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The Answers Are in the Questions You Ask

Words matter. Techniques for better product management.

My kids learned early on that words matter.

They would ask something like, “can we go to some place?” My response was, “yes.” When they realized that we weren’t going anywhere, they learned that my response wasn’t agreement and their question wasn’t specific enough. They’d try something like, “can we go to some place now?” Better. More specifc. My response was still, “yes.” Eventually, they learned to ask, “are we going to some place at some specific date/time?” Much better. That elicited a different answer, but they learned how to ask better questions.

There’s a big difference between “can we” and “are we” — words matter.

Perhaps you’re thinking, what a jerk. Surely I understood what they meant, right? Of course. So why put them through that frustrating exercise? Because you never want to put someone else in a position of assuming your intent. You know what they say about “assume” — it makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.”

You will save time and frustration being concise with your words. You will get to the heart of the matter quicker. You will arrive at better information, which leads to better products.

“One of the fastest ways to find the solution to an issue or challenge you are facing is to ask the right questions.” — Robin S. Sharma

As a product-minded professional working in the world of software development, you need to know how to better discover and deliver value.

To uncover the root problem or opportunity, to uncover the facts, you need to ask better questions.

Let’s explore some tactics that will help you find the answers you’re looking for.


What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

There used to be a phrase posted at a client’s office that said, “I’m a solution looking for a problem.”

In software development, it’s very common for folks to toss solution ideas into the ring. Sometimes those solutions are what customers ask for, so we mistakenly believe those ideas are the right things to do. The advocates of the solution then must work hard to justify it — a solution looking for a problem (justification). This is the wrong approach.

As a product manager, you must place solution ideas to the side and first reveal the root problem or opportunity. The questions you ask are critical.

The first question I always ask when this happens is, “what problem are we trying to solve?” The first answer is rarely the best answer, but it’s the start of a series of questions that will lead to the real problem or benefit to achieve.


First Principles and The 5 Whys

Good product development requires you to peel back the layers. Find out who the real benefactors are or who is hurt most by this problem. Once you identify a problem, ask why it’s a problem. How will the proposed solution change that? By how much? How will you measure the success of the post-deployment outcome? Are you open to other ways to meet the need?

“Asking the right questions takes as much skill as giving the right answers.” — Robert Half

The ensuing conversation and series of questions peels back the layers to uncover the root problem or benefit.

I start with first principles, use the 5 Whys technique, and work my way up from there. Most often, we end up with a different proposed solution because we identify a better problem or opportunity to solve.

Great ideas don’t always provide value, nor address the real problem or opportunity. Running with those ideas without fully exploring the problem will often lead to wasted time and effort as the solution fails to address the real issue. The result is missed opportunities and benefits.


Final Thoughts

What you do matters. Why you do it matters more.

There’s no shortage of solution ideas, but to build better products you need to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. Is the problem you identify the root problem to solve? What’s the impact of the current problem and what is the desired outcome after implementing a solution?

Your goal is to achieve product vision and organizational strategy. Not all great solution ideas will achieve that because they aren’t tackling the right things for the right reasons. To discover the real value, you must ask the right questions to reveal the hidden truths.

Oh, but be careful — what you learn still isn’t necessarily requirements, but merely assumptions you must validate. As you move forward to test those assumptions, keep asking great questions.

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