Focus on the problem

It is human nature to solve problems. Whenever we hear about problems, we go into solution mode almost immediately: we start looking for solutions to the problem. However, if we are able to get a better understanding of the context in which the problem occurs and the motivation to solve it before jumping into solution mode, there are more chances of finding solutions that are simpler and easier to implement.

It is common to see other areas in the organization asking the product development team to implement feature A or B because we need it to close a deal or to not lose that big customer. A common example I have heard for sometime back in 2019 was “we need to implement Apple Pay and Google Pay as a new payment method”. The issue is that, talking about solutions, we lose focus on the problem that originated that solution.

What is the problem?

To help people focus on the problem, always ask “What is the problem?” When a new feature request arrives for the product development team, we must thank the requester and then ask about the problem that generated the request. Each member of the product development team must have this behavior whenever a request for a new feature is received.

By putting this into practice, requests will soon come with not only a solution but also a lot of information about the problem. It is interesting to see this cultural change, but it requires discipline from members of the product development team to always ask about the problem. And when I mention the members of the product development team, I’m referring to everyone, not just product managers, but also designers and product engineers.

Problem vs. solution mindset

The main advantage of focusing on better understanding the problem is that the more time we invest in it, the easier it will be to find a solution and there are good chances that this solution will be simpler and faster to implement than the first solution we thought of.

Here is a great quote from Albert Einstein:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

Einstein believes that the quality of the solution you generate is in direct proportion to your ability to identify and understand the problem you are trying to solve.

Let me tell you a little story to illustrate this. During the space race, scientists were faced with the problem of writing in space where there was no gravity to make the ink fall into a ballpoint pen. The Americans started their R&D efforts and after some time and a few million dollars, they built a pen with a small engine that pumps ink onto paper, even without gravity. Meanwhile, the Russians decided to use pencils.

Pen that writes in weightless environments

This story shows a good example of how jumping straight to the solution can make us spend unnecessary time and money to come up with incomplete or exaggerated solutions. It is a cultural issue, that is, a behavior that we can and must change. And the first step in changing a behavior is to recognize when it happens. When a member of the product development team receives a request to implement something, he must ask the person who brought the request what is the problem that this “something” should solve and why it needs to be solved.

Here are some examples of the companies I worked for.

At Locaweb, a web hosting provider in Brazil, hosting and e-mail services may stop working due to external factors such as the domain that is associated with hosting and e-mail not being renewed.

First solution: Registro.br, the Brazilian registrar of .br domains launched an API to allow Locaweb to charge the customer’s domain on behalf of Registro.br. At first, the idea seemed good, as Locaweb charging the domain seemed to be the easiest way to ensure that the customer knows that they have to pay for the domain registration to keep hosting and email services working properly. However, when we analyzed further, we saw that this solution could cause some problems. The customer would be charged twice for the same domain registration because Registro.br would continue to charge the domain. What happens if the customer pays both bills? What if he only pays for Registro.br? What if he only pays Locaweb? In addition, implementing a new type of billing in which we would charge for a third party service was something new for the Locaweb team. New processes would have to be carefully designed.

Implemented solution: we started to wonder if there would be simpler ways to solve the problem of helping our client not to forget that he has to pay for the domain registration at Registro.br. As it would be possible to charge for Registro.br services, it was possible to access information about the domain about to expire. We decided to design a simpler solution: implement a communication sequence with the client warning him of the importance of paying Registro.br to ensure that the email and hosting services continue to function normally. This is a much simpler solution than implementing a double billing process. If Registro.br provides us with the billing URL, we can send the information from this link to the customer and the chances of solving the problem will increase even more. And a communication sequence is much simpler and faster to implement than a duplicate billing process.

At Conta Azul, a SaaS ERP for MSBs (micro and small businesses), we used accountants as one of our distribution channels and we wanted to increase sales through accountants.

First solution: batch purchases, where accountants would acquire a fixed number of Conta Azul licenses to resell to their customers. A batch purchase management system would take about 3 months to implement, as it should allow accountants to purchase Conta Azul licenses in bulk, but it should only start charging the accountant’s customer when that customer actually activates the license.

Implemented solution: accountants didn’t care about batch purchases. What they wanted was to give a discount to their customers so that they could subscribe to Conta Azul with this exclusive discount provided by their relationship with us. The cost to implement this was zero, as the system already had a discount management feature.

At Gympass, a fitness partner who was joining our network asked us to present his waiver to all users who checked in to their facilities.

First solution: change our app to ask users who go to this fitness partner to read their waiver on our app and click a checkbox stating that they have read and agreed.

Implemented solution: no changes to our app. We use a customizable text field when configuring a gym in our system that is typically presented to users who will check in at that gym to present the following text: “By checking in, you agree to the terms and conditions located at http://fitnesspartner.com/waiver”.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that everyone brings solutions whenever we want to discuss something to be done by the product development team. The more solution ideas we have, the better. However, we need to educate ourselves to have a deeper understanding of the problem behind this solution, so that we have a chance to find simpler and faster solutions to implement. And it is ultimately the job of the product manager and all the members of the product development team to ask what the problem is and why we need to solve it.

Projects vs. problems

The New Year is a time for retrospective and planning. What is normally done every quarter by most product development teams is done more intensively at the turn of the year, in conjunction with other areas of the company. It is the annual planning process, which usually comes with the budgeting process. What will we do in this new year that is coming? What are the main projects that we will work on throughout the year?

Even though planning is super important to be clear about which projects are priorities for the new year, this list of projects can make you lose sight of a very important aspect of planning, the “why”.

It is not uncommon to see new year planning for a product development team, and even for the entire company, as a list of projects. To help you see your list of projects at a different perspective, I recommend you add 2 columns:

  • one to describe what problems you are trying to solve in each project;
  • and another to describe who you’re trying to solve this problem for.

I have already discussed the issues of having a problem-oriented mindset versus a solution-oriented mindset, but when it comes to New Year planning, that problem is even more evident. The benefits of being clear about the problems you want to solve and for whom you plan to solve them are:

  • Ensuring that problems are aligned with the company’s vision and strategy: When we focus on projects, it is easy to lose sight of the problems we are trying to solve, for whom we plan to solve, and if these are the problems we really need to solve.
  • Define which problems are most important to solve: prioritize projects without knowing which problems these projects solve, and for whom, it can make priorities unaligned with what is really important for the company. However, to be more effective in bringing the desired result, we must prioritize the problems to be solved and ensure that the prioritization is aligned with the company’s vision and strategy.
  • Solve more than one problem with the same project: Sometimes you may find that you are trying to solve more than one problem with a project, and this may not be a problem. But you need to know that. Perhaps you can have simpler solutions if you address each problem separately. Perhaps not all are worth resolving at this point.
  • Check if the projects are the best solutions: when we change the focus of the projects to the problems and we have clear visibility of the priority of the problems, it is easier to check if the projects listed are the best solution for the problem in question. Sometimes, we can find solutions that are easier to implement when we shift our focus to understanding problems.

Then take your list of projects and create these two columns, problems to be solved in each project and for whom the problems will be solved. This will help you to focus on the most important things for this new year.

Problem solving teams vs. solution implementing teams

Marty Cagan, a well-known reference in the digital products community, wrote an interesting article some time ago about product teams x feature teams, where he explains the difference between three types of teams, delivery teams, feature teams, and product teams. It defines each type of team as follows:

  • Delivery teams are not multifunctional (basically just developers plus a product owner who manages the backlog), are not focused on the result (people are all oriented towards delivering features) and have no autonomy (they are there to encode and deliver).
  • Feature teams are usually multifunctional (they have at least one designer and a product manager), but are still concerned with the production and delivery of features.
  • Product teams are multifunctional, focused and evaluated by the result, and have the autonomy to present solutions that work.

He explains that the best results for the organization that owns the product and for the users of that product come from the teams he calls product teams. He has used the word empowered a lot to describe these teams.

Any digital product exists for two main purposes:

  • Help the company that owns the digital product to achieve its goals.
  • Solve problems and meet the needs of its users.

Therefore, any digital product and its functionalities are solutions to problems of the company that owns the product and solutions to solve the user’s problems and meet their needs.

In this digital product context, when I say that spending more time understanding the problem produces the best solutions, I mean that we are able to deliver the best product and features as quickly as possible to solve the problem with good software quality and a good user experience.

solve problems vs. implement solutions

What Marty describes as delivery teams and feature teams are teams of solution implementers. These teams work on implementing a solution conceived by someone else. And that other person is usually someone from the so-called “business area” who can be someone from sales, marketing, customer success, customer support, finance, operations, a director, a vice president, or a founder. In such a team, the product manager mainly manages the backlog and helps the team to deliver the requested solution, the product designer focuses mainly on designing a pleasant interface, and engineers have to code and deploy the requested solution. The solution implementation teams do as they are asked to do, with little or no commitment to the quality of the solution, or even if the solution implemented really solves the problem. They may also be called a “feature factory”. Its performance is measured by the amount of functionality that the team produces.

On the other hand, what Marty describes as empowered product teams are problem-solving teams. These teams work to deeply understand the causes of the problem, the context, and the motivation that people have to solve it. In doing so, they are able to implement the best solution for the problem at hand.

There are three main reasons why problem solving teams are more effective than solution implementing teams:

  • Digital product knowledge: There is no one better than team members to find the best digital product solution to a problem. A solution delivered as quickly as possible, with good software quality and good user experience. This is because a team of problem solvers is a multifunctional team made up of engineers who understand the technology available, product designers, who have a deep understanding of users, their pains and needs, and product managers, who have a good understanding of the business context of the problem to be solved.
  • Two heads are better than one: this old saying means that it is easier for two people to help each other to solve a problem than for one person to solve a problem alone. A team of problem solvers does not rule out any suggestions for solutions from “business areas”. In fact, these solution suggestions are very useful in helping the team to better understand the problem, but they should be considered suggestions. A team of problem solvers first understands the problem and then looks at the solution options.
  • Commitment: An additional side effect of a problem-solving team is that members of that team are deeply committed to the successful implementation of the solution since they are deeply involved in the process of finding the solution.

Creation of problem solving teams

Now that I have explained why problem-solving teams are the best type of digital product team a company can have, I will explain how to build problem-solving teams. There are three aspects that need to be considered:

  • Environment: It is essential that the entire organization understands the power of having problem-solving digital product teams. The speed and quality of the solutions delivered by a digital product team that always starts to solve problems from a deep understanding of the problem are much better than the solutions delivered by teams of solution implementers. Consequently, business results will be better and faster. It is the role and responsibility of the product head to help the organization understand this.
  • What is the problem: A very effective way to focus the entire organization away from the solution mindset and closer to the problem mindset is to constantly ask “What problem are we trying to solve?” and “Why is it important to solve this problem?”. This will help people across the organization to change their perspective and, consequently, realize the importance of a deep understanding of the problem before implementing a solution. This is a behavior change that the entire digital product development team can help your organization make. Whenever someone asks the product team to implement something, ask “What problem are we trying to solve?”
  • Trust: This is a critical aspect of building successful problem-solver teams. Usually people in the “business area” believe they have a better understanding of the business than those of the product team. This behavior is even more visible when the digital product team is new to the organization. How can a new person in the organization understand more about the business than someone who has been with the company for years? She probably cannot, especially if she comes from a different market. However, those who are part of the digital product team usually have a lot of experience in building digital products, probably more experience than anyone else in the organization. Therefore, it is essential that the “business area” educate the digital product team about the business aspects of the organization. This search for education is the role and responsibility of product managers, who must learn from the “business area” and educate product designers and engineers about the business. A practical way to accelerate this learning is to bring people from the “business area” to the discussion sessions on the problem. This is how the product team gains the trust of the other areas of the organization.

I believe that the benefits of having digital product teams versus solution implementers teams are clear. The entire organization needs to understand the difference in order to push for more and more problem-solving teams. The head of product has this as one of her greatest responsibilities, helping to build the environment and the trust needed for the success of problem-solving teams.

The top-down trap

When I talk about the differences between problem solving teams vs solution implementing teams, I usually hear comments like “We want to be a problem solving team, but in my company all solutions are top-down and the only thing we can do is implement them “.

These situations worsen when a crisis arises. The most recent crisis that many companies are experiencing is the COVID-19 crisis. In an eagerness to solve problems as quickly as possible, company leaders ask teams to implement this or that solution quickly, very quickly.

The trap

Let me now approach the elephant in the room, the top-down decision-making environment. This has a huge impact on any team in this type of environment. Without being part of the decision about the solution, the people who implement the solution will end up discouraged and demotivated.

Why am I calling it a top-down trap? Because many of the decision-making environments perceived as top-down are what I just wrote, a perception.

Let’s use the main characteristic that every product manager should have, empathy. The ability of someone to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to understand their aspirations, motivations, needs, and problems. People I had the opportunity to talk to about the essential characteristics of a product manager know how important I consider empathy to be a critical trait for successful PMs.

Here are 2 tips to help product team members empathize with so-called top-down decision-makers and escape the top-down trap:

  • Understanding the situation: Put yourself in the place of the solution implementation requester. People solve problems, it is their nature, and whenever they encounter a problem, they jump into solution mode and try to find and implement solutions as quickly as possible. Under greater pressure, such as the COVID-19 crisis, the desire to find and implement solutions is exacerbated. In most cases, people do not want to be top-down decision-makers, they simply have a need to solve the problem as quickly as possible.
  • Changing the status quo: ask questions about the solution implementation request. What problem are we solving? For whom? Why is it important to solve this problem? Why now? Why do we need to deliver something fast, even while compromising quality? If you are asked the reason for so many questions, explain that you are trying to better understand the problem to see if there are other cheaper and faster to implement solutions.

These tips will help everyone on the product team make the move to a more collaborative decision-making process.

Most of the time, people understand the benefits of a collaborative decision-making process. Even under pressure, collaborative solutions will produce better results. Solutions designed in a collaborative process are usually cheaper and faster to implement because more people have had a chance to discuss solution options and the team that will implement the selected solution will be truly committed to your success.

To build, maintain and improve problem solving teams and avoid turning them into solution implementation teams, especially when under greater pressure, it is essential to avoid the top-down trap.

Heads of product have the role and responsibility to promote these behavioral changes to help build a more collaborative and, consequently, more effective decision-making process.

Summing up

  • A very important step in creating a good solution is understanding the problem. When we hear about a problem, we immediately start thinking about solutions. However, the more time we spend learning about the problem, the easier it will be to find a solution, and chances are good that this solution will be simpler and faster to implement than the first solution we thought of.
  • If you have a list of projects to do, create two more columns in that list, one for problems to be solved by each project and another for whom the problems will be solved. This will help you to focus on the problems to be solved, not the projects, which are the solution.
  • Solution implementation teams are teams working on implementing a solution designed by someone else. Problem-solving teams are teams that work to deeply understand the causes of the problem, the context, and the motivation that people have to solve it. In doing so, they are able to implement the best solution for the problem at hand.
  • The top-down trap is the perception of the decision-making process being made by the leaders of the company, with no opportunity for the rest of the employees to participate. This perception is exacerbated when a company faces increasing pressure, such as the COVID-19 crisis.
  • People are solution-oriented, and the greater the pressure, the faster people want solutions to be implemented.
  • To help deal with this situation, use empathy to understand the requestor’s view of implementing the solution and ask him why it is necessary to implement the requested solution.
  • Product heads have the role and responsibility to promote these behavioral changes to help build a more collaborative decision-making process.

In the next chapter, we will understand more about the focus on delivering results.

Digital Product Management Books

Do you work with digital products? Do you want to know more about how to manage a digital product to increase its chances of success? Check out my Digital Product Management bundle with my 3 books where I share what I learned during my almost 30 years of experience in creating and managing digital products:

  • Startup Guide: How startups and established companies can create profitable digital products
  • Product Management: How to increase the chances of success of your digital product
  • Leading Product Development: The art and science of managing product teams

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