Take a cautious approach to problem-solving

If you want to be a bad product manager, solve a problem as soon as it becomes apparent. Why let something linger when you can take care of it? A product manager needs to be seen as someone who will “do” things, not just “think” about them. When a problem comes along, you must fix it as soon as possible. Sure, you may spend a lot of your time in this way, and it may distract you from other things, though this is really the best use of your time, isn’t it?

If you want to be a good product manager, do not immediately solve every problem which presents itself. It is often tempting to fix an issue as soon as it appears, though there are many good reasons to not rush to address problems:

  1. If you fix the problem right away, you may not be addressing the underlying issue that caused the problem in the first place. In fact, in most cases, there is a root cause which is likely not visible on first glance. This applies to many areas in product management, most notably in addressing requests from customers. This has been discussed here in several different posts, including Stop Gathering Requirements, Follow up on requests to learn more, Find solutions that address multiple problems.
    However, this concept applies to other areas of product management as well. There are many times when “points of pain” which are readily apparent can be traced back to root causes. Challenges within the product development process may be attributable to several factors. For example, releasing a product with many defects may initially appear to be a problem easily solved by adding additional Quality Assurance resources, though the real problem may be lack of appropriate details in product specifications. As another example, disagreements about prioritization for development work may cause many to push for a voting system, though the disagreements may be caused by an inconsistent view of the vision, strategy, and roadmap.

    In medicine, there is a saying that doctors should seek to treat the disease, not the symptoms, and product managers would be well served to follow this advice as well.

  2. Letting the problem subsist for a period of time may be the only way to get others to realize its severity. Parents often tell tales of how their children learned what not to do — not to touch a stove, for example — by letting the children try it once and learn for themselves that it is a bad idea. A similar approach can be taken in product development. Whenever you try to convince people to change or implement new ideas, you need to show them why the changes you are proposing are needed. Without understanding the need for change, people will cling to the status quo.
    For example, you may want to implement a requirements management tool because of the problems you see with how requirements are managed. Rather than spending all of your energy telling people why it is needed and doing demos of the various products, you may be better off letting the current requirements process show its weaknesses. Perhaps you have a new version of your product which is close to release, yet you know that there are requirements which were likely lost along the way. Instead of insisting that the release be held up, you can foreshadow the issues before the launch and let the product be released. If you are correct, it will soon be apparent to all that requirements were mistakenly never implemented because of the faulty requirements management system.

    This tactic needs to be used carefully. As product manager, you are still responsible for the product in the end, even if you are trying to teach your team a lesson or tell them “I told you so.” However, in many cases, it is possible to use smaller projects or specific aspects of the product as examples which can prove your point and make the case for change.

  3. Problems may not be as severe as you originally thought. Often, when an issue presents itself — defect in the product, complaint from a customer, argument in a meeting — there is a rush to resolve it immediately. A product manager will often break focus from the really important things — strategy, roadmap, getting out of the office to talk with customers — and instead spend energy on “fire fighting.”
    However, issues are rarely so important that they must be resolved immediately, and seldom are they more important than the larger strategic activities on which a product manager should be spending his or her energy. In the heat of the moment, every problem appears to be major, though with time, the importance of most usually diminish. The truly severe problems will become apparent quickly, and this will allow you to focus more attention on the major issues rather than the crisis of the day.
  4. More time gives you more opportunity to find the right solution. In a rush to find answers before we even understand the full extent of the problem, we often choose the first idea which comes to mind. While this may be an acceptable solution, with more time to understand the issue, look for underlying problems, and brainstorm solutions, it is likely that a better solution can be determined. While more time does not guarantee more or better solutions, it is at least certain that you will not have fewer ideas or worse solutions if you provide more time to consider your options.

The next time a problem comes along, resist the urge to take immediate action. Take a strategic — not tactical — approach to problem-solving by evaluating the issue and considering possible underlying causes along with the overall severity. By not responding immediately to every issue, you will spend less time putting out fires and more time on the true value-adding strategic aspects of product management.

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13 thoughts on “Take a cautious approach to problem-solving

  1. I think this is great advice for life in general. I am not sitting here waiting for my R&D team to finish a build which is being delayed because they moved files around to clear space instead of just moving to the new storage server we got. Saved 5 minutes a week ago costing them 3 hours so far today. guess this is going to be a long weekend for the QA team.

  2. When a problem arises, we have our own orientation towards that problem in terms of time. Our time orientation may start out reactive, where we just have to fix the problem now, transition to predictive, and, we hope, ends up proactive where the problems that could happen have already been addressed. Peace of mind comes when we are acting proactively.

    Problems may also require a lag, in which you can’t even think about the problem actively. The solution will come, so don’t be affraid to wait.

    One dev organization brrought in a leader to change their processes. The changes were so gradual that the programmers where chomping at the bit to make the changes. Still, those changes came almost imperceptively. Adoption was never an issue.

    How many of the problems that we are reacting too have been known problems for quite a while?

  3. Have to say that I don’t agree with this at all. Sticking your head in the sand is never good, if you don’t address the problems early they will grow. Small problems will become big ones. If you don’t find the underlying problem when your solving a problem, then you need to look at new problem solving methods.

    I think Toyota and Lean methodology approach is much better. When you find a problem you stop the line and fix the problem so it never occurs again.

  4. I see your point, though I’ve seen time and time again people fixing the symptoms without trying to diagnose the disease. Yes, it doesn’t make sense, but it happens all the time. Often, this is because people jump to immediately solve the easy problems — which are often insignificant ones — and ignore the hard problems — which are usually the really crucial ones — simply because they are hard, time-consuming, expensive, or difficult to solve.

  5. I agree with you that people take the easy way out. But the problem is not waiting but how they solve the problem.

    Stop the line mentality makes it hard to only fix the easy problem because the line will be stop when the underlying problems starts to surface.

  6. I think the good product manager is one who is flexible in problem-solving techniques. Recognition of the root problem and any interdependencies is crucial from the get-go, and a good product manager should know when to stop the line for an immediate fix or look more strategically and use the problem as a developmental building block. So, I think you both (Emil and Jeff) are correct!

  7. I can remember a situation that you could think of as a line. It was stopped. We were trying to get it started again. We spent the day focused on it, and we got nowhere. It wasn’t until we went home and got some sleep. The answer was found in the shower. That’s where a lag can be productive. It isn’t sticking your head in the sand.

    The other lags will stem from dependencies.

    Another lag will be the one where you chase the quick fix, the intermediate fix, and then the final fix as you explore the problem space. There is no one right answer. There is no one right timeframe, or time to solution. It will depend on how accurate your fix needs to be, how much it can cost, and all the other constraints. The right solution would be wrong in other contexts.

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