Understanding how to ask the whys & a when or two gets is essential for product managers to see past the junk food of outputs & into the satisfying banquet of outcomes.
Many of us are familiar with Theodore Levitt’s marketing proverb: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”
And while this sage wisdom from said Harvard Business School Professor is true for our marketing friends, it is equally on target for those of us in Product Management who might otherwise miss an opportunity to delightfully differentiate our products from our competitors.
This is why it pays to engage in “The 5 whys,” a practice developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies. And when we augment the last two “whys” with questions about “when” we often uncover not only the outcome but the emotional key unlocking its adoption.
As an example of this, let’s take Levitt’s drill bit example and retell it with a twist from Bob Moesta by means of Carl Ryden:
- Customer: I’d like a ¼” drill bit.
- Product: Awesome; it sounds like you have an interesting project in mind. Would you mind describing it a bit more so I can get you to the best solution?
- Customer: Yes, I’m looking to drill a ¼” hole.
- Product: That makes sense. What type of surface are you drilling into?
- Customer: Pine. But finished pine.
- Product: Is this a pine paneling or a table surface?
- Customer: Actually, no, it’s the headboard above my bed, so it needs to drill cleanly.
- Product: Indeed, that makes sense. Are you running some wiring or mounting something?
- Customer: Yeah, I’m looking to mount a reading light so I can read at night.
- Product: Cool. I find myself reading at night as it helps me sleep.
- Customer: Me too; only the room light keeps my partner awake, which is why I want to mount the reading lamp.
- Product: Been there, done that. Mind if I ask if there are other situations you find yourself wanting to read in the dark?
- Customer: Now that you mention it, I should probably buy a second lamp for my big blue chair that I sometimes sit in while reading at night.
- Product: Me too! I got a chair just like that. Is there any other place outside of your home you find yourself reading in the dark?
- Customer: I travel a lot for business, so airplanes & motels, but I can keep the light on for the latter.
- Product: I know the feeling. Say, let me ask you this … if the ultimate outcome here is reading in the dark … have you ever considered a backlit Kindle?
The takeaway from this lesson from the above example is to understand a few fundamental principles:
- People outside of product management often speak to us in solutions because it’s the only way they know how to express ‘what’ they want in response to a pain point.
- As product people, it’s up to us to look past said solutions and outputs in pursuit of the underlying outcome. Meaning, while the proposed feature or tool might indeed be the answer, such should first be validated by conversationally asking the 5’ whys,’ with at least 1 ‘when ‘towards the end.
- With this understanding, we can then inspire our engineering teams to innovate a ‘how’ that addresses the outcome in a way that cures the pain point for the ‘who’ that is our end-user.
So, the next time someone comes to you with a solution, understand that just like a user story, it’s an invitation to a conversation that could ultimately lead to a delightful and differentiated solution that’s mutually valuable to both your customer and yourself.
Thanks & credit to the following:
- Original concept: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” ~ Theodore Levitt
- Backlit Kindle twist on the drillbit parable by Bob Moesta as contextualized by Carl Ryden at the 25-minute mark in the video ‘Artificial Intelligence: The Power of AI and the Future of Banking.’
- Images: Russ Ward, Greg Rosenke, Marcos Paulo Prado, & Artiom Vallat at Unsplash.
Some other useful URLs on this topic:
- Your Startup’s Customers Don’t Want New Features, They Need New Solutions ~ Joe Procopio
- Dear Product Manager, have empathy for the symptoms, but cure for the cause – Dean Peters
- Why “Yes” Doesn’t Scale | ProductCraft ~ René Rosendahl
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