The healthy tension between Problem- and Solution- thinking

Shortly after starting to work as a Product Manager, you'll quickly come across the following statement:

As a Product Manager, fall in love with the problem, not the solution.

That’s one great piece of advice.
It is anchored in the fact that your Product’s success comes from solving a genuine problem, in a significantly better way than other available alternatives, rather than going after some gut feeling that a given solution will be useful.

Here’s the thing though: our human brains are much more attracted by solutions.
Let’s analyze that tension a bit.

Me like solution!

Our brains dislike problems and love simple solutions. That’s rooted in the brain's reptilian part and drives, among other things, survival instincts (you can read more about reptilian brain in the context of branding). In other words, escaping problems means less risks to get eaten by a bear! That’s also why we can get tricked into believing in ideas when they’re conveniently simplistic. I even consider that’s also why plot theories are so popular. A simple solutions to a lot of problems at once? Hell yeah!

Our taste for solutions is a mechanic at play in plenty of situations in our lives.
Take movies for examples. A good scenario often contains a moment in time where the main character is in a situation that’s close to desperate, and its resolution sparks a warm feeling of satisfaction.

That’s no universal truth of course, yet I have seen many more people excited by the perspective of a solution, even when it is somewhat fuzzy, than people being excited by the perspective of diving into frustration, boredom or generally hopeless situations.

All of this isn't making the idea of falling in love with the problem obvious to internalize.
So what should we do to indeed “fall in love with the problem” and become this great PM we've all seen depicted? Is there another way to think about this problem-solution tension?


The root of motivation is interesting to analyze here. In this article, Dr Dan Goleman puts it well:

Our motives dictate where we find our pleasures. But when it comes to pursuing those goals, life so often presents difficulties. And when we face setbacks and obstacles in reaching the goals our motives drive us toward, circuitry converging on a zone in the left prefrontal cortex comes alive to remind us of the good feelings we will have once we reach that goal. When things go wrong, this helps us keep going through tough times.

In the context of Product Management, a good way to get our brains happy without over-indexing on solutions nor focusing on the negative aspect of problems is to understand the outcome that solving a problem will result in. By outlining the benefits that people will experience, we go past something negative to reach for a more motivational element.

Beyond motivation, having a clear understanding of the outcomes we’re shooting for makes it easier to understand success, and potentially measure it.

When aiming only at solutions, success quickly gets equated with releasing software, but not much beyond that.
When considering benefits as the goal, you’re bound to check if whatever was released resulted in the envisioned outcomes, which has a lot more direct correlation to actual business success.

The power of good solutions

All of that being said I still don’t believe that we shouldn't "fall in love" with solutions: I think we shouldn’t fall in love with a single solution to one problem.

The risk with the statement of “Product Managers should fall in love with the problem, not the solution” is that it can be falsely interpreted as “you shouldn’t care about solutions” which is not a good thing either.

Solutions are the vehicle through which you deliver value, and we should thus care about how they turn out.

Solutions come from ideas: connections that our brains make with concepts we recognize as useful, memories of good experiences that we want to replicate. Ideation is a creative process that is hard to control. This is why lots of good ideas spark in random moments or places, where our minds are at rest (bed, shower, focus time…).
This is also why solutions, while they may generate new problems of their own, can also alleviate the pain related to other problems.

This means that by analyzing all facets of a solution you may encounter other opportunities. This can make a big difference down the line!

In turn, the risk isn’t necessarily to think about solutions per se, the risk is to settle on a single solution, the one you intuitively love the most, and work through it without further validation.

Without diving deep into validation which is a much larger topic, we can summarize it as the set of activities performed to tease apart what really solves the problem at hand, what really matters to users, versus what doesn’t.

Multiplying solution and learning to let go

Multiplying solution ideas and doing validation early with actual users is key. This will give room for other ideas which might have more potential, be cheaper to build, or simply be better.
Having more options also helps being less attached to your own initial gut feeling. It helps to let go and grow trust in validated solutions no matter where the idea originally came from.

Exploring multiple solutions will naturally push you to come back at the problem and understand it better, since each different solution will cause to see more clearly what they have in common, and where they differ.


Eventually, even if the original statement of "Product Managers should fall in love with the problem, not the solution" is a helpful, concise, and thought-provoking trigger, I find important to break it down into:

That process will keep you honest and help to hopefully reach better results!

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