Consultants are fond of using the phrase “it depends” when asked how to solve a specific problem. Many think consultants use that response when they don’t know the answer, or don’t want to provide it for free. In reality the consultants use that phrase to indicate the huge influence context has on how to address a problem. What works in some situations may not even have a chance to work in others.
That said, experience is the best teacher. You’d be foolish not to take advantage of what others have learned through sometimes painful experience to solve a problem you face.
So how do you go about learning from others while factoring in the differences that context brings about? Here are five steps I’ve found help me consider context when trying to learn from others.
- Decide where you need help
- Understand your own context
- Find out what other people have tried
- Find out why it works in their context
- Figure out how to make it work in your situation
Decide Where You Need Help
This may seem like a no brainer, but the first step in finding help from others to solve a problem you have is make sure you’re clear on the problem you are trying to solve. It’s so obvious that many people forget to consider it and end up in an aimless search for information. I referred to this as Just-In-Case Learning instead of Just-In-Time learning in a post I wrote for BATimes.
When you are clear on the problem you are trying to solve, you can focus your search and avoid finding solutions in search of a problem.
Figure out the big problems you face right now, and then find stories about other people who faced similar problems and listen to (read) what they have to say. Doing this allows you to avoid wasting your time hearing about great solutions, but solutions to problems that you don’t have.
KBP.media exists to help organizations determine the right internal products to deliver. My hypothesis is that techniques used for product management can provide some good information for that purpose. That helps to guide my search for information and makes sure that I don’t read interesting, yet irrelevant articles on whether Scrum or Kanban is better for game development.
Understand Your Own Context
Once you’re clear on the problem you want to solve, make sure you have a clear understanding about your context so when you identify some possible solutions, you’ll find ones that are likely to be of some use.
Context can vary on factors such as the industry you’re in, the size of your organization, the age of your organization, where it’s located and even your strategy. These factors all play a part in how effectively different solutions address your particular problem.
In my search for how to apply product management ideas to internal products, I’ve focused on the intended users and customers of products. Product Management is often described in terms of products for sale and use by people outside the organization. Internal Product Management develops “products” for use inside the organization.
That means that lessons related to sales channels may not be directly relevant to the problem I’m trying to solve. I don’t ignore sales challenges completely, but I tend to focus on lessons surrounding decision making and product development over preparing the sales channel. This helps provide focus.
Find Out What Other People Have Tried
Once you know the problem and understand your context, you can look for solutions from other organizations that share that same context. Starting off with a very narrow focus may limit the solutions you initially find, but it increases the chances that if you find any, they will be immediately relevant. Plus, if you don’t find any solutions with the very limited context you start in, you can always broaden your search by gradually relaxing specific criteria.
I’m always on the lookout for posts about how organizations use product management in an internal setting. Sometimes these discussions talk about product ownership, or project portfolios. When I don’t find something with that exact context, I look for descriptions of what happened where most of the context matched – i.e. experiences with decision making or product development without a huge focus on sales channels.
Find Out Why It Works In Their Context
Once you find an interesting solution that works in a context similar to yours, see if you can glean from the resource why they thought it was successful. This in itself may give some insight into how it may work for you as well.
If you find a solution that doesn’t have an in depth analysis of why it worked, reach out to the person who shared their experience and ask them:
- Why did they try what they did?
- Did they come across any stumbling blocks and if so, what were they?
- What do they attribute their success to?
Try not to be too leading when you ask your questions. It’s much more telling when someone voluntarily offers up an assessment as to why something worked than if you try to feed them possible suggestions (this adds to cognitive bias).
Figure Out How to Make it Work In Your Situation
Once you have a good feel for how the solution worked in the initial context, take a look at differences between their context and yours and think about how it may work in your setting.
Most likely, you’ll need to make some adjustments to the approach. However if you got some insight into why it worked for the person sharing the experience, you may have some insight into where to try first.
The important thing is to implement the solution as an experiment. Establish a hypothesis that the technique you learned from others will work in your context with specific adjustments. Try it out in a way that you can get quick feedback. Run the experiment. Collect the feedback. Look closely at the results and determine whether you were right about the appropriate adjustments.
It Still Depends
Just remember – even though it worked for another organization doesn’t mean that it will always work for yours, even if you try to account for the known differences in your contexts. Sometimes the differences are in factors that are not immediately apparent.
How have you gone about researching others practices and effectively applying them to your own setting? If so, share your experiences in the comments.