Unblocking Complex Questions on Your Product Team

Making software is challenging. It can be incredibly complex with a lot of moving parts. Questions will come up that are difficult to answer, and sometimes it’s difficult to find the right language to ask. It’s important to have the right tools to get unblocked when we run up against these complex questions.

When there are several dimensions to consider and several consequences to weigh, I lean on my toolbox as a consultant. Those tools include clarifying the problem, envisioning the landscape, and defining the work ahead once a decision is made.

When executed well, these steps make it seem like we haven’t done anything at all. The conversation is focused on the right areas and all parties can make decisions quickly. However, no one forgets when you’ve made their job easier. These tools help us own the work and move the project, and the team, forward toward our goals.

Visualize the Lay of the Land

This step is exactly how it sounds. Make a picture. It doesn’t have to be pretty.

It could be as simple as a brainstorm map that shows the relationships between entities, roles, systems, etc. You can even use Excel to create a mockup so the team can see the connection or the value exchange between systems. This visualization can help teams make quick decisions.

Clarify the Problem

It can be hard to problem solve when you’re passionate about the product and its success. Being able to step back, clarify what the question really is about, and make sure the team is on the same page has helped our team.

With this approach, we can take a detailed question and zoom out to the bigger picture. From there, we can see what’s really at stake and make decisions that answer a dozen open questions instead of just one.

Options, Options

Any good problem has a variety of solutions, and the thing about hard decisions is that the options seem equal. Our teams facilitate these discussions by outlining the options (name the option, define the outcome) and how they differ.

Who is impacted? What is the effort involved? Who will own the work? What are the trade-offs?

What’s Next

Here’s how to take a project over the finish line. Once you’ve made a decision, what are the next steps? Does more discovery need to take place? If so, to answer what questions? Do you need to write user stories, and if so, what is the work, and who will take the lead to add them to the backlog? This crucial step closes the loop on the complex question at hand.

These steps are crucial for consultants. In order to do this work, we as designers and consultants have to truly understand the needs of our users and the ecosystem we’re working in. With this knowledge and empathy for our users, we can help our teams move forward.