One of the most important skills a product manager can adopt is as simple as remembering how to act like a child.
One of the key responsibilities of a product manager is to determine underlying customer needs or problems.
Once they are identified, the work begins to design and market a better solution.
However, the skill required to get to these underlying needs is often overlooked. Many product managers, and even product management courses, teach you to interview the customer, exploring what it is they would like to see in a solution or how they would best like to get their job done. However, many of these techniques overlook the key to uncovering the real problem for which the customer needs a solution. That is, what it is that is fundamentally “broken” for the customer and needs to be addressed. In customer interaction scenarios, one of the best methods to get to this underlying information is to act like a child and continue to ask “Why?” until you reach a thorough understanding of the customer need or problem.
Most sentient beings have had an interaction with a two-, three-, or four-year-old that goes something like this:
You say, “We need to get ready to go home now” (or some such directive), and the child replies, “Why?” You then patiently explain the day’s schedule and why it is important to go home now, and how this causally ties in with the rest of the day’s plans. The child simply responds “Why?” You may or may not now respond as patiently, explaining why these plans were set, to which the child will respond in turn, “Why?” This pattern then repeats ad nauseam until one or both of you give up in utter frustration or abruptly end the conversation with an emphatic “I don’t know.”
While sometimes frustrating, it turns out children are learning.
In fact, while these questions may be repetitious to a painful degree, the key is that the child is engaging in a deeper learning exchange. Interestingly, researchers have lately found the strongest learning environments are the ones in which adults engage in rich conversations with children in just such environments (interestingly, even with those as young as two years old).
Product management is no different.
That is, in order to have the greatest learning, it is important to have a series of rich conversations with your customer. One of the basic techniques I have found to be most successful is to act like a child and continue to ask “Why?” I often counsel product managers to then repeat this until they truly feel that they have exhausted the topic and have a deep understanding of the specific issue the customer is trying to solve.
So, when a customer asks you for a specific feature or answers your question about how they perform this task daily or how they would want to, ask them “Why?” Carefully listen to their answer, understand it, and then ask them “Why?” again. The goal is to drill down to the underlying causes of the behavior. What is the key problem they are trying to solve? It is important to point out that this technique is most successfully employed by carefully adjusting your tone with each “Why?” to explicitly not sound like a child. But ask the question again, each time you have gained an understanding of what your customer has just told you.
I can guarantee that if you stop with the first “Why?” you are likely to design a solution that misses the mark.
You will be solving for a very specific problem that may not generalize well or may not truly represent the actual problem they are trying to solve..
By asking why again and again, you uncover the root cause or the base level need. By getting to this level, you will then have many more degrees of freedom in designing an appropriate solution and, in the end, I can guarantee you will have a delighted customer.