What is the problem set?

You have probably heard the recommendation: solve the right problem.

Often in new product development, we think of this as the customers’ problem.

And then we have ideas, from Lean and elsewhere, such as:

  • root cause analysis – the idea that the customer presents with a symptom(s), but the root cause is not so obvious
  • Ishikawa diagrams – that help visualize the root causes.  AKA fishbone diagrams
  • The Five Whys – from Lean, to try to think through things to the real root cause


I want to take this further, to discuss the wider problem set.

And I think commonly, in our complex situations, our problem set is itself complex, with many dimensions, and lots of unknowns.

The complexity level does not make our job impossible, but it does make it hard.

AND… by working hard to understand the problem set, and by trying to learn faster in all the different parts of the problem set, we can be more successful.

A good Team, a successful Team, in these complex conditions does this.  My only suggestion is that we do it sooner, more consciously, and more visually.


An example would be useful about now.

Imagine this problem set, at the “start”:

  • We don’t know the customer problem well
  • The Team does not know who does know the customers’ wants and needs well (many untested ideas about this).  Our guess is that “who” is multiple people
  • We have not done any root cause analysis
  • A solution has been proposed at a high level, but unclear if it is the best solution for that problem. (Maybe the right solution for the wrong problem.)
  • The customers’ needs and wants are expected to change over the next 6-24 months
  • We have a new Team
  • The future of the organization is unclear
  • It is 80% likely the company will not go bankrupt or be acquired. It is certain that we will have frequent “re-orgs” about every 3 months.  Unclear how big an impact to the Team from the re-orgs
  • Our competitive position in this product area is in flux.  We are in 2nd place.  The top 4 are pretty close.
  • We expect our competitors will react to the opportunity we see, but how or when is unknown
  • The Team does not know the Team’s capabilities (in this product area).  Nor do they know how quickly they can learn new “skills”.
  • Each team member of course has some knowledge about himself or herself.  About what they have done in the past and what skills they have now.  Some, but far from perfect, biased. A mapping of current skills to future need has not be done yet.
  • This will mainly be a software product. We have basic environments for the Team to use (Dev, QA, Prod), but how automated the existing tests are for the existing product – Unknown.  And how well the CI (continuous integration) works – unknown.  How much we could improve these in 2 months – unknown.
  • One person on the Team has some knowledge of the existing system (product).  The PO knows the product some.  How good the documentation of the capabilities and internal design are – unknown.
  • The Team is starting a new process and it is unclear whether all Team members have the right mindset for the new process
  • It is unclear whether we will have sufficient support to implement the new process well (one example: a coach)
  • In general there have been lots of distractions in our work environment.  There is talk of reducing those distractions, but far from clear how much this will happen
  • In the past, people have been in flux.  So, it is likely, in one way or another, that this Team will lose a person (or more) within the next 6 months. Who will be lost and when is unclear. Our ability to replace (back fill) that person or that skill set is very unclear
  • We have a manager now that seems to be good (and known by some team members). Unclear if that manager will change.
  • That manager supports the new process.  Clear that others in the organization do not.   Unclear how much senior management supports the new process (we hear lip service so far, which is positive).
  • Unclear how Covid will evolve.
  • The Team is remote now. That could change.
  • Unclear how the economy will change in 2021.  That could affect the company, individuals on the Team, customers, competitors, etc.

This problem set seems fairly normal to me.

One can easily imagine a different situation with notably different elements in the problem set.

So, the first problem is to clarify what is your problem set.

Then the key question becomes: how do we attack this problem set to optimize overall success?

Hint: I am NOT recommending an approach of lengthy studying in all these areas before we take any action.  A simple answer is: P-D-C-A (Plan – Do – Check – Act) in short cycles.  Short feedback loops.

To me, it is helpful to think of it as mainly a learning problem.   Action is thought of as “implementing the solution” and, perhaps more importantly, as a method to enable us to learn.

Let’s name one more key characteristic overall of this problem set.  A high level of change.  So, that puts a premium on adapting quickly and effectively to “unexpected” changes or learnings.

And to a large degree, we cannot anticipate what will change and when each thing will change.  But then, when the change emerges (often before it happens), we can adapt quickly.


Which dimensions of your problem set did I leave out in my one example?


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