Jobs to be done · Leadership · Problems · Product management · VOC

What, Why, and How

I know I’ve been writing a lot about questions lately (what else can you expect from a blog that declares in its title that things aren’t as simple as you might have hoped), but I find it a helpful way of framing discussions around product development. With that in mind, I want to talk about three arenas of questions related to product development each answered by a different group. The questions are What, Why and How.


The first question to answer is “what”. What problem are we trying to solve? What aspiration are we trying to accomplish? What process are we trying to streamline or enable? Our clients and potential clients are the experts on answering this question because they know their true hopes and pain points better than anyone else does. When we talk with clients we keep asking questions to understand more deeply what they are trying to accomplish and what is preventing them from making the progress they want to make. Once we have a solid grasp on the what we can move on to the next question.


The second question to address is “why”: Why are clients trying to accomplish their tasks? Here we want to understand why clients are having the problems that they are or why they are stretching toward the aspirations they seek. This gets at the concept I’ve talked about elsewhere on a client’s “jobs to be done;” we want to understand what’s behind the problem they articulated. For this we combine the information we get from a specific client with other information we get from the broader market to understand the true goal we are after in developing a solution. Here’s a link to a great article from Clayton Christensen that expands this concept if you want to learn more:

In seeking answers to this question, we are the experts and not our clients. We can gather data from clients and the broader market that helps answer this question, but no one else is better positioned to distill this data into a set of jobs to be done. Product management expertise is needed to answer this why question. That gets us to the third question we need to answer in order to develop a great solution.


Once we understand the what and the why – what problems clients face and why they want to solve those problems – we are ready to ask the practical question of how to accomplish that goal. How can we help clients accomplish the jobs they want to do in ways that advance our product vision and business goals? Should we enhance our current offering, change the way our product functions to respond to new needs, develop a new product entirely, or offer consulting support on top of our product? Should our solution live on one web page or multiple pages that follow a workflow? Do we need new technologies to solve this problem in a cost-effective manner?

All of these how questions are best answered by designers and developers. Just as clients are the experts on what their problem entails and product managers are the experts on why clients face those problems, so designers and developers are the experts on the ways to go about solving these problems. They possess the domain knowledge to think through various options on how a problem can be solved – from how the user interaction should be structured to what underlying database design and coding will support the best solutions.

Getting the right people focused on answering these questions leads to great solutions to real problems, which is why it is so vital to spend time with actual clients to gain a deep understanding of their needs and to involve designers and developers early in this discovery process to gain their expertise on potential solutions. Getting this full set of “experts” involved in the correct stages of product development is the goal of effective product management, though of course in truth it’s not that simple.


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