Not understanding the difference in addressing the cause vs. the symptoms is what leads to bad solutions, such as bloodletting for nosebleeds.
Falling into the trap is easy. You get a call from a customer or an account executive where somebody needs a ‘red button’ on ‘screen 123’ because it’s slowing their ability to complete ‘task XYZ.’ They even send you annotated screenshots to help you act on this important pain point ASAP.
And this is what separates rookie product people from veterans, the former leaping into action and getting it on the backlog, the latter asking “… what exactly is ‘task XYZ’ and why is it important?”
Another variation on this scenario is that you get an email about a particularly excruciating customer pain point. Again, the novice product owner immediately offering solutions that address the symptoms, whereas the experienced product manager starts digging into the cause.
Say no to Kneepads
Jeff Bezos gives us a great example of the second scenario from his early days running Amazon.com, a time everyone — including Bezos — was doing everything while crammed into a 2000 square foot basement warehouse.
At some point, the conversation got onto their hurting backs and knees that resulted from packing everything on the hard concrete floor. Bezos, focused squarely on the symptoms, blurted out “You know what we need? We need knee pads!”
Fortunately, the person he was talking to identified the root cause and countered the more scalable “What we need is packing tables.” In addressing not the sore knees, but the underlying issue, productivity soon doubled.
Bezos has shared this story many times, but it’s worth listening to again:
Hold the leeches, please
Another example comes from the world of medicine, specifically bloodletting, which was the go-to cure-all for everything from hemorrhoids to scurvy. For example, this snippet from the Wikipedia jumped out at me:
William Harvey disproved the basis of the practice in 1628, and the introduction of scientific medicine, la méthode numérique, allowed Pierre Charles Alexandre Louis to demonstrate that phlebotomy was entirely ineffective in the treatment of pneumonia and various fevers in the 1830s. Nevertheless, in 1838, a lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians would still state that “blood-letting is a remedy which, when judiciously employed, it is hardly possible to estimate too highly”, and Louis was dogged by the sanguinary Broussais, who could recommend leeches fifty at a time. Some physicians resisted Louis’ work because they “were not prepared to discard therapies ‘validated by both tradition and their own experience on account of somebody else’s numbers’.”
That last sentence sounds all too familiar, and dovetails into my next point, that even when you identify the root cause and a better cure, you’re likely to run into opposition by individuals who are still bitterly clinging to the old ways.
In such cases, my advice is to attempt to use data, user narratives, and experimentation to help move development in the right direction. I hope to offer how-to details on all three of those emotion-dampening tools in future blog posts.
I might also suggest a quick re-read of my blog post “The Orange Quarrel” as it describes the pitfalls associated with leaping into symptom-focused compromises versus taking time to seek out more beneficial and durable root-cause collaborations.
Ever suggest kneepads? Ever have others insist you amputate to address a paper cut? Then please, leave comments on how you successfully navigated away from the symptoms to deliver value that addresses the deeper underlying issue.