Why the Problem Manager?

When I told my long-time friend and mentor Steve Johnson I was launching a new blog and podcast we discussed a theme he had been writing and speaking a lot about over the past few years, which he summarized simply as:

“Let’s be Problem Managers” — Steve Johnson

His point being our discipline of Product Management had evolved greatly over the past 25 years but one area which seems to have evolved less (and maybe degraded) is Problem Management. Take a look in sum at all of the artifacts modern product teams create and it is alarming how little of that refers in any serious depth to the problems for which a product or service is purportedly being designed to solve.

This resonated strongly with my own experience and hence this blog and podcast and eventually book were born.

Just the Problems

The Problem Manager about Problems. Not personal problems. Business problems. Consulting problems. Project problems. And Product problems. Back in 1997, to kick-start a new career in Product Management, I flew from Toronto to San Francisco to attend a 2-day Pragmatic Marketing course to learn how to be a Product Manager.

The Pragmatic Marketing Framework
The Pragmatic Marketing Framework

Pragmatic presented us with a grid of around 37 boxes, each representing an important topic to be addressed by a Product Manager. As a mediocre-at-best software programmer I was the proverbial kid in the candy store. Somewhat bored with the repetitiveness of my day-to-day life as a programmer, here was a huge amusement park which I was being paid to explore. With 37-ish ingredients, each day was a new surprise and new challenge. I fell in love. And I have been in love for 25 years and counting.

In those 25 years I have seen those 37-ish boxes all explode with books, and courses and experts for each of them. My late friend, Alan Armstrong, built a successful business around Win/Loss Analysis, April Dunford is crushing it on Positioning, Mark Stiving is Mr. Pricing. For my new venture I wanted to drill into one of those boxes which deserved some more attention. And then I spotted it. Right there in the top left-hand corner of the grid: Market Problems. I realized over my 25 year career, products and solutions and their components and concerns have gotten most of the attention and energy, with problems going under-nurtured. And here’s why it’s Steve’s fault; for years Steve has been saying…

We Should Be Problem Managers — Steve Johnson

The Might Oak from the Tiny Acorn Grows

So why focus on Problems? Aren’t we supposed to focus on Solutions?

“Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” so the saying goes.

As I bounced this pinball off the various bumpers of my mind a single image kept recurring for me of a great tree with an equally or greater root system. Perhaps because I live in an area where we have been losing a lot of mature trees due to wind storms. Perhaps because a good friend of mine is a certifiable “tree nut”. But I couldn’t shake this image.

Tree Showing Deep and Broad Root System
Tree Showing Deep and Broad Root System

Most of those 37-ish boxes on the Pragmatic Marketing grid deal with the tree we see above the ground. The trunk, the branches, the sub-branches, the leaves, the shade, the protection from wind. Fewer of those boxes, and in my experience, less of our collective energy are concerned with the root system supporting and feeding the tree. Now, don’t get me wrong, an Arborist I am not, so forgive me if this metaphor/analogy/simile doesn’t work for some technical reason.

Like the mighty oak that grows from the tiny acorn, great product and services often grow out of a single seed of an idea based on an aha-inspired insight into….. Into what? Usually that Aha-seed is based on an insight into a Problem.

Shallow, superficial insights likely lead to shallow, superficial products and services. Profound, deep insights likely have the potential to grow into mighty-oak products and services.

So why don’t we spend more time nurturing, refining, evolving, dare we say perfecting our understanding and definitions of the problems we are solving?

What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

Have you ever been in a meeting that is going nowhere fast and finally everyone is rescued by someone, anyone asking the perfect question:

What is the problem we are trying to solve here?

Boom. Mic drop. Give that person a raise. So, what is the problem we are trying to solve with The Problem Manager?

Revisiting our tree analogy, our premise that if we drew a picture of the typical project or product as a tree with both the above-ground tree and below-ground root systems representing the amount of energy and thought and design gone into each the image we would get would defy our logic. It would be a huge monstrosity of a tree above ground with only a tiny barely visible root system to anchor it. All that is needed is one big wind storm (market change, competition) and it would fall over like the tree below.

Fallen Tree
Fallen Tree

The problem we are out to solve at The Problem Manager is one of asymmetry.

Rather than creating projects and products and services that quickly rush past problem definition to get to solutions, instead let’s try to evolve our (root) problem systems symmetrically alongside our (tree) product/solution/services.

Your title might be Product Manager, Product Owner, Business Analyst, or Consultant but your job is really Problem Manager.

Agree with me? Don’t? Let’s talk about it.


My name is Allan Neil, a 25 year veteran of the Product Management space. Welcome to The Problem Manager, where will will attempt to…

right this energy imbalance between solution space and problem space, between problem definition and product definition, between feature leaves and problem roots.

Join the conversation at www.theproblemmanager.com or @problemsmanaged on the socials. Hope to see you there.



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Allan Neil

Allan Neil

25 year product management veteran based in the greater Toronto area. Passions include Product, Rust, Clarinet, Cigars, Disambiguation.