Why Design Thinking Matters

How product managers can identify the right customer problems to solve 

Perhaps Albert Einstein summed up successful product management best when he said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

Product management, at its heart, is about managing a process that develops solutions to problems. So how do you find the right solution? More importantly, though, how do you identify the right problem?

Indeed, the most successful product managers lead teams that spend considerable time in hands-on discovery mode out in the field with customers, making sure they’re identifying the right problems before exploring possible solutions.

That’s what design thinking is all about, according to Brad Eiben, Executive Director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Master of Science in Product Management program, who started his career launching products from Toyota’s shop floor. He says Toyota’s best product managers could be identified by their “dirty hands” because of their hands-on depth of problem solving in the field.

“They were action-oriented, not theoreticians,” he says of those effective product managers, in contrast to “desk engineers,” a derogatory term for those trying to solve problems without going to the source. 

“All you have to do is ask the person what is causing their frustration,” he adds. “We’re not creating widgets or apps; we’re solving customers’ problems.”

Design thinking, Eiben says, is a design framework that delivers value to customers by solving their problems. In short, it’s a four-stage process that begins with customer discovery and leads to defining the right problem before a product management team, via an iterative process, designs and then delivers a solution.

So why does design thinking matter? Check out Eiben in this video as he takes his class on a design-thinking journey that begins on the manufacturing floor of Toyota.