Ryan Singer

April 20, 2021

12. Matching problems to business imperatives

I keep getting questions about the work that happens before shaping a project. How do we decide if a problem is worth shaping? When does a problem deserve further research to frame the problem better?

To answer this, our natural instinct is to weigh problems against each other. We ask “is this problem worse than that one?” or “which problem affects more people?”

While this is logical, it often leads to disappointment. We do our perfect analysis, go to decision-makers, and present them with all the reasons why this is the most important thing to do next. They nod their heads in agreement and then choose something completely different to work on.

Why doesn’t the biggest problem win? Because customer problems are only one piece of the puzzle.

For the business to spend time on a problem, the problem has to match something the business cares about. And what the business cares about can be very different according to what is going on. Here are some examples:

  • The product is fine, growth is okay, but we’re bored. We want the excitement of shipping something new that will gain attention.
  • Churn is increasing, and if we don’t figure out why and do something about it we’re going to be in trouble.
  • Startup capital is running out. If we don’t find market fit soon, we’re done.
  • The product works and growth is fine, but we’re not proud to demo it because of warts in the experience.
  • The product works, growth is fine, but there are bad spots in the experience that threaten to accumulate and cause churn in the future.

Look at how different these imperatives are. From functional (“churn is increasing”) to emotional (“I want the thrill of shipping again”) to social (“I don’t like how this makes us look to others”).

The imperatives also change with time. After feeling like they’re in the spotlight from a big release, stakeholders might show more interest in playing defense and patching holes again. Or after making behind-the-scenes improvements for too long, they might crave more visible changes to show the world they’re alive.

Those of us who do shaping and research should tune in to these shifting patterns. Successful projects require both things: time and money from the business and a corresponding problem on the customer’s end. We have to do the work of matching the things we want to do with the things the business values today if we want to improve our guesses about which projects are going to get the green light.