Outside the Box Product Management

minutes read

09 Jun 2023

By Liraz Axelrad


Where is the box? In the world or in our minds?

The day-to-day life of a PM sometimes feels like running in a steeplechase race. At times the track is clear, the race is fair, you’re nailing it. Other days the steeplechases are everywhere, and they seem to be running towards you!


Big and small issues that cause concern, that don’t perform as expected, that make someone in the company — be it the management, the sales team, the marketing group, the CEO’s wife (or husband!) — unhappy, and it’s up to you the PM to come up with a solution, propose a change, initiate something that will have an impact for the better.

Problem-solving and creative thinking are parts of the PM role. Parts of the job description. The ability to zoom in on an issue and improve it. But how does one develop these qualities? What does it really mean, to be a creative problem solver? Can it be learned or trained?

I used to think that my natural pessimism is a good friend, supporting me in becoming a better PM. I tend to see problems everywhere, and I was not surprised when problems did occur.

A good dose of suspicion, for the least, does go a long way. But that is not all of it. Our ability to come up with a creative solution relies on how we perceive the problem. And that goes both ways. The way we perceive a problem tends to limit our ability to see a solution for it. In order to solve a problem, one needs to identify the problem correctly.

There’s homework after the first session of the MBSR course (Mindfulness-based stress reduction 8-week training course). Participants are tasked with trying to solve the nine-dot problem. In the following session, they will report their experience while working with the problem and the solution they found for it, or not.

The nine-dot problem goes like this: see the illustration below? The task is to connect up all the dots by making four straight lines without lifting the pencil and without retracing along any line.
Before continuing to read, spend five to ten minutes trying to solve this puzzle.

Go on, try it.

10 minutes later:
So, how was the task for you? Did you find the solution by yourself? Did you search for help? BTW, You can easily find the solution on the web. Did you have an “AHA!” moment when realizing the solution?

What’s interesting about the nine dots problem is not necessarily the solution or if one found a solution or not. It’s about looking at the “meta” level, watching our own ways when confronted with a problem: what do we do, what do we feel, what’s going on with us?

It is as if the nine dots problem is a task given to a user — this is you in this scenario, during research in a users research lab. The goal is to find out how creative PM’s behave and react when facing a problem.

How did you feel while trying to solve the problem? Was there a sense of emergency? distress? Was there a sense of frustration (if and when) not getting the answer first time? Was there tension or tightening present in the body? Did you sense contraction? We tent to contract when we feel tense. Our body, our mind. A contracted mind is the opposite of a creative mind, problem-solving mind.

Did you run to find a solution? Was there a sense of relief when finding the solution? What was your inner reaction to the problem, what was your inner dialog? what went on in your body and mind while trying to solve the problem? Did you react or did you respond? In this context the nine-dot problem is not about the solution, but about getting to know how we tackle problems and difficulties.

The solution to the nine-dots problem lies in extending the lines beyond the imaginary square that the dots make.

Did you notice?
The problem as described above does not prevent you from going outside the dots (or the box) but our usual tendency is to see the more easy and obvious pattern — in this case, the square created by the nine dots — as the field of the problem.
It’s not.
The filed of the problem is the whole surface that contains the nine dots.

“If you isolate the nine dots by themselves as the domain of the problem because of the automatic way in which you perceive things and think about them, you will never find a satisfactory solution to this problem. As a consequence, you may wind up blaming yourself for being stupid, or getting angry at the problem and proclaiming it impossible or foolish, and certainly irrelevant…All the while, you are putting your energy in the wrong place. You are not seeing the full domain of the problem” (Jon kabat-zinn, “full catastrophe living”).

The nine dots problem illustrates the importance of expanding beyond our habitual, conditioned ways of seeing, thinking and acting in order to solve certain kinds of problems. We must be aware of our pre-conceptions so that they won’t limit us and our creative capabilities.

To solve a problem one needs to first recognize the problem, as well as the context of the problem. One needs to see the big picture, the small picture and the tiny pixels that make up the picture, and not confuse between them. This sprint, the next sprint, the quarterly roadmap, the goals.

Understanding the context is important. When we don’t see and recognize the bigger picture, we also limit our ability to come up with a relevant, creative solution. To understand the context we need to look directly at the extent of the problem and discern the relationship between the various isolated parts of the problem and the problem as a whole.

I once worked with a company that practiced Scrum as if it was the bible and they were orthodox religious. They worked in one-week sprints. At the end of each sprint, they released whatever was ready. The CEO was in love with this process. He came to expect new features every week. For him, a feature required one week. Any feature.

At one time I had several stories (tasks) that required more than one sprint to complete. I had an EPIC. each story by its own was small enough, but without the other releasing it did not make sense. The CEO kept asking me to postpone the epic and instead push to the sprint other things, small, stuff that would fit. He understood the potential effect the epic can have on the company goals but wanted it to fit into a one week sprint.

For a while there, we were stuck. He saw his box, the one-week sprints, and release, I saw my box, the feature set as I planned it released at the same time. To solve this and move forward, we needed to go outside our boxes. For him, it was agreeing for a longer sprint, for me it was breaking the feature release into smaller bits and releasing the whole thing over time.

Thinking outside the box requires us to recognize the box. To become aware of our own patterns of thinking, our own perspective, and to make sure we don’t make it into our own limitations. The problem of the nine dots suggests taking a broader view of the situation when tackling a problem.

About the author 

Liraz Axelrad

Product League Mentor & Meditation practitioner, and MBSR (Mindfulness-Based-Stress-Reduction) teacher

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