Understanding Problem Space

Ehsan Abbasi
12 min readNov 14, 2023


Problem-Solving for Product Managers

As a product manager, your most important why is the customer problem that your product is trying to solve. Include your team and other stakeholders in understanding the customer problem and selecting the right goal metric to grow. This way, everyone can contribute, feel ownership, and stay motivated to solve the problem even if the product changes.

Understanding Problem Space

Problems can be classified into puzzle problems, well-structured problems, and ill-structured problems.

Simple Problems

  • Many games contain puzzle problems and are not “serious” in nature, nor is there any real-life consequence for failing to solve them.

Well-structured Problems

  • Some problems that are simple and well-defined are called well-structured problems and include a set number of possible solutions — solutions are either 100% right or 100% wrong. An example of a well-structured problem is a typical mathematical (2 + 2 = 4) question. This question has a definitive correct answer.

Ill-structured Problems

  • In contrast, well-structured problems are ill-structured problems. In these cases, problems may have many possible answers because they are complex and poorly defined. The “best” solutions to ill-defined problems depend on the priorities underlying the situation. What is “best” today may not be “best” tomorrow. Ill-structured problems, because they are more difficult to “solve,” require the development of higher-order thinking skills and the ability to construct a convincing argument for a particular solution as opposed to all other possible solutions.

3 Prerequisites for a good solution

He realized there are three essential prerequisites for good solutions:

  • The product must be defined to allow for the development of useful solutions.
  • The potential solution must fit the defined problem space and product scope.
  • The product team must have understood the problem.

Understanding the problem

Whether the problem comes from your users or another set of stakeholders, you need to properly understand the problem. The only way to do that is through a combination of research, and empathy. This means gathering both qualitative and quantitative data. Find out how the user/stakeholder feels about the problem, as well as how they behave in response to it.

Communicate “The Why”

As a product manager, your most important why is the customer problem that your product is trying to solve. Include your team and other stakeholders in understanding the customer problem and selecting the right goal metric to grow. This way, everyone can contribute, feel ownership, and stay motivated to solve the problem even if the product changes.

Communicate Why Constantly Once you’ve aligned on the why with your team, you need to communicate it regularly to everyone. It may seem redundant to remind people about the customer problem and goal all the time, but this constant communication achieves two objectives.

  • First, it helps everyone internalize “the why” so they can make decisions with the same goal in mind.
  • Second, if people are not aligned on “the why”, they’re more likely to bring up objections if you talk about it constantly.

Keep It Simple When communicating with others, the most critical question that you need to answer is, “Do people understand?” If people don’t understand the why, they won’t be able to execute.

Keep your communication simple, short, and specific. Check to see if people understand your message by asking them to explain it back to you

Make a risk vs reward assessment

Once you know what the problem is, you need to lay the groundwork for your plan on how to proceed with solving it. Analyze the potential risks and rewards of the project. So if a stakeholder is asking that a new feature be implemented, work out how much of your team’s work hours, budget, and resources will be needed to complete the project and solve the problem.

Balance this out by seeing how the best-case scenario (eg, you completely solve the problem) will benefit your product in terms of OKRs, and the bottom line.

Define Success

Defining the success of a project boils down to the final part of your risk vs reward assessment. What does the best-case scenario look like?

If the answer isn’t obvious, think about your company’s North Star metrics, or your team’s KPIs. If the project is worthwhile, its goals should align with either, if not both, or these.

I learned to approach every problem from multiple angles. It was the combination of both qualitative and quantitative insights that led us to our proposed solution. Also, a variety of perspectives are critical.

Product Discovery Stages and Questions to ask at each stage

Adopting the Problem-Solving process from McKinsey

1. Solve at the first meeting with a hypothesis

The McKinsey problem-solving process begins with the use of structured frameworks to generate fact-based hypotheses followed by data gathering and analysis to prove or disprove the hypotheses.

Gut feeling at this stage is extremely important because we don’t have many facts yet. However, structure strengthens your thinking and ensures that your ideas will stand up. Typically, the problem-solving process would involve defining the boundaries of the problem and then breaking it down into its component elements.

The concept of MECE (pronounced “mee-see” and an acronym for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive), is a basic tenet of the McKinsey thought process. Being MECE in the context of problem-solving means separating your problem into distinct, non-overlapping issues while making sure that no issues relevant to your problem have been overlooked. This allows to simplify the problem and plan the work because in most cases, a complex problem can be reduced to a group of smaller, simpler problems that can be solved individually.

The most common tool McKinsey people use to break problems apart is the logic tree.

Having reduced the problem to its essential components, you are ready to embark on the next step which is framing it: forming a hypothesis as to its likely solution. By already knowing where your solution is, you eliminate a lot of paths that lead to dead ends.

Using an initial hypothesis to guide your research and analysis will increase both the efficiency and effectiveness of your decision-making because it provides you and your team with a problem-solving roadmap that will lead you to ask the right questions and perform the correct analysis to get to your answer. A good hypothesis will also save you time by pointing out potential blind alleys much more quickly and allowing you to get back to the main issues if you do go down the wrong path.

2. Intuition is as important as facts

Since you should form your hypothesis at the start of the problem-solving process, you have to rely less on facts (you won’t have done most of your fact-gathering yet) and more on instinct or intuition. Take what you know about the problem at hand, combine it with your gut feelings on the issue, and think about what the most likely answers are.

Executives make major strategic decisions based as much on gut instinct as on fact-based analysis.

Intuition and data complement each other. You need at least some of each to have a solid basis for your decisions. The key to striking the balance is quality over quantity.

3. Do your research but don’t reinvent the wheel

When you form an initial hypothesis, you are “solving the problem at the first meeting.” Unfortunately, although you may think you have the answer, you have to prove it through fact-based analysis.

Your next step is to figure out which analyses you have to perform and which questions you have to ask to prove or disprove your hypothesis.

When your time and resources are limited, you don’t have the luxury of being able to examine every single factor in detail. Instead, when planning your analyses, figure out which factors most affect the problem and focus on those. Drill down to the core of the problem instead of picking apart each piece. In most situations, achieving a scientific level of exactitude for your management decisions is counterproductive.

That’s why as one of your first steps in designing your analysis, you should figure out what not to do.

As your next step, you should decide which analyses are quick wins — easy to complete and likely to make a major contribution to proving or refuting the initial hypothesis (80/20 rule).

When doing your research, you don’t want to get as much information as possible, you want to get the most important information as quickly as possible.

With a plan of action for what to research, make sure you don’t reinvent the wheel as you start gathering your data. Whatever problem you’re facing, chances are that someone somewhere has worked on something similar. So your next step here is to look through all possible internal documents and then look externally.

4. Tell the story behind the data

Once you have your analysis finished, you need to interpret it because numbers or data don’t say anything. You have to figure out the story behind it and the message that you want to communicate.

At this stage, first comes the process of understanding the data: piecing together (in your mind or within your team) the story the data is telling you and the steps you should take based on that story. The second comes assembling your findings into an externally directed end product: a key message that includes a course of action for your organization, ream, or client.

Your interpretation of the data leads to a story, that is, what you think the data means. You select those portions of the story that you believe your audience needs to know to understand your conclusion, along with the supporting evidence, and you put them together into your end product as in your presentation.

To succeed here you need to see through your client’s, executive’s or audience’s lenses and speak their language.

5. Prewire

The key to successful presentations and getting buy-in (for your audience to accept your recommendations) is prewiring.

The reason behind this is that to get the buy-in you need to bridge the information and trust gaps between you and your audience. The information gap exists because you know more about your findings than your audience does. Depending on the relationship between you and your audience, the trust gap (if it exists) could take any of several forms. Your audience may think that you are too inexperienced to comment on their business, or they may mistrust you because you are an outsider, overeducated, or not educated enough.

In its essence, prewiring means taking your audience through your findings before you give your presentation. This allows for people to trust you, ask questions you may not have thought about to avoid surprises, and then during the presentation say yes and support you among others who may be more skeptical.

Prewire everything. A good business presentation should contain no shocking revelations for the audience. Walk the relevant decision-makers in your organization through your findings before you gather them together for a dog and pony show. At a minimum, you should send out your recommendations via email to request comments from key decision-makers before the presentation if you can’t meet with those people face-to-face.

The earlier you can start the prewiring process, the better. By identifying and getting input from the relevant players early on, you allow them to put their mark on your solution, which will make them more comfortable with it and give them a stake in the outcome.

6. Start with the conclusion

When you begin your presentation in front of your desired audience, make sure you start with the conclusion.

Having your conclusions or recommendations upfront is sometimes known as inductive reasoning. Simply put, inductive reasoning takes the form, “We believe X because of reasons A, B, and C.” This contrasts with deductive reasoning, which can run along the lines of, “A is true, B is true, and C is true; therefore, we believe X.” Even in this simplest and most abstract example, it is obvious that inductive reasoning gets to the point a lot more quickly, takes less time to read, and packs a lot more punch.

As an additional advantage, starting with your conclusions allows you to control how far you go into detail in your presentation.

You need to explain this clearly within just 30 seconds. Almost like an elevator pitch. If you can pass this “elevator test,” then you understand what you’re doing well enough to sell your solution.

A successful presentation bridges the gap between you — the presenter — and your audience. It lets them know what you know.

It also keeps it simple for them which is why it’s important to stick to a key rule if you are using a deck: one message per slide or chart. No more. The more complex a chart/slide becomes, the less effective it is at conveying information. The meaning should be immediately obvious to the reader, so use whatever tools you need to bring it out.

If you broke out your initial hypothesis into a MECE set of issues and sub-issues (and suitably modified them according to the results of your analysis), then you have a ready-made outline for your presentation that will support your conclusion.

Remember that you have two ears and only one mouth. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Overcommunication is better than under-communication which is why prewiring as mentioned above is so important.

Finally, if you are proposing a certain solution in which you will be involved in the execution, make sure you don’t overpromise because you’re bound to under-deliver. Instead, balance the demands for the solution with your capabilities and those of your team. If more work is necessary, you can always start a second project once the first is done.

7. Hit singles

When you begin executing on the solution, aim to hit singles.

This is a metaphor from baseball. You can’t do everything, so don’t try. Just do what you’re supposed to do, and get it right. It’s impossible to do everything yourself all the time. If you do manage that feat once, you raise unrealistic expectations from those around you. Then, when you fail to meet those expectations, you’ll have difficulty regaining your credibility.

Getting on base consistently is much better than trying to hit a home run and striking out nine times out of ten.

Do a few things well rather than a ton with mediocre execution or results. Stick to targeted focus rather than perfection and drilling into every little piece.

Quality over quantity. And when there’s a lot of work to be done, delegate around your limitations. Know them for what they are and respect them.

8. Respect your time

Don’t forget that work is like a gas: it expands to fill the time available.

As in the previous point, share the load by delegating and also perform sanity checks on the way to allow you to take a step back and look at the big picture.

You will also have to get others to respect your time. The better you are at your job or the higher up you go in your organization, the more everyone wants a piece of you. There’s an old saying, “Stress is the feeling you get when your gut says, ‘No,’ and your mouth says, ‘Yes, I’d be glad to.’” You have to train your mouth to say, “No.”

Once you commit — “I won’t work on weekends” or “I’ll cook dinner three nights a week” — stick to it, barring life-and-death emergencies. If you seem to be having life-and-death emergencies every week (and you’re not dealing with matters of real life and death, as in a trauma ward), take a hard look at your priorities.

Problem-solving strategies

  • Abstraction: solving the problem in a model of the system before applying it to the real system
  • Analogy: using a solution that solves an analogous problem
  • Brainstorming: (especially among groups of people) suggesting a large number of solutions or ideas and combining and developing them until an optimum solution is found
  • Divide and conquer: breaking down a large, complex problem into smaller, solvable problems
  • Hypothesis testing: assuming a possible explanation to the problem and trying to prove (or, in some contexts, disprove) the assumption
  • Lateral thinking: approaching solutions indirectly and creatively
  • Means-ends analysis: choosing an action at each step to move closer to the goal
  • Method of focal objects: synthesizing seemingly non-matching characteristics of different objects into something new
  • Morphological analysis: assessing the output and interactions of an entire system
  • Proof: try to prove that the problem cannot be solved. The point where the proof fails will be the starting point for solving it
  • Reduction: transforming the problem into another problem for which solutions exist
  • Research: employing existing ideas or adapting existing solutions to similar problems
  • Root cause analysis: identifying the cause of a problem
  • Trial-and-error: testing possible solutions until the right one is found



Ehsan Abbasi

Technical Product Manager with 4+ years experience applying data-driven mindset to build successful solutions for startups and enterprises. abbasiehsan.com