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Product Guy – isolate the problem

fire shutterstock_76873309 600pxOne pilot consumer wrote into the free comments “old-fashioned colors”, and now the sales guys want to change everything in the industrial design. Some integration engineer, in the late afternoon hurry to go pick up his kids in time, accidentally configured the prototype build wrong. Now, instead of asking when the new build will be ready, people email Jerry Maguire type of pamphlets about how to re-engineer the whole development process. Also, the office cafeteria can become more cozy if the whole company is re-orged and all clueless Vice Presidents (read: many) are deported, at least according to the task force memo. And so on and so forth.

Does this kind of escalation sound familiar? Probably yes, if you work in any company that is no longer small.

The root cause for all that hoopla is that, by definition, product making is full of paradoxes.  People want the product to be elegant and sophisticated but yet affordable. Full of features and yet ready early. Edgy but still familiar. Yet great products don’t feel like compromises, because there’s a clear idea what user problems the product is supposed to solve and how. Developing, protecting and delivering that  “configuration”, ”definition” or “brokering between extremely important but conflicting goals” is what Product Guys do for living.

The uncontrollable escalation, or expansion, happens because the power balance between the opposite-pulling forces is never really stable. Ultimately, what looks like a peace is really just a truce that becomes the peace agreement only when the product is out. So throughout the whole development, there’s a lot of passionate energy bubbling under (that’s a good thing), which can burst into the wide open (that’s a bad thing), if a small change somewhere (no matter how unavoidable) is interpreted as the license to re-open any other issue too.

So with this type of self-inflicted crisis looming, the first order of business for Product Guy is to isolate the problem. If the problem was the color, let’s solve that problem. And not let discussion expand how the newly proposed shiny orange would work so much better, if the design and the materials were also changed, and the price made more youth-budget-level-friendly.

Now, narrowing the discussion to solving the actual problem requires logical, deductive thinking to establish the link between the fix and the problem. It requires detailed, precise questions and communication, and in certain cases certain level of “cut-the-crap” abruptness to. In very few cases, the problem may reveal that the whole plan was flawed to start with, but even then the panic pack of band-aid is not the solution, but a total restart is needed. Most often, however, there’s a simple solution that becomes apparent only when the problem is thoroughly understood.

Being the ‘voice of reason’ when everyone is jumping off the walls isn’t fun. Those times may make the Product Guy appear like an anti-consumer, rearview-mirror looking, non-responsive bureaucrat – all labels potentially detrimental to career prospects. But still the escalation must be stopped. The way to think is that great product makers – engineers, designers and so on – need stability to be able to do their best work. They may not thank Product Guy when she/he is taking all the hits to protect them from the panic and the vicious circle of changes. But after the successful project they surely will. And that matters more than anything else.


Happened in the previous episodes of Product Guy series:

Stay tuned for the next episode: Product guy – hear your friends



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