Focus on the problem, not the solution


Throughout our childhood and academic life, we are trained to give the right answers but not trained well enough to ask the right questions. Ever wondered why or what this does to our minds? Our minds are conditioned to believe that we must know all the answers else we might be labeled as not smart enough by the society at large. Most of us will carry this baggage through the rest of our lives and pretend that we have all the answers because it makes us look smart & boosts our ego. The downside to this behaviour is we also get deeply attached to our answers or solutions for reasons discussed above and do not let anyone prove us wrong or provide a better solution. We have been conditioned by the society to focus on the solution instead of the problem.

As Nobel laureate & renowned psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow” explains, that deeper thinking by the system-2 of our minds consumes significantly more energy than automatic or quick response by the system-1 of our minds. Human evolution over tens of thousands of years has trained our human body and mind to conserve energy and hence our mind defaults to system-1 thinking whenever possible and tries to give out an answer that’s simple & quick. Of course he also argues that as you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes.


So putting the above conjecture & hypothesis together, I would argue that we as humans have evolved to focus on the solution and not enough on the problem itself. Herein lies the challenge for us as product managers, business or marketing leaders, we don’t focus enough on the most fundamental aspect of the problem but instead get too attached to our solutions to our own peril.

A better alternative

Socrates, the great ancient Greek philosopher, used a form of argumentative dialogue, now known as Socratic method (aka first principles thinking), to scrutinize commonly held beliefs by way of questioning to determine their internal consistency and their coherence with other beliefs. Socrates believed true knowledge could be unearthed through a rigorous process of questioning. Hence the Socratic Method involves a series of questions designed to lead someone to reach to their own conclusions, rather than simply being told the answer.

What should product managers do?

In the fast-paced startup world, there’s tremendous amount of pressure to solve problems and deliver growth. Almost every single product manager I have worked with (now and in the past) has at least once complained that “there’s not enough time to think“. We often default to system-1 thinking, pick the first solution that comes to mind (or the most obvious one), create a PRD, work with engineers to deliver it, only to realize later that it hasn’t really solved the problem (or has only solved it partially). Often when a business, marketing or any other counterpart bring you a problem to be solved, it is very superficial and does not go deep enough to identify the root cause.

1. Identify the root cause

Based on my experience as a product manager, I have learnt (often the hard way) that taking an additional few hours or days to think through, using first principles, to talk to the target audience or deep dive into data, ensures you are addressing the root cause and not the symptoms of the problem. Fixing a wrong solution takes more time than building the right one. So always take the extra time, it’s worth it.

As a product manager, be obsessed with the problem statement, not the solution.

2. Collaborate with stakeholders on the solution

Your job as a product manager is not to come up with the best solution but to identify the root cause and bring all stakeholders (engineering, business, marketing, growth etc) together, present or solicit solutions, debate pros & cons of each and then build the most appropriate solution. This ensures that all the stakeholders are now equally invested and aware of the final solution that you are building and will provide necessary support to ensure success. Contrary to this, if you make it a winning contest of who comes up with the best solution, you can be rest assured, stakeholders will fight tooth and nail to champion their own.

Things, a product manager must do?

  1. Use first principles (socratic method) thinking to understand the problem
  2. Talk to the target audience to understand reasons for their behaviour & validate the problem
  3. Deep dive into data to understand behavioral trends, across user cohorts
  4. Determine the size of problem (to ensure n ≠ 1)
  5. Publish the root cause vs the symptoms and ensure alignment across stakeholders
  6. Publish a list of possible solution & also solicit the same from all stakeholders
  7. Define KPIs to measure the success of solution and ensure alignment across stakeholders
  8. Now, go and build the right solution

Things, a product manager must avoid?

  1. Don’t assume you understand the root cause, validate it
  2. Don’t make it a contest, collaborate with stakeholders
  3. Don’t jump on the first possible solution that comes to mind, sleep over it
  4. Don’t keep it a secret. Get alignment on the problem statement before solving it

2 Replies to “Focus on the problem, not the solution”

  1. But what if it takes too much time to figure out the root cause and the stakeholders expect a quick turnaround?

    1. Danish
      While that is a valid concern, isn’t is risky to build a solution for something you don’t even know will solve the actual problem or not? It might just be a temporary bandaid that will consume a lot of tech bandwidth to deliver but eventually doesn’t solve the problem. This scenario is infact more common in companies than you might realize. If we are merely executing what stakeholders have demanded without discovering the root cause or solving the actual problem, we may simply be called program managers, not product managers.

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