by Mike Georgoff
September 26, 2019
"We've got a problem."
It's a phrase most employees hope they never have to say. Likely because it's a phrase most bosses never want to hear. But at H-E-B, "we've got a problem" is where it all starts. We thrive on problems.
Seeking out and surrounding yourself with problems—especially the really big ones, the ones that could signal the demise of your company or hurtle it to new heights—is a recipe for maximum anxiety. You'll wake up some mornings covered in cold sweat, wondering if you can solve them. But that discomfort is the first step toward discovering a breakthrough that leads to exceptional new experiences.
Most companies, and most employees, don't have the stomach for it. Other companies often rush to solutions because they feel good. Solutions can make us feel confident, wise and in control. They keep us busy and distracted from the discomfort a problem can present. But most solutions aren't actually solving those hard, do-or-die problems. They're simply emotional comfort blankets masquerading as real solutions.
Ready for some more discomfort? Great product teams don't get the luxury of emotional comfort blankets.
One of my favorite product leaders, Marty Cagan, put it simply: "Product teams know they have an obligation to make sure they’re not wasting the company's time and money by building something that fails to solve the underlying problem."
At H-E-B Digital, we've made the big problems unavoidable by organizing around them. Here, our product teams own problems, not products.
All of our product managers, designers, and engineers are dedicated to a big, complex and unsolved problem that is critical to our customers and to the company's success. We expect these problems will take years to fully solve. (Although, we'll undoubtedly create a lot of value along the way.)
This model challenges H-E-B’s heritage as an extraordinarily successful, action and solutions-oriented retailer. Our squads are approached every week with great ideas and solutions, from people across the business, including senior executives. And we expect every member of that product team to meet those ideas with the same two questions, over and over again:
"What problem are we solving?" and "What does winning look like?"
Those two questions are like an internal combustion engine for the sheer volume of ideas any good company produces daily. They apply pressure until those suggested solutions are decomposed into problems, and those problems are the energy that powers great product teams. If you've been anywhere near the world of product management before, you may notice a few things that are missing here. Where are the roadmaps? The projects? The features? The ship dates? Those omissions are intentional.
It's not that we don't deliver those things at H-E-B. (We do.) It's simply that we see those traditional hallmarks of success for what they really are: mere output. The only thing that matters to us is if those outputs are generating real value, and if that value originates with intense discovery around the problem itself.
Let's take an example. We have a product team focused on one of the great unsolved problems in the food space: meal planning. In particular, we've asked that team to figure out how to solve that problem we're all familiar with.
Picture this: it's 5pm and no one in the family has any idea what's for dinner. The kids are fighting, the parents are exhausted, and everyone is borderline hangry. This is a problem H-E-B has been working on for years, because most people don't think of a grocery store in a last-minute dinner scenario. And because we've been thinking about this problem for so long, there was plenty of ready-to-go solutions in our backlog and ample pressure to implement solution X by date Y.
The product team asked to spend more time with the problem, and especially the customers grappling with it. But as they embraced the problem, its immense complexity became clear. And not just the complexity, but the increasingly uncomfortable realization that none of the "ready-to-go solutions" in the backlog were going to suffice.
So here we are with a mission-critical problem for the company to solve. Competitors are closing in from all sides. There's increasing internal pressure. And no known solutions that genuinely solve the problem. What happens next is what makes or breaks product teams and companies. We can either rally behind the best solution on the list and bring that to market, even if it doesn't fully solve the problem. Or we can dig into the discomfort until we discover what works.
Great product teams choose the discomfort over the false certainty every single time.