Know Your Users (Development I)

Marcus Guest
4 min readSep 19, 2023

The “most underrated skill in management is … clearly articulating the problem you seek to solve before jumping into action.”* However, many managers choose ‘solutions’ first and then look for the problems this will fix: “We’re launching a cultural/digital/agile transformation” they announce “to address our talent/technology/innovation gap”. Managers do this because they (rightly) want to be pro-active. But if you don’t know why you’re addressing these gaps (as opposed to others) your actions can backfire as disagreements about why we’re doing “this” and resistance breaks out, forcing managers to have more meetings to resolve the problems their “solution” is creating.

Sometimes managers should go slower if they want their organisation to go faster.

Managers may assume that everyone understands the problems the organisation must resolve and expect everyone to just get on with this. But when people don’t (because no-one has articulated these problems clearly) managers get frustrated and start to jump in with their own solutions. However, if people don’t understand the problem a ‘solution’ is trying to fix they might get confused (which is they don’t do anything different). If the ‘solution’ seems too hard to execute they won’t (which is why they don’t do anything different). A minority may also disagree with the ‘solution’ and might actively try to sabotage it (which is when change starts to shudder to a halt) at which point the majority of your people look around and say, “if no-one is doing anything different why should I?”.

Jumping to solutions before agreeing the problems you need to solve — putting the cart before the horse — often results in more effort being expended and less getting done, which is both inefficient and well as ineffective. Discontent can also grow under the surface as people get frustrated that ‘real problems’ they see remain unaddressed. Therefore, if you want to “unlock the energy and innovation that lies within those who do the core work of your organisation” you need clear problem statements these people can focus on.

How do you do this?

The situations we all find ourselves in — as citizens of nations, businesses in economies, or people in organisations — are complex, which means that the amount of information in the system is far greater and far too entangled for any single entity to know everything but, paradoxically, we can only understand them by looking at the whole system (NB: — this is why ’strategic plans’ never work; you are never in control of all the variables that can affect you — it’s the whole system and all the players that matter, not just what you do). When we find ourselves in these shifting and confusing landscapes we must do what explorers have done for millennia and find a north star — an unchanging focal point to navigate by. For all organisations the north star are your users.

Users are not just customers who buy from you, they can also be the family members of your customers or employees in your client’s organisation who use your products or services and will influence the buyer if they’re happy or dissatisfied with your offering. But your users are an even wider group than this: Shareholders, without whose investment your organisation may not have the capital to operate; employees, without whose labour your organisation will not have skills to produce and sell your products or services; regulators, who influence the environment you operate in, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse; even society can be considered your users as their favour or displeasure can have a serious impact on your bottom line and your very existence. Knowing who your users and focusing on what they want helps focus the organisation’s attention on creating value by overcoming real problems users have and who, in exchange, provide you the revenue, commitment or support you need to survive and thrive as an organisation.

If you want your people to pro-actively solve real problems start by identifying and defining real user problems first, then setting these as missions and giving people space to try and solve them in innovative ways that will drive your organisation’s progress. And, as a manager, you then monitor progress towards meeting these missions regularly (ex, daily for urgent issues, otherwise weekly) adjusting and adapting as you learn more about what’s working and what’s not. This is as simple as management can get and it starts with knowing who your users are.

*The Most Underrated Skill in Management. MIT Sloan Management Review (Spring 2017).

This principle —know your users — is part of the Wardley Mapping method for helping organisations communicate more clearly, develop effective teams, improve operations, accelerate learning, lead more decisively and structure themselves to deliver better results. To learn more get in touch with me at marcus@powermaps.net or visit powermaps.net.

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Marcus Guest

Govern the state by being straightforward; And wage war by being crafty. — Laozi, Tao Te Ching marcus@powermaps.net PowerMaps.net