The challenge with problem centric product management

Why is it so hard to talk about problems? We recently started to adopt a problem centric approach to product management to help us focus on the right things. This basically means moving away from having the business stakeholders think out features and then ship them to the software development team. Instead we need to start thinking about which problems we have and then collaborate between teams to come up with the best solution.

The concept of problem management over product management is not new. We were very inspired by Googler Jen Granito Ruffner and her outline to why this needs to be the way to do product development. In an organisation, lot’s of people have ideas that they want to communicate and pursue. Ideas are great but they are not focusing on what we want to achieve.

An example: A marketing executive makes a feature request: We have tons of good product videos and we need to put them on the product pages of our e-commerce site.

It’s a clear task. It’s also fairly simple to get done. But is it the right thing to do? This is where we need to understand the problem we are trying to solve. There are methods for this but the best way is to, in a non provocative way, ask why? And if one why is not enough, try four or five times.

Product manager: Why should we add the videos?
Marketing exec: Because we get more rich content!
Product manager: And why do we need more rich content?
Marketing exec: For the customers to understand our products better!
Product manager: Why do they need to understand the products better?
Marketing exec: The drop off rate from our product page is 50%!
Product manager: Ok, and why do they drop off?
Marketing exec: Well, most drop off to visit a price comparison service.
Product manager: Ok, so the real problem is that people are leaving the site to visit a price comparison site. So, what is the best way for us to make people stick around.

What happens here is:

  1. A problem opens up for more people to come in and suggest solutions
  2. We have a clear metric (drop off rate) on what what we want to improve
  3. We can prioritise how solving this problem is more or less important for our business (by comparing with other problem’s metrics).

So why aren’t everybody doing this?

Well for a start we have a global culture of suggesting solutions to each other. What is 2+2? What should we eat for dinner? What should we do with all of these product videos? You don’t go to a colleague and say “Hey, I see a problem, can you help me solve it”. For mangers this is even worse. A manager is really good at coming up with ideas, because you have role were you are expected to always have an answer.

Secondly, if you have an idea, it’s really hard to change our mind about not doing it. It’s your little baby and when someone suggests something else you immediately feel offended that someone might think differently. Even worse, you might have promised someone else that you are going do it and of course you don’t want to go back and say that it’s not happening!

Thirdly, looking for problems is boring and hard. We don’t want to think about problems, we want to generate ideas, have fun and be creative! It’s a cliché but looking for problems is actually about looking for opportunities, and that is creative. Is my team productive? Is the conversion rate of our web shop good or bad? Am I a good parent?…

To formulate a good problem, you need to quantify it with a good metric and assign some kind of value to it. Metrics are hard but some metrics are better than no metrics. A simple exercise to find a good metric is to think about the problem in a worst case scenario.

What’s an extremely bad web shop? Zero customers.

What’s an extremely bad tech team? Zero items shipped to production.

What’s an extremely bad parent? Zero time with the kids.

These are your basic metrics and the problem/opportunity you can focus on.

If we are reluctant to think about problems. How do we make the shift?

My personal opinion is that this mindset boils down from managers (like me) and they need to enforce it. If you ask your team to report on KPI’s then they will. If you ask them to build a process on how to find their key problems, they will. I’m not saying it’s easy. But it’s my firm belief that this can be achieved.

Min final words on this problem centric approach is that if you dare to ask why enough times, then you will realise your purpose as a business or even as an individual. I’ll continue with the product videos example to prove my point.

Product manager: Ok, so why is it important that people stick around on our website?
Marketing exec: Well, we have the best price on products they need, they should buy from us!
Product manager: Why do they need these products?
Marketing exec: Because our products removes the boring stuff from their lives so that they can have a happier life with their family!
Product manager: Ok, that’s pretty cool.
Marketing exec: Yeah.