8 simple steps to handle ambiguous PM interview questions or handle ambiguity as a PM

At times you can get extremely ambiguous questions as a product manager. These questions may look as follows:

  • Improve performance of WhatsApp
  • What is your favorite app? Improve it.
  • You own satellite data. Now make business out of this.
  • Microsoft wants to enter Food market. Build a product.

PMs generally operate in tremendous ambiguity. The intent of these questions is to check how you handle ambiguity and are able to generate clarity.

In order to proceed, let us take one example and we will try to build a solution. “Microsoft wants to enter Food market. Build a product.”

Dog in ambiguity by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

If you prefer watching instead of reading, then you can watch a workshop recording on handling ambiguity.

STEP1 — Ask clarifying questions

It is always good to ask clarifying questions so that you understand the problem space better, however in these cases you may find that the interviewer will ask you to make your own smart assumptions to proceed.

E.g., for the above question if I ask,

“Are you looking at a particular segment of food industry”?

Interviewer: You can select your segment.

“Is the objective to enter the market or make a significant market share”

Interviews: You can select your objectives.

STEP2 — Define Persona

Look at all possible personas that may impact your use case. Here personas could be:

* Users

* Customers

* Suppliers

* Partners etc.

The strategy here is to go broad and then go deep on your personas.

* Breadth to show your creativity

* Depth to scope your conversation from an interview perspective

In our example, the personas impacting the food industry could be:

  • Farmers
  • Fertilizer companies
  • Irrigation companies
  • Tractor companies
  • Supply chain & logistics service providers — truckers
  • Farmer’s markets — mandi
  • Storage houses
  • Retail stores
  • Industries consuming farm products etc.

Here, since the problem is ambiguous, it is a good strategy to identify the possible personas that play a role in the food industry. This allows you to go broad to show your creative side, however you now need to go deep in order to scope the problem space.

The broad and depth strategy will work very well in such interviews.

For example, in this case, we would select a farmer as a primary persona for whom we wish to solve the problems.

STEP 3 — Identify the persona’s problems

An obvious next step that many folks take is to identify problems for the persona. Now, this could be really tough and what may result in pop-corn effect.

E.g., try narrating the problems that a farmer faces. These could be irrigation, cultivation, yield, getting the right money for the produce etc.

Now these could be valid problems, but these problems are popping up in our minds in no particular order and it gives the impression of lacking structure. Not only that, even while building products, we don’t jump into problems. We first try to understand the user’s journey to get a better understanding.

STEP 3 — Persona’s journey

Therefore, a better step 3 is to identify the persona’s journey.

So with my limited knowledge of farming, a farmer’s journey looks as follows:

  1. Preparing the soil
  2. Identifying the seeds to be sown
  3. Ploughing the land
  4. Add seeds
  5. Irrigation
  6. Add fertilizers
  7. Add pesticides
  8. Regularly check crop readiness
  9. Harvest
  10. Load the harvest to trucks/ tractors
  11. Trip to farmer’s market
  12. Sell to institutions
  13. Get money

Here, also we went broad with the journey, and now you can pick a particular area to scope down from an interview perspective to go deep. E.g., let us pick irrigation.

STEP 4 — Problem identification

Now, let us identify the problems in the user’s journey that we wish to solve. An important aspect while problem solving is to constantly question whether you have enough context about the problem that you wish to solve and whether this will result in a product or not. While identifying problems, you can also prioritize them so that you can come up with an MVP immediately thereafter.

E.g., irrigation can be solved by drilling wells and also using tech. So, if you wish to solve the problem for a tech. firm, you are looking at tech to solve the unsolved problems.

Now, let us articulate some problems in irrigation:

  1. Farmer irrigates manually that is time consuming.
  2. Farmer turns on all the sprinklers in the farm irrespective of whether the crop needs the water or not leading to excess water and increased costs.
  3. There is no monitoring of crop water requirement. What if there is already moisture in the soil and irrigation is not required.
  4. Farmer does not know when to irrigate. What if it going to rain tomorrow, but farmer would still irrigate.

Great, we should be at this stage of the interview in 10 minutes. Now just reflecting on what we have done, we translated a very ambiguous question to a finite set of 5 problems.

Now, we just need to go through the motions to solve these 5 problems.

REFLECT

Here, you could have taken another route and solved for a way bigger problem such as farm to fork, supply chain or food, etc. However, since you have limited time in an interview and the nature of thinking on your feet, you should remember that you should think broad and then think deep else you will end up boiling the ocean and it may not translate into a product.

STEP 5 — Identify solution

Next, you can map your solution to the problems identified. You can check whether your solution maps to the organization’s products (if you can do so)

Let me try to do so for the above 5 problems.

Problem: Farmer irrigates manually that is time consuming.

Solution: Automated sprinklers that operate based on various triggers. Here the automated triggers could be time based, schedule based, or intelligent insights.

P: There is no monitoring of crop water requirement. What if there is already moisture in the soil and irrigation is not required.

SENSOR DATA

We need data from soil moisture sensors that can tell us the amount of moisture in the soil.

IMAGE DATA

Maybe we will need sensors or cameras on tractors / drones that can take images of the plants and feed the images back to the cloud. There will be image and data processing that should be married to meaningful insights.

P: Farmer does not know when to irrigate. What if it going to rain tomorrow, but farmer would still irrigate.

SATELLITE DATA

There is a possibility of marrying the sensor data with satellite data or metrological department’s data to get lead indicators or rainfall possibility etc.

P: Farmer turns on all the sprinklers in the farm irrespective of whether the crop needs the water or not leading to excess water and increased costs.

TRIGGER

With all of this data coming from multiple sources — sensors, imagery from the farm, imagery from satellite, and data from metrological department, the output would be controlling the trigger to each sprinkler. There may be a possibility that 2 out of the 100 sprinklers turn on depending on the soil moisture. Or at times, the sprinklers are not turned on at all since there is a 90% probability of rainfall tomorrow.

REPORTING

To conclude, there is monitoring of each sprinkler, farm, soil moisture etc. for each farmers farm that is visible to the farmer to do trend analysis and yield prediction.

STEP 6 — Prioritization

You may be asked to prioritize therefore think about your minimum viable product. MVP should complete the scenario. Ensure, that the scenario is not half baked in the MVP.

For example, in our case, a good MVP could be:

  1. Installing the soil moisture sensors
  2. Marrying the soil moisture sensor data with satellite data for rainfall prediction
  3. Creating a dashboard that reports data from the sensors and informs the farmer which parts of the farm to irrigate

There is no automated farming yet since we want to ensure that the recommendations are working. Once we have this scenario nailed down, we can potentially work on automated triggers, drone data, smart sprinklers etc.

STEP 7— How do you measure success

As you build your product ensure that you are able to measure the success of your product. Here there are 2 metrics

Product metrics — that signify customer value. These metrics could be:

1) Acquisition numbers

2) Growth numbers

3) Engagement numbers

Business metrics — the signify the business value. These metrics could be:

1) Revenue

2) Market share

In our use case, there could be several metrics that can measure the success. E.g..

  1. The amount of water saved
  2. The amount of electricity saved
  3. Yield improvements
  4. Wastage reduction etc.

STEP 8 — Any question for me?

The last question of the interview may be, whether you have a question for the interviewer. Remember, your interview is not over yet. And this is not a summary of the interview. This is primarily asking, whether you have any questions that can help you recruit yourself into the organization. Please do your research before asking questions. Do not ask things that are available on the internet. Do not ask opinion on religious or geo political matters. Do not ask questions that do not help you to make a decision to join the organization.

Some questions that I was asked where I am not sure how this information would help the candidate join the company:

  1. What is your opinion about the Microsoft stock.
  2. Where can I get my Nokia phone fixed. (long time back)
  3. Why does Microsoft create the BSOD? (search the term)

To summarize, ambiguity is second nature to a PM therefore in case of such interviews, you can think broad and think deep to generate clarity for yourself and arrive at something meaningful. What is important here is the structure that you can follow. If you mix the structure with your creative juices, then the interview would be a walk in the park.

Sorry for the long blog. Now that you have read it, take some rest and you can clap later.

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