Tell me if you recognise one of these situations:
- Have you ever found yourself in a situation where your company didn’t address the right problem? You felt people were delusional and obscuring the truth?
- Have you ever hesitated to tackle a complex problem for various reasons? Have you faced a challenge that seemed insurmountable?
We all want to do things that matter. We want to have a sense of purpose and a mission. I know I do, and I have yet to encounter a person or a team who doesn’t crave to be part of something bigger than themselves.
I recall a time at Fujitsu. I was part of a think tank on innovation and the potential transformation of our methods.
I was reading about leadership back then, intrigued by audacious acts of leadership. An example that stuck with me was when Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee in 1995.
Many defects in the production led to poor quality phones. The chairman took a drastic measure. He burned 150,000 phones in front of his 2,000 staff members.
Considering this example, I suggested we metaphorically ‘burn’ our method. Not to abandon it but to reinvent it.
International governments and large corporations have been using the Macroscope since the ’80s. However, the company needed new successes and adapt to market change. The group dismissed my suggestion. It revealed my need for a greater understanding of office politics and influence.
In my head, though, we needed to tackle the right problem. Every consultant I knew was complaining about it.
So, what’s wrong with tackling big problems?
I have always looked up to challenges. I never understood people who wanted to avoid them.
Work worth remembering must be challenging.
In every organisation I’ve worked with, I’ve always discovered complex problems to solve. Finding solutions is the easy part; solutions exist for everything.
Being a great product manager doesn’t mean solving problems. If we were only doing that, we would be scraping by.
If we aspire to improve and make an impact, we need to pinpoint the issues worth solving.
That’s the pathway to greatness.
But, the real difficulty lies in two areas.
A Product Heroes newsletter is only complete by delving into psychology and neuroscience.
The reptilian brain is the part that governs our most fundamental survival instincts. It is also known as the lizard brain. This ancient part of our brain has evolved to help us fight and survive against unknown threats — the unknown signifying death. Thousands of years later, our response to problems is still the same.
Fighting for survival and problems in software development are not the same. The difficulty in tackling complex problems triggers a similar response to facing a physical threat. Our brain processes emotional and physical pain in the same way.
This aversion to complexity boils down to six primary reasons:
After a quick analysis, we notice there is no straightforward solution. Meddling with the issue may only provoke a cataclysm of unprecedented proportions.
Complex problems need a specific set of skills. It also needs resources that may need to be more available. Mobilising the required time, energy, and resources can be challenging.
Failure or setbacks are common when tackling complex issues. If the environment doesn’t allow failure, it can block people. Failure is a way to learn and grow. A hostile environment will need personal fortitude and drive.
Choosing the right path can be overwhelming when faced with a daunting task. With many variables and potential outcomes, deciding on a course of action can become impossible. It leads to decision paralysis.
Addressing complex problems necessitates changes within the organisation or customer base. Since people are uncomfortable with change, resistance can arise from all corners.
Complex problems can be challenging to comprehend, leading to confusion and misinterpretation. The issue may be due to a legacy system, for example. It can be a facet of a business, industry, or software the current team needs to learn more about.
We all share these six natural tendencies, whether it’s ourselves or our colleagues. It’s crucial to comprehend the nature of our instinctual reactions. Every problem encountered is unique and unknown, not threatening our survival.
As I explained in the How did I productize myself? the unknown makes us uncomfortable. It’s challenging to move forward without hesitation.
There is a way to tackle complex problems. And there are benefits to doing so.
Psychological principles and barriers block us from addressing complex problems. These obstacles can also obstruct our team. It can also stop other groups within the organisation. And they are even blocking everyone in the market.
And here’s how we can join the top 1% and make an impact. We can place ourselves in a unique position that many others desire. And the only thing to do is confront these issues.
It translates into two outcomes.
- First, we will gain something unique; everyone will be curious about our approach and method.
- Second, we will attract both negative and positive emotions. People may expect or even wish for our failure, ready to say, “I told you so.”
Even so, by persevering, we are doing something extraordinary. We will gain vast knowledge and experience, differentiating us from everyone else.
We are entering the world of achievers, or as I call it, the land of heroes.
So, how do we ensure this endeavour is a success?
We need confidence for this perilous journey. To foster confidence, we need to evolve on four fronts:
Tackling a complex problem is different from typical problem-solving. It’s a leadership challenge. It requires high awareness, capabilities, skills and respect within the organisation. It isn’t about willpower and resilience. It demands to be in harmony with your environment. Each context is different; before we start changing it, we need to understand it. We need to be part of it.
It requires time, personal growth and confidence in our abilities. As we guide our team through the challenges and the storm, our actions have to inspire trust and confidence. Our ability to articulate our vision and rally our team will be critical. We will need to gather allies to support and help us.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to do after five days inside an organisation.
We must grow and learn to reach confidence in our abilities. Ask those questions:
- Am I the right person to tackle this problem?
- Do I have the buy-in and trust of people around me?
- Do I have the right capabilities/skills to do it?
If one answer is no, we know what to work on.
Knowledge is power. Google has built an empire on it.
Knowledge informs our choices and prepares us for the unexpected. It’s not about investigating the problem. It’s about understanding the ramification of the situation. It’s crucial to answer the foundation and components of the problem. How is it connected to what I am trying to do? How is it related to the vision I have?
Deconstructing the problem is an excellent method to do it. We have to understand and split the issue into more manageable pieces. Then we can identify the ripple effects of each facet. We begin to understand the root causes, the impact and the potential solutions. Essentially, we transform the problem from an intimidating monolith into a puzzle. It becomes easier to solve it piece by piece.
The journey towards resolving complex problems is rarely a solo adventure. It calls for a team. In a world of individualism, it requires building unity. The team need to transform to become one. They must be here for each other, offering mutual support. They must be ready to jump in when someone is struggling.
We win as a team, and we lose as a team. That is the spirit needed to succeed.
It involves a leader creating relationships with individuals. The team have to share the ambition to achieve more together. They have to be ready to support each other through thick and thin.
It means we need first to create small wins as a team. We need to create a culture that will allow us to conquer anything.
Identifying the problem is where the process commences.
There is something extraordinary about that kind of problem. We don’t have to look for it. When we stop thinking and listen, it reveals itself. There are signals: “It’s frustrating,” “We can’t because of the legacy system,” or “I’d like to do this, but I can’t because of X.”.
Those problems live underneath the surface. They act as barriers to progress in the shadow.
Recognising these challenges is straightforward, but dealing with them is a different ballgame. Yet, as heroes, we’re tasked with challenging the status quo.
Next comes the transformation of this perceived problem into an opportunity. A fresh perspective will help us challenge traditional assumptions and seek innovative solutions.
This transformation process isn’t a solitary task. It involves advocating your vision within the organisation. We will have to get the buy-in from sponsors. And to reduce risks, we must implement the solution iteratively and incrementally. Each step forward has to be mutually exclusive yet collectively exhaustive. Overall, they will contribute to the ultimate vision.
Drawing from my experience at Engage, where the legacy system was an imposing challenge, the journey required intense preparation.
After eight months, we were ready to refactor, migrate, and evolve a part of the system. It was more than a technical overhaul. It involved preparing the team, fostering cohesion, and cultivating a shared vision. The result led to a 30% increase in Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) for that part of the product alone.
I wanted to illustrate how confronting complex problems can yield extraordinary outcomes. It was a fantastic experience for myself, the team and the organisation.