yourself to consider;  

  1. Am I solving a known or unknown problem?  

  2. Is my understanding of the challenge correct, and am I approaching the challenge in the right way? 

  3. How big is the problem I’m solving relative to everything else in your customer's life?

  4. How entrenched are brand preferences, customer, and category behaviours?  

  5. Is the challenge realistic with the level of time and investment available? Consider how the challenge can be contained and resources focussed for impact.  


Most innovation journeys benefit from a fresh perspective; adapting and planning for change is essential if required. 

* Clay Christensen, Scott Anthony, and Erin Halloran’s research was published in the Harvard Business Review. 



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