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Focus on The Problem More Than The Solution

Today I want to talk about a simple technique that many product managers overlook in their pursuit of shipping products fast.

That technique is: Focusing on the problem more than the solution.

Very often, product managers rush into solving the problem, and they:

  1. Create systems to identify promising ideas
  2. Follow processes to validate their ideas quickly
  3. Have robust product development practices to test, iterate, launch and measure

But what they don’t do is validate if they are solving the right problem.

Let me clarify with an example.

Assume you are the product manager at an online gaming company. Your manager, who just met with the product leadership, approaches you and lets you know that “we have decided to create a loyalty program for our most valuable players.”

You, as the product manager, can respond with two approaches:

You ask your manager a few clarifying questions about the solution, timelines, constraints, etc.

Then, you start the typical process: brainstorm loyalty program ideas, shortlist ideas, detail them, present them to your manager / other leaders, get a sign-off, test, develop, test, launch, measure.

Manager: We have decided to create a loyalty program for our most valuable players

PM: Ok. Can you help me understand why?

Manager: We want to retain our loyal users.

PM: Ok, and why the sudden shift of focus to retaining loyal users?

Manager: because acquiring new users is almost 3x more expensive than retaining users.

PM: but we always knew that. Has anything else changed that makes this a high priority right now?

Manager: yes, we need to reduce acquisition cost.

PM: And do we plan to spend that money somewhere else?

Manager: No, we need to reduce the overall cost across the company. We are aiming to be profitable in the next 18 months.

PM: so the real problem is to find ways to be profitable in the next 18 months, right?

Manager: yes.

With this extra context, should you (the PM) still create a loyalty program?

The answer is NO.

Let us understand why.

The conversation with your manager helped you understand that the actual problem is:

“How to be profitable in the next 18 months?”

and not

“How to create a loyalty program?”

You already know that profitability is a function of increasing revenue, decreasing costs, or both. And with this extra knowledge, you are not limited to creating the best loyalty program. Instead, you shift your focus to discovering other (better) solutions that will help in achieving the goal.

Just by identifying the real problem, you allow yourself the freedom to create a broader set of solutions. And more importantly, you empower yourself to create a solution that is guaranteed to succeed. With all this in mind, consider the following:

  • Don’t rush into execution mode every time you are solving a problem, because that increases the chances of solving the wrong problem. And that is a setup for failure, not success.
  • Even if you find yourself working on the wrong problem, stop and reset immediately. Do not use “speed” or “deadlines” as an excuse.
  • Always ask the right questions to discover the real problem. The five why’s is an excellent method to do that.

The last thing I’d like to add is that you must attach relevant constraints to your problem statement once you create it.

For example, one solution to reducing costs (and increasing profit) could be “reducing the number of customer support staff”.

While this might seem like a good solution, but it is actually not. Reducing customer support staff will typically lead to an increase in query response times, decrease in user satisfaction, and increase in user churn.

In such cases, you should sharpen the problem statement by adding constraints. For example, “How can we become profitable in the next 18 months without negatively impacting avg. query response time, user satisfaction score and churn rates?”

The solutions to this problem statement will have a much higher impact and chance of success.

I hope this post helps you understand the importance of focusing on the problem more than the solution; and, the next time you solve a problem, take a step back and ask yourself — “Am I solving the right problem?”

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