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Table of Contents

How to avoid having a “solution in search of a problem”

You have to become badass at finding and validating market problems to have a successful product business. This post will help you assess where you are now, and where you need to focus to get (even more) badass.

There are three main top-level activities for product managers:

  1. Find and validate market problems
  2. Create solutions to the problems
  3. Take the solutions to market.

And by now you know which of these I think is the most important. (Hint: #1.) Because if your product isn’t a solution to an urgent and pervasive market problem, no one will buy it.

There are many techniques for finding and validating market problems. They involve extensive interaction with customers and prospects to elicit problems, pains, needs, and desires using open-ended questions. (That is, you can’t just ask “What are your big problems?”) This is followed by analysis of what you’ve heard to surface and identify problems. Then those must be validated to determine which are valuable to solve, and which align with your organization’s abilities and business goals. I’ll get deeper into those techniques in a future post.

How Am I Doing?

In this post we’ll focus on framing the process and assessing how you’re doing. (Inspired by Kathy Sierra’s Badass ideas, if you’re keeping score.) Here are some questions you can ask yourself – answer honestly – to gauge your process for finding and validating market problems.

Process

  • Do you engage with a large part of your customer (and potential customer) base regularly to find unmet needs, desires, and opportunities?
  • Do you use techniques like open-end questions and direct observation of customers, rather than simply asking them what they want?
  • Do you have a process for aggregating the multitude of conversations to detect the “weak signals” that indicate problems you can solve?
  • Do you meet with customers separately from sales activities?
  • Do your prioritization criteria explicitly take into account whether a feature helps solve a validated market problem?

Outcome

  • Can you clearly state the market problem that you are solving and how your solution addresses it?
  • Do customers understand and agree that they have the problem?
  • Have you validated the value of solving the problem, the size of the market for the solution, and that your solution can be profitable?
  • Can you state how your solution is superior to or more desirable than that of your competitors, including doing nothing?

Obstacles and Challenges

Like any worthwhile activity, the process of finding and validating market problems is difficult. And it’s time consuming. You need to spend time “outside the building” talking to and interacting with the market. There are a number of other challenges you may face:

  • You may have difficulty getting “permission” to get outside the building to observe prospects and customers. Or you might only be “allowed” to visit customers when helping sales.
  • You don’t have time to visit or talk to customers because you are being pulled in too many directions.
  • You have a technology that people (inside the company) are convinced is a product, but which does not solve a market problem.
  • The amount of learning you get from any individual customer or market interaction is usually small. It requires many such interactions to start to surface the weak signals that indicate significant market problems.
  • There will be a lot of back and forth between your ideas for solutions, problems to be solved, the market you want to attack, and the technology you can bring to bear.
  • It is hard to find customers to interview; you are not sure where to start. This is especially true for startups that don’t yet have a customer base.
  • Some customers only want to talk to you about how existing features can be improved or new features they want. This is legitimate feedback, but often does not reflect a deeper underlying new market problem that will enable you to grow sales or expand your market.

Summary

Every other step in the product lifecycle depends on having important and valuable market problems to solve. Most everything else you might do as a product manager is meaningless if you’re building a solution without a problem:

  • Roadmaps
  • Requirements
  • Strategic alignment
  • Win/loss
  • Competitors
  • Sales
  • Go-to-market
  • Etc.

Remember:

“People pay you for a solution to a problem.”

Therefore, to have a successful product, you need a process for continually finding new problems – both big and small – to solve for your customers and prospects.

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