Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Great product managers are masters at problem solving. They focus on how to move forward rather than getting stuck on the why the problem occurred. We examine how product managers could take a proactive approach to problem solving. Lets now look at a few behavioural and leadership traits you should develop to help you become a great problem solver.
1. Don't assume that people have already thought about the solution
2. Be open to solving the problem through different lenses
3. Chip in to solve a problem even if it sits outside your domain of expertise
4. Lead the discovery process with the team
5. Understand the pros and cons of each solution option
6. Sometimes you have to go tactical at first
7. Prototyping the solution may help you visualise and test the hypothesis
8. Keep the communication lines open with everyone who needs to know
9. Dont be afraid to ask for help, we are all in it together
10. Keep a journal of what worked and did not work
Creative problem solving should be one of the key traits of being a great product manager. During the course of your work you will invariably come across odd situations where something is not working as expected or there is something which a specific client has asked for which your product cannot solve for. Its very easy to be tempted to say that this will go into the product backlog and will be dealt with at due course. The reality is different, there are immense pressures today to sometime get the issue resolved and its not anyones fault but a solution does need to be put on the table to address the concerns which are being raised.
For a long time the focus was on conducting root cause analysis to determine the source of the problem. This approach while valid does not necessarily solve the problem at hand, it may give you clues on what went wrong and provide avenues for exploring what the solution should be. In the agile world where we live in the concept of root cause analysis may have a lesser impact as we are building products in an iterative manner and not everything may be built at the time the problem surfaced. It is important to still understand the problem which is being posed and why that problem exists. I wouldn't spend too much time analyzing that as it takes you away from the real task at hand which is to solve the problem.
Lets now look at a few behavioural and leadership traits you should develop to help you become a great problem solver.
Don't assume that people have already thought about the solution
When a problem surfaces it could be tempting to assume that someone else in the team will pick it up and solve the issue at hand. As a product manager this is the number one mistake you could actually make.
In many organisations problems dont get solved unless someone takes the leadership to resolve the issue and pulling the necessary parties together.
Depending on the severity of the problem you may at the worst case pull people out of their meetings and even out of bed to get a team together. With so many digital applications running 24 x 7 you may not have the luxury to think about addressing the problem after the weekend. During the course of the discussions with the team get an understanding of the problem statement and throw the floor open for everyone to speak up and share what the different solutions could be. Act like a moderator if you need to, give the juniors a chance to share their views. Pepper the team with a bunch of questions and probing thoughts so that you can steer everyone during the conversation to a plausible outcome.
Be open to solving the problem through different lenses
There are many ways to often solve a problem. So don't lock yourself into a box with the thinking that the problem can only be solved say by fixing something on the Technology side. Depending on the nature of the problem you could open up your options by looking at solving the problem through other lenses. For example you could have an operational process to in place to tackle the issue from arising. You could also provide more training to the end users or provide more training material and have regular sessions with the users. Depending on your situation be open to seeing new ways out of the problem your facing.
Chip in to solve a problem even if it sits outside your domain of expertise
When we work as a team there should be no boundaries when it comes to sharing of ideas and solutions even if your not an expert. We may hold back our thoughts and opinions because we feel we are not qualified to make a comment. Recently I was facing an issue and actually the whole problem could have been simplified by just making a business decision, rather than asking for a system change to be made. This was pointed out to me after many hours of discussion by a colleague in the technology team. When I heard that, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed that the person thought out of the box. The person went out of their way to make that suggestion and was willing to do so because there was an environment of mutual trust within the team.
There are no such things as bad ideas in problem solving, encourage your team to speak up and demonstrate their creative problem solving skills.
Lead the discovery process with the team
When problems emerge its very easy to start the blame game. When people get pulled in together there could be some apprehension and discomfort and lack of clarity on how to actually move towards the solution.
As a product manager you should take charge of the situation and lead the solution discovery process with your team. You may not know it but taking charge of the situation will put people at ease.
Dont expect a solution to come up within the first meeting, give the team some time to reflect on the situation after the first meeting, dont force for a solution. Call for a second meeting to hear the various solution options and then raise all your questions on the proposals before finalising the solution. If required you may need a third meeting where you have all the facts and solution designs presented to you so that you can make a decision. A good way to force an outcome is to set expectations in the first meeting on when your want to resolve the situation, state your timelines so that people know that the clock is ticking. Also offer to extend your help to other teams if they need some direction or communication to be sent out to get things moving.
Understand the pros and cons of each solution option
Once your team has had a chance to come back with the various solution options you should spend some time to critically assess the mertis of each of them. Remember a solution may have a knock on effect on another aspect of your product which may not have been considered when the people were putting on their problem solving hat on. As a product manager you should have a birds eye view of your product as well as have a deep understanding of the intracies. Its in situations such as these that your true expertise comes out as you should be able to see how all the peices fit together. Some tips on how to filter through the options are :
How long does it take to make this happen?
Whats the cost impact?
What are the pre-requisites?
What is the downside to the solution?
How does it impact the end user experience?
Do we need to engage other departments?
Is any customer communication required?
How can we validate that the solution will work?
Is there a plan B if this doesnt work?
How does this solution affect other users / clients?
Sometimes you have to go tactical at fiirst
The Rolling Stones has a monumental song when I was growing up and it was called "You can't always get what you want" and this is the same when it comes to problem solving and solutioning. We all have constraints within which we need to operate in typically they are time, budget, resources. Keeping these in mind you would need to perhaps weigh in with an approach of taking a tactical route first to fix the problem and adopt a strategic solution at a later stage which would require more time and costs. Some product managers may not like to take a band-aid kind of approach which is fine if you have unlimited resources, however most of us product managers have to operate within a certain set of constraints which doesnt leave much room.
Prototyping the solution may help you visualise and test the hypothesis
At times we need visual tools to help everyone get onto the same page. The best way to do this is to create a low fidelity prototype to demonstrate what the solution could like. If your in the technology space it may be some mockup wireframes of an application. If your in manufacturing it could be a 3D printed model and so forth. Share the prototype with others to get more feedback and perhaps even your end user or the customer. Sometimes the insights which are obtained through this process are very valuable and can allow you to refine the solution even further.
Keep the communication lines open with everyone who needs to know
During the problem solving discovery, solutioning and implementation process it would be prudent to share some communication on a perioidic basis so that people know what is happening and that your not sitting on it. Yes this opens up to some more pressure being applied to you and the team but I say thats healthy pressure and think of it as they you have their support. The criticality of the problem may require hourly communication in some cases, if not so critical then a weekly updated would be acceptable.
Don't be afraid to ask for help, we are all in it together
As you lead the team through the messy middle you may realise that you may need more help to get things done.
Do not be afraid to ask for that help. People are more than willing to lend their expertise to the solution if they are engaged early enough, this is why the communication aspect is equally important.
When asking for help, be very clear on what assistance is required and if its time bound then mention the tasks that they need to help you with and for how long. Just rememeber ownership of the overall problem resolution still sits with you as you are the project manager. Be cognisant of the fact that the "help" have their own daily jobs as well so you may need to be flexible in terms of timelines and you may need to arrange regular follow ups with them. Sometimes they may prefer to give you responses verbally and not via email.
Keep a journal of what worked and did not work
Great product managers make good notes and have a record of the decisions they have made. You dont need to keep a detailed journal like a personal diary but does help to keep taking notes on a regular basis so that you can review the assumptions that were made and how the problem was being solved. This kind of documentation will also serve you well in the future if you need to retreive information. Also what i have noticed is that when you casually look back at your notes from say a year ago you could end up reflecting on what you could have done better in hindsight. This is how we learn from our experiences and we can do a better job the next time should a similar problem present itself.
Share the experience on overcoming the problem with others
If you have regular team stand ups its worthwhile to share your experience. Your experience could be a valuable insight and could help your colleague from making a similar mistake. It may also spur up conversations on what could have been done better. The best way to learn is to teach, and so I have noticed in my career that everytime i do teach someone I feel more confident about my own work.
I hope these insights will help you refine your approach to problem solving in you product management career. Take you time to develop these traits and be aware of them as you lead your teams during the messy middle. I welcome your thoughts and experiences on how you lead your teams in solving problems. Register yourself at productcoach.net and help the community.