Some time ago I needed to get an estimate a piece of work, so I arranged a meeting with a senior engineer. The precise success criteria of the work was still in some flux, so when I outlined the (slightly vague) solution I wanted to estimate she thought a bit and asked, “Is the purpose of this project the solution or the outcome?”
I think the question was genuine. Of course the purpose of the project was the outcome, but if so then why was I asking about a specific solution?
I see these things as a kind of dance, or perhaps like a first date, between two parties. One side wants to achieve some kind of thing (the outcome); the other has the means to provide it (the solution). But the outcome doesn’t have a very refined defintion, and there are lots of possibilities for a solution. So one party makes the first move (“We want to do something to help X”) and the other makes a response (“Well, we could achieve that with Y”). That gives rise to some other ideas or questions, so the first party adjusts their position to explore a bit more; the second responds accordingly.
And so it goes on: First move, response, adjust, adjust, etc. Eventually we hope both parties will find a good fit—a solution that achieves the original aims within acceptable bounds.
This project/solution dance is just a more limited form of another kind of dance: product/market fit. Here, a founder or a product manager wants to solve a market problem and find an appropriate solution. There is a continual adjustment between an appropriate (achievable, viable) solution and something that the market (ie people with money) will recognise and pay for.
It’s too easy to think of these things as sequential: here is the problem, let’s find the solution. In reality we need to create a feedback loop.