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Ditch the Solution-First Mindset and Start by Defining the Problem "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 25 April 2018 True Ideation, opportunity assessment canvas, Problem-Solving, Product Management, Product Team, Solutions, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1440 Product Management 5.76
· 7 minute read

Ditch the Solution-First Mindset and Start by Defining the Problem

Both in life and at work, we tend to come up with solutions before defining the problem they solve. From “I need to stop eating chocolate” to “let’s add Facebook Login to our online checkout”, we can’t help it. It’s natural – solutions and features are easy to imagine and talk about with other people. And coming up with a solution is a rewarding experience, it makes us feel like we have everything figured out

Problems, on the other hand, are much harder to articulate. We don’t want to think about our problems or needs. They’re a pain. They’re nebulous, they raise too many questions and they challenge our assumptions. We would rather stick with our ideas than take the risk and find out that we didn’t know anything at all!

Although  that solution-first mindset feels comfortable, it doesn’t give us the best odds for success. It sets us on a direction that might not deliver the value we expect and means we may miss other paths leading to a similar or better result. Why should I stop eating chocolate? Because I *think* it will help me to get into better shape. If that’s my goal, then there are probably more efficient things for me to try rather than giving up chocolate.

The same happens with our products. We compile a backlog of features to build. They are requests or ideas from our customers, sales team or senior stakeholders. Or they’re features that our competitors already have. We “know” we need them, they “feel” indispensable. We even make the effort to put together a business case explaining what value they will bring. And sometimes we are really onto something. But we rarely take the time to articulate the problem properly before we decide on a solution.

Unfortunately, some of these features – and probably more than we care to admit – don’t have the impact we expect. Adoption is low, our conversion rate hasn’t improved, and so on… We always feel like we’re lagging behind and that we need to keep building more features until everyone is satisfied.

What if we spent more time framing the problems we want to solve? Taking that step back is the first move to finding the best opportunities to deliver value with our products, and kill that urgency to always build more.

Start Discovery and Research on the Right Foot

Confirmation bias occurs in any type of research. We tend to collect information that confirms our hypotheses and give less weight to data that challenges our assumptions or highlights constraints and limitations. Focusing research on the problem (for example “do users have difficulties going through checkout and why?”) doesn’t entirely protect us from that bias, but it makes us more open-minded than using solutions as our hypothesis (for example “does Facebook login help our users go through checkout?”). Because you don’t start off with a specific idea to validate, you don’t have chips in the game. And you can explore all sides of the problem space without an inclination to a particular perspective.

Only Work on What Brings Value to Your Customer and Your Business

Is the feature you’re building solving a real problem? Is this problem based on existing customer needs? If you were to build a solution, would it change anything for your customers? And in turn, would it change anything for you? These are all fundamental questions you need to answer to make sure you invest your time and efforts in worthwhile opportunities.

Sometimes you will find out there wasn’t a problem to begin with, or it only had a negligible impact on your customers. And you will be able to move on to something else.

Or you will discover the problem can be better addressed with a different feature which delivers more value with less effort.

It is also possible that you confirm the feature you started with is the right one to build. “What a waste of time, I already knew we had to build this!”  It might be frustrating to come back to the same solution. But even when you think you have a fair understanding of the problem, it is important to take the time to spell it out.

The intention of problem discovery is not to ignore everyone’s ideas and start from scratch. It is to get the full picture of the problem. As close to the truth as you were initially, you will uncover assumptions to challenge, questions and hidden opportunities to explore, differences in understanding across your organisation and with your customers… and you will be better equipped to build your feature and create value.

Open the Door to Creativity and Innovation

Solutions act as creative “blinders”. Once you come up with a solution, it’s hard to diverge from it. You can try to generate alternatives, but without a clear picture of what the problem is, you either won’t get very far from your original idea or you will lose sight of what you were trying to achieve and end up with ideas that completely miss the point.

However, a well-defined problem is the perfect ground for creativity and innovation. In the form of expected outcomes, target groups, risks, and so on, it sets the rules for a well-designed game where there is no single way to victory. It leaves enough room for you and your team to find your own winning strategy. You have the chance to find a more clever solution to the problem than the standard feature everyone has, and move ahead of the competition.

Empower Engineering and Product Teams

There’s nothing less engaging than being fed solutions to build. Engineers, designers, product owners: their true value is not in writing specs for other people’s ideas or transforming these specs into code. It’s in solving problems and designing smart solutions. This doesn’t mean no one else can contribute ideas. But the product and engineering teams should have a say in what feature they should build.

Besides, if you ask a team to build a feature, their job ends when it’s delivered. So don’t be surprised if, when a feature doesn’t have the impact that you expected, no one rushes to fix it. You can’t hold anyone accountable for something you did not empower them to do, i.e. delivering value.

If instead you leave the problem with the team and give them the autonomy to build the right solution, then they won’t stop until that problem is solved. You have moved the finish line from delivering a feature to the realisation of value. This is a far more motivating goal for the team and a better result for your clients and your business. Everyone wins!

Problem First in Practice

So in practice, how do you start with the problem? Ideally, you should always be looking for opportunities to bring value to your customers and your business through continuous exploratory research. In reality though, you’re likely to keep coming up directly with feature ideas. Because ideation is messy and spontaneous. And it’s perfectly fine, as long as you then make the effort to reset the focus on the underlying problem.

Here is a tool we use at Spektrix to help us take that step back towards the problem: the opportunity assessment canvas.

It requires you to answer 7 questions:

  • What problem are we solving?
  • For which customers are we solving that problem?
  • What would be the desired outcomes for these customers?
  • What would be the desired outcomes for our business?
  • What is the competition doing to address that problem?
  • When do we need to address that problem?
  • Are there any critical factors to consider for success?

Filling out this canvas shouldn’t take more than half an hour. One member of our product team usually sits down with the person who came to us with a feature idea, or the person who is the most appropriate point of contact for a given feature, and they go through the questions together.

The goal of this exercise is only to outline the shape of the opportunity. It is a good way to start exploring the problem space and opens up to more questions. It should be followed by more research to refine the opportunity and its value, collect different perspectives both from various stakeholders in the business and from our customers, test assumptions,and answer outstanding questions.

Since we adopted it a few months ago, this canvas has helped our team to refocus the conversation from features to the opportunities within our business. It is an important step that you shouldn’t miss if you are moving towards a value-driven product development process, like we are.

Comments 4

What do some of your results/conversations around timing look like? Are you assigning a time frame? Urgency level?

Good article. I think there are times where you want to start with defining the results you want. Then engineer a solution that gets you the results. The problem in this case is figuring out a solution to produce the results. You don’t need to always go hunting for a problem. This is often the case where you are measuring something already and you want to improve that measurement. Of course you want to know why improving the measurement is of benefit. In cases like this, an orientation toward going after a solution follows fairly quick.

Kind of misses the point – in this case your problem would be “moving metric X” and there are still N solutions to that problem but without understanding the why you’ll never pick the best how.

Great great article! My team and me are often dealing with solving problems within complex business processes. In addition to the canvas, we exercise the ‘event storming’ method to get a clear and shared understanding of the existing context of a problem. In most cases, the insights gained by doing so, learn us a lot about the ‘why’ behind the problem and enable us to come up with even better solutions. Is anyone else using event storming in addition to the canvas for problem discovery?

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