So everyone agrees that starting with the problem is the way to go. It’s in all product books, talks, and blog posts. Discovering, clarifying, and prioritizing problems is one of the product manager’s main responsibilities. But the thing is, time and again, I see myself and others jumping to solutions against our better judgment, just like in the opening story. How does this happen?
Getting attached to an idea
If you are a product manager, chances are you come from an adjacent field, like marketing, engineering, or UX. You’ve worked with tech before. Surely you have an idea about how to address the problem! (Blockchain!) That’s how it starts. In your head, the problem and the idea become synonymous. You know the problem is important, but the idea is so elegant, refreshing, and easy to explain. It takes over — you get so carried away you forget to tell everyone else what the problem was. Excited, the CEO tweets, “We are doing [your idea]!” Will you take a step back now?
Settling on prob…lutions
Other times you start with something like “our application is too monolithic”—too much of anything sure sounds like a problem. But is it really? Actually, no. I mean, it could be if you dig deeper. But notice how it’s phrased. Does it leave much wiggle room as to what needs to be done? It’s a solution masquerading as a problem, just a dressed-up version of “we need to break up our monolithic application.” To solve what, though? Similarly, “we don’t have X” is just a lazy way of saying “we need to do X.” You don’t get points if you have not uncovered and clarified the underlying problem.
Even if you have the right mindset, you might not apply it consistently in different situations. For example, in The Failure of Risk Management, Douglas Hubbard tells the story of a drug manufacturer that used proven, scientific methods in one important context (testing drugs) and unproven, pseudo-scientific methods in another (evaluating risks of outsourcing production). Likewise, you might focus on problems in one context (product discovery) but inadvertently drop your guard and jump to solutions in others (presenting roadmaps, reacting to urgent support tickets, or… correcting colors in a video). It’s especially tempting to cut corners when problems seem small or solutions obvious.