Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Art of Why

Ben Wakeman, Sr. Director, Head of Product Management
Mobile / Strategy / Technology

Curiosity is a muscle that has to be exercised if you want to maintain it. Many things can lead to “curiosity atrophy,”  but the top offender is our tendency to simplify a problem and then apply either the first solution that comes to mind or the one that we see everyone else using. Perhaps the real value the product management practice brings to the software development process is persistently asking, “Why?” 

Consider the following exchange:

Product Manager: Why do you want to build a visual search feature?

Client: Because we want to make it easier for our customers to find what they’re looking for.

Product Manager: Why can’t they find what they’re looking for?

Client: Because our search doesn’t return predictable results for common queries.

Product Manager: Why is that?

Client: There’s a lot of reasons, but mostly because products in our catalog are not tagged consistently.

Product Manager: Why do you think allowing a customer to take a picture of the thing they’re searching for is going to fix this problem?

Client: I see your point, it won’t.

Product Manager: So, why is visual search what you want then?

Client: Because Target and Walmart both included this capability in their last release, and we have to stay competitive.

It’s easy for any one of us to fall into the trap of taking action without questioning our motives. The risk is especially high when we’re under continuous pressure to innovate, move the needle, increase revenue, grow monthly active users, etc. It takes time and energy to be curious and it takes a willingness to uncover and accept things that could contradict our habitual thinking or deeply held beliefs. No one likes to be proven wrong. But the consequences of ignoring your curiosity are obvious in the example above. If the client had gone to market with the shiny new feature they proposed, they would have been paying handsomely only to make their problem worse because customers would have higher expectations but the same broken result. This scenario plays out all too often in software development. Smart people make poor product decisions because no one was interrogating the real problem, or—if they did—they weren’t courageous enough to push back or question the direction from leadership. 

When we hire product managers for the Rightpoint team, we look for people who are relentless when it comes to asking why and fearless when it comes to speaking up. We want people who are willing to risk being proven wrong. I find these qualities are critical in shaping real solutions that consistently deliver meaningful, measurable results for our clients.

So, why is it so hard to ask why? 

Building the right solution requires a willingness to really understand the problem before trying to solve it. This is often impossible to do when you’re in the middle of a problem that has grown up around you over time. Put another way, it’s hard to see the forest for the tree bark. Even for companies that have an internal team of the smartest, most dedicated product owners, it can be a challenge to remain objective, skeptical, and curious. Asking why can feel like you’re slowing things down or making more work. At the relentless, churning pace of software development, anyone pausing to contemplate can be accused of analysis paralysis. 

There is an old adage that carpenters live by: “measure twice, cut once.” Applying the same level of thoughtful inquiry and consideration when developing digital experiences is just good sense. Just as a carpenter can’t stretch a board that’s been cut too short, the company in my example can’t travel back in time, fix the root of their search problem, and regain the confidence of the millions of users who abandoned their app.

Rightpoint brings this superpower of thoughtful, curious inquiry to every company we partner with to develop world-class digital experiences. Digital transformation sounds like something monumental, and—if we’re all being honest—is a term that has jumped the shark a bit. It has become an overloaded phrase that means something different to everyone you talk to. (Especially when those people are trying to sell you something.) We believe true digital transformation starts at the atomic level—it’s the details that deliver results. Truly transforming the way people search in the example above means first fixing the fundamental problem, meeting the baseline expectation and doing that better than anyone else. Then there is headroom to iterate into the realm of delight and to create an innovation that truly differentiates your product.