Product Management

Product Managers need to be strong Problem Managers. Here’s why.

Nathan Allsopp
November 4, 2017

All great products start with a strong problem — the reason why their product exists. People pick up their devices and download your app, or use your web app, because they’ve got an itch that you can scratch — a problem you can solve. 

As a result, I believe the fundamental starting point of Product Management is the problem. The problem plays two key roles for a Product Manager.

  1.  It is what makes users seek out your product in the first place; they’re hunting for a solution.
  2.  It helps define the key features, functionality, type of experience and details that are likely to be expected by such problem holders

I believe the problem to be the core of every product. As a result, I also believe every great Product Manager needs to be a great Problem Manager. Here’s why.

1 — There is more to the problem than just knowing what the problem is

Say what? Finding a problem can often be difficult. You have to hunt, duck and weave through a vast network of people to find those with unsolved needs. Once you find them, usually they’re itching to tell someone so they can get their problem solved.

Once you receive a problem, many Product Managers begin popping champagne and think they’ve cracked the jackpot. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a win — especially after a lot of hard work. But, there is still a lot of hard work left in this problem. You need to kick your thinking into overdrive.

How you say? Break your problem down into smaller, bite-size problems. Think about what causes those. Brainstorm solutions for them. Consider whether various combinations of solutions make a feasible product. Ask more questions. Tear your hair out when you’ve thought about the problem too much and it all sounds the same. Repeat until you’re confident you know the problem inside out.

2 — Plenty of people will want to tell you about solutions, not the problems

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster cars” — Henry Ford.

Yes, as unoriginal as this quote may be, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard “I’ve got awesome solution Y because there are some problems around this area, so Y would solve my problem!”. Considering old mate Henry Ford’s quote, just building Y isn’t always the best idea. People think they know what they want, but in reality some of the most innovative modern day products didn’t come from market research telling us exactly what to build. 

Don’t get me wrong — there are bound to be times where Y might actually be a feasible solution. However, that isn’t the point. The key part is to massage that thinking and find the problem. Why does someone want that solution? Where does that pain or need come from? If you receive a great idea, but are unaware of the problem or never bothered to ask about it, good luck trying to build a suitable product. Somewhere along the way, when the details start becoming important, you won’t really understand why you are doing it.

3 — There is more than one way to solve a problem

As humans, we all think about things in a slightly different way. We’re subjective creatures — we have feelings, biases and opinions that steer us in certain directions. As a result, different people have different answers to the same problem.

An example of this is a competitive marketplace. There is a key problem or need that is feasible enough for many competitors to enter, each with a somewhat unique solution. Product Managers need to keep up with competitor features and experiences, and if necessary make a reaction. A Problem Manager needs to focus on how their own product holistically solves a problem in comparison to a competitor. Following your competitors won’t always be the best course of action. Remember, they’re also trying to find the best way to solve a problem, but neither of you have a book on the perfect product. You need to consider whether certain features add value to your solution, or are unnecessary and clutter the product.

4 — Problems are prone to change shape as time goes on.

When you start building a product, you work off a clear problem. If you nail the product and users love it, competitors may start to pop-up as they sniff a great opportunity. All of a sudden, there are numerous solutions to problem A. Customers may start considering that now A is solved, B is a closely related problem they need solved.

This is really how a product roadmap is formed — you listen to users, see what their next pain points are, consider what is really necessary and slot them into part of the future plan. Finding new or related problems is a great idea for growth. But, as you expand, you need to think even more about how each feature impacts different problems. Some features may have a good impact on one problem, but not the other. As a product grows, a Problem Manager needs to be able to juggle differing problems and their solutions.

Credits to Nandha for the icons in use. You can refer to them here.

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