Focus on the problem, not the solution

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At a ProductTank last year one question from the audience made me want to jump up on stage and answer it myself – “where does the innovation and creativity go if product managers are defining all the products?”. Stop, I wanted to shout, you’re doing it wrong.

A lot of people new to the concept of product managers see us as interfering interlopers who design the product, define the solutions, and then throw it over the wall to get built. This may have been true 10 years ago but today we know better.

Product managers should not focus on designing solutions – they should focus on defining and prioritising problems. Focusing on the problem instead of the solution has a ton of benefits:

  1. You focus your time on the user’s need, what you’re trying to solve and why you need to solve it – not how.
  2. Your research automatically skews towards a deeper understanding of the user.
  3. Your user stories and personas become rich in background information which helps everyone involved make connections and find solutions that might not otherwise be obvious.
  4. You avoid optimising for local maxima – instead of focusing on one single solution focusing on the problem and describing it well to the team opens up a much wider universe of solutions.

Once you’ve done the research and defined, described and prioritised the problems, you work with the delivery team to collaboratively design the solution to that problem that best gets the job done. That way everyone’s creativity can be brought to bear and you will get a much better end result.

One of my proudest moments at Huddle was when a developer came up to me after a story writing session and presented a 10 minute solution to a problem that had been scoped out as a 3-5 day job (not that we counted man hours mind). This was only possible because he had a perfect picture of the user and the problem the user had.

So keep asking yourself – what problem are you trying to solve?

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  • http://twitter.com/johnpeltier John Peltier

    Nice post!  I have posted my response here – summarized by saying that the product manager is part of the product management team, and should involve the lead dev and user experience designer in designing the solution:
    http://johnpeltier.com/blog/2011/11/16/product-management-and-solution-design/

  • http://twitter.com/SmartSoftMarket Smart Soft Market

    Absolutely product managers should not design the solution, but they should describe the requirements in enough detail to ensure everyone’s on the same page.

    But sketching out e.g. wire-framing a rough idea of an example solution can help people with different skill sets, background understand (e.g. executives, product marketing, designers, engineers).

    Caveat here is being clear this is a sketch to show an example solution and should not be treated as THE solution

  • http://twitter.com/rahuldighe Rahul Dighe

    Couldn’t agree more …. I tell my team personally that my Job is to make you all be product managers or at the very least start thinking like one.

    I believe that’s the best way to scale a company – I am not going to be able to optimize on code you write or customer interaction you have or the amount of testing you have. But if you can think like me then I would be rest assured that we collectively will build the best product there is to build. 

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  • http://twitter.com/deleagagu Dele Agagu

    I really need to say a big thank you for your articles – insightful. Of recent I just transitioned from being a Developer to a Developmental Manager and all your articles about products can already comprehend on how I can apply to the developers that will be managing. They are essentially products. My core function at the moment is enhancing the developer’s experience (DX), fostering exponential growth in developer’s skillset (Tech), and finally optimizing the developer to achieve the business goals of the company while maximizing return on investment (Business).

    Your other article 
    What, exactly, is a Product Manager? essentially is the foundation of my job description at the moment!!thanks once again!!

  • http://twitter.com/deleagagu Dele Agagu

    I really need to say a big thank you for your articles – insightful. Of recent I just transitioned from being a Developer to a Developmental Manager and all your articles about products can already comprehend on how I can apply to the developers that will be managing. They are essentially products. My core function at the moment is enhancing the developer’s experience (DX), fostering exponential growth in developer’s skillset (Tech), and finally optimizing the developer to achieve the business goals of the company while maximizing return on investment (Business).

    Your other article 
    What, exactly, is a Product Manager? essentially is the foundation of my job description at the moment!!thanks once again!!

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