If you want to be a bad product manager, don’t worry as much about defining the problem as quickly finding the solution. Problems are usually very obvious and clear, and any time you spend dwelling on it is wasted time that could be spent on solving it. The sooner you start solving the problem, the soon you’ll have it figured out. How hard is it to define a problem, anyway?
If you want to be a good product manager, get a good understanding of the problem before you try and solve it. Product managers and many others unfortunately assume the problem is evident and jump right to solving it. However, ill-defined problems lead to ill-defined solutions.
Albert Einstein purportedly said that, given one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes finding the solution.
One of the most important aspects of defining the problem is to “size” the problem properly. If you define the problem too narrowly, your possible solutions may be very limited and uncreative. If you define the problem too broadly, your solutions may be out of scope and irrelevant to the business context.
For example, pretend you are a product manager for a technology company which provides communication solutions for consumers. You are looking to identify unmet needs which your organization may be able to solve. This may seem very straightforward — simply talk with customers and prospects to identify unresolved problems, right? However, different definitions of the problem could produce drastically different solutions:
- Taking a very narrow view — “people have problems communicating using email” — would lead to a very specific solution. Google’s GMail was developed based on observed problems users had with organizing and effectively using email. The scope was intentionally limited and focused on email and email alone.
- Taking a slightly broader view — “people have problems communicating online” — would lead to a wider variety of different insights and potential solutions. Twitter and Facebook are two examples of solutions which fulfill the need to communicate online. They are different ways of communicating — not just email, obviously — though the focus is limited to web-based solutions.
- Taking a very broad view — “people need a better way of communicating” — would open up an extremely wide range of potential solutions, not limited just to the web. This could include any of the above examples as well as other solutions like OnStar and push-to-talk on mobile phones.
This is not to say that any one approach is better than the other. How you define the problem depends on your organization, your market, and your overall strategy. An automobile company may define the problem space related to transportation in a different way than a conglomerate whose products range from bicycles and motorcycles to airplanes and subway cars.
Going too far in either extreme may be unproductive and inefficient in many situations. Defining the problem too narrowly may inevitably only lead to incremental enhancements when broader innovations are desired. Similarly, defining the problem too broadly may produce irrelevant ideas which do not fit with the corporate strategy and which would never be pursued by the organization.
Product managers need to avoid the rush to write requirements and add features without having a clear understanding of what they are doing and why. Even problems which may seem clear can benefit from a fresh look and a new perspective. Qualitative research can help refine and redefine issues products are facing and uncover new ways to look at the market — and it need not take months of work and thousands of dollars to be effective.
As with many apsects of product management, extra time and effort up front defining the problem can save time and effort down the road. Framing a problem properly can help product managers balance their innovation efforts, focus research and customer understanding, and help clearly define their product and portfolio roadmap.