Are You Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

One of the challenges facing product managers is the difficulty balancing daily crisis and strategic work, which often results in the strategic taking a back seat. However, product managers have a unique opportunity to add value when a crisis is presented to them by ensuring that the problem is properly defined. All you need is proper timing, the appropriate methodology and some persuasion. Let’s focus on the methodology part.

Here comes the crisis of the day. Question to self: are we barking up the wrong tree? When handed a crisis to help resolve, there is a good chance that you’re given a problem formulation as well as a solution in the same breath. In the race to find a solution, you may be lead in the wrong direction without noticing it. Somewhere an executive or a key customer is upset, so time is of the essence and all you have to do is execute! Wrong. In fact, this is a perfect time for a problem restatement.

Please consider the difference between two descriptions of the same problem:

  • “The system is too slow and we need to buy more hardware” and
  • “The use case for this particular customer requires too many operations, negatively impacting network traffic and reducing system performance”

Which problem would you rather help solve?

Let me share an anecdote which I heard as a kid growing up in the 70’s in France. At that time the Paris architecture was changing and not for the better. Many companies relocated to the La Défense District, west of Paris. Towers were a new thing then for that part of the world and for the first time most companies were distributed across many floors. With no email, chat or cell phones, face-to-face meetings were more common, so employees were moving around a lot. As a result, employees started to complain about having to wait too long for the elevators. One company hired a statistician to work with the elevator installer to reduce the average wait by a whopping 20%. Despite this great achievement, the complaints kept on coming. Everyone was at a loss until the HR manager with a psychology background observed the employees waiting for elevators. The observation triggered the idea to place mirrors on the walls between the elevators. Complaints stopped immediately.

The problem was not that the wait was long; it was simply that during the wait employees were bored!

Since people (or Parisians at least) generally enjoy looking at themselves in a mirror, the issue solved itself. The problem was indeed stated incorrectly from the beginning and this error lead to the wrong course of action.

Nobody can be upset with you for trying to better understand the issue in order to solve it diligently and efficiently and perhaps recast it as an opportunity!

Based on personal experience, what is presented as a product problem may actually be a symptom and additional digging is required to uncover the true problem, as in the case of the elevators above. There are multiple ways of finding out if you are dealing with the problem itself or one of its symptoms and my favorite methods are the 5-whys, the fishbone diagram, as well as the “broaden-the-focus” method. I will not discuss each method in detail, since it has been done before quite well already. Instead, I will present why and in which context these methods can be used successfully.

–          The 5-whys method makes you ask “why” until you find a root cause which you can act upon. I like it because it is very simple, it can be done on the fly while discussing the crisis with the panic-stricken stakeholder. As part of the conversation, you can find the root causes of the problem together and mutually agree on a more accurate definition of the problem.

–          The Fishbone Diagram works better with a team of experts and in a company culture that is used to this type of exercise. It provides a more complete analysis of the root causes, and will typically convey more authority because, after all, it is the result of an expert team, not just the imagination of the product manager. A fishbone diagram can also be performed after the crisis is resolved.

–          The broadening-the focus technique tries to redefine the problems in terms that are more in tune with improving your product, by rephrasing this problem in a larger context. For example, if the crisis is caused by the customer dropping your product because there are “too many clicks”, your problem redefinition will be “how do we improve the user’s experience?”  This method works best if you want to demonstrate a pattern of similar issues. Capitalizing on repetition of the same crisis will give your problem definition more credence.

No matter what method you chose, one thing is almost certain: you will need to solve the problem as you redefined it AND the immediate crisis. However, documenting the issues and presenting an improved view of the problem will be beneficial to your team and your product in the long-term.