Don’t let a deadline get in the way of clarity

Reflections on balancing process and creativity in problem solving

I’ve come to realize, in a fast paced startup environment, that the space to be still and observe can be hard to find and even harder to prioritize in my daily life. I don’t tend to perceive it as the best use of my working hours. The space and time you need to truly observe becomes so rare and precious that when you get a moment to reflect on something in an unhurried way , it feels akin to that sense of chaos that normally accompanies a lack of structure. What I’m coming to realize is that it also unlocks a deep sense of clarity which could potentially transform how you see an unsolvable problem.

The reframing of a problem is sometimes needed to reach a sense of clarity; trying to figure out a method to the madness only results in more madness. On one hand, I associate this seemingly unstructured space with stress and uncertainty. Its antidote is using spin-offs of the scientific method and the power of deduction — which, on the flip side, I associate with confidence in expertise and maturity. And so, it always felt intuitive to me that effort and time put into improving this sense of structure and process can always provide increased clarity in how problems are approached, broken down and resolved and to do so in a timely way. It’s an academic type logic that I’ve never felt the need to question…and I still don’t.

A bit of context

I found that a lot of the processes I use in my job all draw from what I learnt in the classroom: hypothesis, control environment, experiment and results. We had to focus on what was chewable, measurable and what our expected outcome was. As a product manager, in theory, you learn that the most important insights about your product’s users can come from observing them interact in real time in addition to hearing them via feedback, surveys etc. but you quickly find that the actual space and time to absorb such insights is not, for lack of a better word, practical. It’s not seen to be practical because that extra time and space is really just for you, the person trying to reason through the question and problem, and less about the problem itself. However, at the end of the day, facing deadlines and moving through problems is part of daily life and the desire to find neat and well organized outcomes can feel more important than the process of getting to an answer.

The desire to find neat and well organized outcomes can feel more important than the process of getting to an answer.

In this sense, questions provide the sandbox for observations. A question is a clear assumption or articulation about a gap of knowledge and it inevitably frames the way in which you observe the actions or inactions of your subjects. The drive to answer a specific question also puts what you observe through a needle’s eye. It’s a very efficient way of absorbing the right information in a timely manner. As a product manager, I have to be especially good at this and continually improve in the art of asking the right questions.

I recently had a moment of profound clarity — albeit stemming from a minor observation — about participants at a conference. They were having braindates (intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face) to discuss topics of common interest. I was putting together a presentation to debrief this event and looking for photos to add to my slides, to bring some human context to it. I wanted to use photos of real people who had gone through our product’s experience and I was scanning through beautiful pictures we had taken during that fun but intense, 3 day event.

It wasn’t what I found that rocked me to the core, it was that I stumbled across something so randomly while casually browsing through photos; something that I completely could not see in real time at the event, in the moment. I felt like a fly on the wall and unhurried in what I was taking in. (Photos are great in that way, they let you reminisce over a specific moment captured by the photographer and experience it again, albeit in a different and somewhat detached way.) In this particular case, I felt very lucky to have a second chance at experiencing what I had overlooked in real time.

It makes me wonder if such moments should be set up with more intention or if, precisely because they’re rare, will always have a eureka! quality to them. When I backtracked to think about how I’d reached such a state of surprise, I realized I had in fact reasoned my way through — just not in the most efficient way.

Natural patterns and clues

Initially, my eyes were drawn to looking at patterns and similarities throughout the photos — commonalities in people’s facial expressions, their body posture, the dynamics of the group or duo. Learning about a subject without seeing them through a wall of numbers is an interesting activity as it forces you to look at the subject outside of averages and quantitative statistics. Quite literally, you’re observing the “problem” in it’s context. It is a very surface-level way of observing a pattern but it was already giving a different meaning to the numbers that I had been neck-deep in for weeks.

Moving away from the big stuff, I start to focus on more subtle details. Posture, eyes, hands… and there is something unexpectedly obvious that emerges. Do you see it from the photos above? In these interactions, there are the actual words being shared but also the thoughts being written down. This is not such an unexpected thing for them to be doing but in my understanding of the subject, such a behaviour hadn’t even dawned on me.

It felt new.

In these interactions, there are the actual words being shared but also the thoughts being written down.

Stepping back

After seeing this, my next thought switched to understanding what explained this behaviour. I stepped back and started asking myself, “Who are these people?”, “How did they get to this seat?”, “What’s their job like?” “Are they friendly people?” Seemingly abstract questions that were helping me relive the event and the environment they were in. It felt transformative.

I realized I couldn’t identify a pattern in who the people were from these photos but I was drawn to thinking about what their common objective was while sitting there, talking to each other. I was coming back to the interactions I had observed earlier but I started to think about the unique reasons they had for this similar behaviour.

The context — or use case if you’re using industry speak — in which each person was going through the action of writing felt like something which needed to be treated with respect. In the efforts of always standardizing and optimizing, thinking about each individual’s context is not reasonable. However, I was at liberty to dream and empathise with everyone I saw pictured. Quite apart from the world of averages which gives you a representative view of a group of people; taking the time to think about each person in their own unique context went much deeper.

It felt intimate.

Fighting against assumptions

All this said and done, I was trying to complete a presentation. Time wasn’t in abundance and it wasn’t actually helping me get my primary job done. I needed to know if this was a conclusion to include in my debrief of the event or not. I was wary of reaching a conclusion or making an assumption about the behaviour I was observing because I knew it was only a partial view. Since I was thinking in a random, idle way, I wasn’t looking to answer a question or solve a problem and I wasn’t trying to fit a question to an answer I created from thin air.

This was when my question-asking persona started kicking in and my mind started racing to problems and solutions. I wanted this to mean something profound in my work. I wanted it to amount to a definitive conclusion I reached about the product and it’s experience.

I was allowed to be still and just observe. I began wondering what other things would be revealed to me if I made time to do this intentionally?

Although I didn’t end up including it in my debrief, it did feel like I had unlocked something, in myself, if anything. I started thinking about how my approach transforms how I absorb information. At the event, I was there to ask questions and seek out their answers but when I was reminiscing via the simple act of going through photos, I was allowed to be still and just observe. I began wondering what other things would be revealed to me if I made time to do this intentionally?

It felt inspiring.

Take your vitamins

This whole “thought trip” was a one-off, serendipitous thing. Comfort in knowing a process and the steps one takes to resolve a question or problem can, unbeknownst to us, become a crutch. If you believe that no process is perfect and is constantly evolving, then when gaps appear, the creeping feeling of uncertainty isn’t so intimidating. The ability to think in patterns, to step back and to fight against drawing conclusions based on partial information, all in the pursuit of an answer have become useful mechanisms for me to reframe problems when I feel I’ve used certain heuristics to their limit.

In my work, I’ve found myself practicing observation in one of two ways: through asking a question or through letting my thought process wander. Some people’s strengths lie in precision in determining the problem; other people’s strengths in being imaginative and thinking outside of the box. I feel that most of us probably land on a spectrum somewhere between these two points and sometimes it also changes according to the subject at hand and how confident we feel.

In the same way that a medicine and a vitamin work in different ways — our proverbial sandbox in which we have enough space to really understand the problem on hand needs a solid structure and foundation as much as it requires sand. Embracing fluidity, patterns, abstractness and empathy are not efficient ways to problem solve but I’m starting to see how these concepts, when accompanied by asking the right questions, can bring a bit of serendipity into my life on a more regular basis.


e180 is a social business from Montreal that seeks to unlock human greatness by helping people learn from each other. We are the inventors of braindates — intentional knowledge sharing conversations between people, face-to-face. Since 2011, e180 has helped thousands of humans in harnessing the potential of the people around them, and we won’t stop until we reach millions.