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Choosing Problems to Solve

Former Director of Getting Shit Done at Shopify

IP Interview
Published on August 10, 2020

Why is this interview interesting?

  • How great organizations choose the problems to solve to drive innovative new products
Executive Bio

Adrian Cho

Former Director of Getting Shit Done at Shopify

Adrian has over 30 years of experience working for both small and large organizations including IBM, Fujitsu, Bankers Trust, and Shopify. At Shopify, as the Director of Getting Shit Done, he started and led a business unit that helped the company through a critical period of hyper growth by accelerating and becoming more effective at scale through the growth of culture, hacking process, coaching people and teams, and building automation to reduce friction. Adrian is also a musician who has been performing for over forty years, he is best known as the Artistic Director of the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra, a unique, critically acclaimed symphonic jazz ensemble he founded in 2006.

Interview Transcript

I always find it quite difficult to understand what a culture of innovation means. I can understand a culture of experimentation; that’s a bit clearer and a bit more practical. How do you look at a culture of innovation?

One of the things that’s essential is the difference between ideas and productizing those ideas and actually bringing something to market. Here’s the thing, I think in a lot of companies, and I think it was true at Shopify, there’s no end to the problems to solve. There are just infinite problems to solve. The question is, which ones are you actually going to put your time and effort into. Also, no organization exists as an island. When you have built up an ecosystem and you have partners, for example, and you have competitors and others in the space, there’s things where you sometimes have to say, you know what, this is a great problem; we could absolutely work on this and build a great solution to it. But we decide we’re not going to do it. We decide it’s actually better for someone else to work on this, for a partner to work on this or let a competitor work on this, for whatever reason.

Knowing when to say no, is an extremely powerful thing.

How do you do that?

Often, organizations start talking about ways to measure the value of something, to measure whether something is succeeding or not. There’s a lot of ways to do that and always a lot of talk about metrics and data and analytics and so forth. So measuring impact, for an organization, is something that’s pretty tricky. One of the things that’s interesting for businesses is that, of course, the traditional way to measure is money. It’s revenue and profit and so on. In some organizations now, they’re realizing that that is not, necessarily, the best way to go.

You don’t start out saying, what shall we work on today? Let’s figure out the thing that is going to make us the most money. Ideally, what you would actually do is, you’d say, let’s figure out a problem that someone has and let’s figure out the best way to solve that. If we can produce a fantastic solution and a fantastic experience around that solution for a group of people who have a problem, that they will buy into that and that the money will come from that. But we don’t start out that way. That’s a really important, more indirect, route. Even just that emphasis on the experience.

For example, if you look at Apple and you look at what’s happened over the years, with the transformation of Microsoft, that’s what people have realized. In the beginning, people didn’t really understand what Apple were trying to do. But so much of what they’ve done and what they do, is all around experience. That experience is not just a product; the experience is everything. It’s like going to the Apple Store, and the App Store and all these other things. That’s really the thing that engages people; it’s not just the singular product and it’s not the specifications, the technical details. It’s the overall experience.

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