Are You a Real Problem Solver?

Problem-solving is one of the core characteristics of product managers. But the ability to solve customer problems does not always translate into the ability to solve problems for your own company. It is a slightly different skill to master, but very important for your ability to succeed.
Photo by Xavi Cabrera on Unsplash

When I was head of product at eBay I participated in an executive leadership training program. One of the sessions was a panel of senior executives from both eBay and PayPal (they were still together at the time). The panel included people from different backgrounds and professions, from entrepreneurs who joined the company through an acquisition and landed right at the top, to people who started as CS reps and now run the whole organization. They told us their stories and answered questions from the audience. 

One of the questions was about what distinguishes those who succeed and climb up the organizational ladder from those who don’t. At this point, the panel almost unanimously agreed, that to succeed you must be someone who solves problems for senior management.

Some of you might be appalled by this statement and think that it contradicts your ability to lead. You might think it means that one has to be obedient to succeed. Well, it doesn’t, unless it’s done the wrong way. But when done right, this mindset causes the exact opposite and allows you to make the impact you really want to make.

Since as product managers we all take pride in our ability to solve problems, here is a quick guide that will allow you to take this important skill and apply it within your company. By doing so you will be helping your customers, the company, the management, and yourself. It is a win for everyone, so you better start practicing right away.

Note: I mentioned eBay as a large corporate, and the organizational ladder as a goal. Maybe you are in a much smaller company, already a leader or even a co-founder, so climbing up the ladder is not what you are after. But everything I say here still holds. This guide is about relationships within management and the impact you will be able to make, so the methods mentioned below are very relevant and can help you regardless of the position you are in.

This guide includes three levels that you might be acting in as a problem solver. Identify where you are at and use the advice here to move yourself to the next level.

Level 1: Identifying and Raising Problems

As product leaders, we are in a unique position to identify cross-functional problems. We are like the head of the organizational octopus, where we have interaction and even dependency on each and every arm of the organization. So when things don’t work as they should, we would know.

Many of these issues are operational: the handshake between one function to the other isn’t smooth, too much time is spent on a certain phase, communication is broken, etc. Other issues are related to the product success: conversion rates are dropping, customers are finding too many issues, certain areas of the product are too shaky, and so on. What is common to all of these examples is that they are all issues that you can see and feel today.

The more strategic you are, the more you have visibility into problems that will occur in the future unless, of course, you do something to avoid them until then. These problems are harder to spot since they surface only as part of a thorough strategic analysis, and if you catch them early enough, they occur only on paper. As a result, any discussion on those issues is more abstract, and as much as it was difficult for you to identify the problem and clearly articulate it, others are having a hard time fully grasping it.

To excel at this level, make sure you can clearly explain the problem and why it matters. Take the time to think about it, since what comes to mind isn’t necessarily the answer. Ask yourself (or have someone asking you) why it is important, what would happen if you don’t solve it – soon enough or at all, and how big the risk is. Once you have clearly articulated what your concern is, look for data that will support your claim. Walk the extra mile to help people see things the way you do, and convince them that this is worth looking into.

When you are ready, present your case to the relevant people. Depending on how big or controversial it is, you might want to approach them one by one first, and only then foster a group discussion. Of course, you can involve them earlier, but then the framing should be that you have a concern and you want them to help you understand if it is indeed a real one.

At this level, your goal is not only to be able to point out a problem but also to convince relevant stakeholders that this problem needs to be addressed. When you do that, don’t talk about solutions yet. You want to first get everyone to agree that the problem exists and is important enough.

Level 2: Suggesting Alternatives and Solutions

If you stop at level 1 above, you are already doing great service to your company, but it might put you in a problematic position. You might come across as the one who only tells others that what they are doing is wrong, and while you might be 100% true, this does not often lead to a very productive working relationship. Moreover, people might get tired of hearing you say that they are missing something, to the point that they will stop listening altogether

Even if you only share this with your manager, who should have a stronger incentive to want to solve the problem, in the dynamics between the two of you what you just did is adding yet another thing that they need to handle into their already endless list. So even if they fully agree that this needs resolution, you end up giving them more work to do themselves instead of helping them get more done (don’t forget that that’s probably why you were hired in the first place). 

Start training yourself so that every time you raise an issue to your manager, you already have a recommendation as to how to solve it. It is actually best to have a number of alternatives to choose from (like many other things, three is a magic number here too).

This can help you especially if the solution isn’t necessarily within your operational responsibility, which is often the case. Having a number of alternatives here allows you to balance the impact on various stakeholders with different alternatives. For example, a product onboarding issue can be solved with better documentation, a change in product design, or even better marketing focus to make sure people know what to expect when they get to experience the product. Each alternative is impacting a different function, and if you present a balanced approach this will be perceived as less personal or political and more to the point. It can encourage people to focus on doing the right thing since they won’t get defensive.

Level 3: Making a Recommendation That Everyone Can Accept

You might be already operating in level 2 above, at least in some cases, just to find out that you still weren’t able to get a decision and move forward with a solution. If you articulated the problem clearly, explained the importance of it, backed it up with data, suggested a number of alternatives to choose from, and still weren’t able to drive a decision, most likely all the alternatives you presented weren’t viable in some form.

Especially when it comes to strategic issues, which tend to be manifested only in the future, if no alternative is spot on it is much easier to simply not decide. There is no real pressure right now, and accepting an alternative that is not good enough does not seem like the right tradeoff to make. 

One example that comes up a lot is when you are asking to compromise short term gain in favor of long term gain. As a mature startup CEO once told me, “this is a decision I simply cannot make”. When you are asking the CEO to make that decision, you are bound to fail, because if they did go with your recommendation they would be making too much of a compromise to their overall responsibility for the company. So while they might understand that the problem you are raising is a real one, and while you might have tried to operate at level two above, effectively you left them back at level one – where they understand the problem but have to figure out a solution themselves.

To come up with a viable alternative – one that would be easier to accept – you must address all of the stakeholders’ needs. To do that, of course, you need to fully understand their point of view, and it would be best if you make it something you do regularly so that when you need their point of view you already have it. In the example above, if you fully understand the CEO’s responsibility and how they see things, how the company is measured by the investors and the market, and what is the impact of missing expectations, you would understand that you need to come up with a solution that minimizes the hit on the short term gain.

How to do that? Luckily you are a master in solving problems that need to meet multiple constraints! Apply the skills you already have as a problem solver with this new focus in mind, and you can drive decisions at a whole new level.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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