The Crux

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crux (krəks, kro͝oks)
the decisive or most important point at issue.

The figurative use for “a central difficulty” (1718) is older in English than the literal sense; perhaps it is from Latin crux interpretum “a point in a text that is impossible to interpret,” the literal meaning of which is something like “crossroads of interpreters.” But Century Dictionary ascribes it to “the cross as an instrument of torture; hence anything that puzzles or vexes in a high degree ….” Extended sense of “central point” is attested by 1888.

Getting to the central issue is an art that everyone in a company should practice. All too often, we bury our colleagues with facts and figures, tangents and anecdotes, extraneous information and verbal flourishes, all in the name of persuasion.

If you really want to help the organization, you need to get to the heart of an issue and debate the pros and cons. There are techniques to help and some metaphors (of course) to help you on your way.

The Football Field Metaphor

Note: Football is a bad sport. It causes brain damage in people who play it. Please do not let your children play football. You should also stop watching it on television. Also, the Jets suck.

Ok, the point of the game (metaphor) is to move the ball to the endzone and score a touchdown. Every project has a goal. You want to ship high quality products with minimal time and energy. The effort takes time, so every time you make progress you are moving the ball up the field.

Sometimes you can make a long play (lots of progress). Sometimes you put in a bunch of effort and find yourself only a few yards forward. You can even go backwards sometimes.

Look at this example in animated gif.

He runs and runs, but doesn’t get anywhere

I find that many projects do this alot. There is alot of effort and alot of running, but it isn’t making any progress. I call this running sideways.

One type of leadership is saying to the group that we are running the wrong direction. It is leadership because most people will happily say “I ran alot today!” rather than “I made progress today”.

The Five Whys

A technique that helps understand what you are trying to do and what problems you are trying to solve is the Five Whys. It is shocking to me how often people do things without understanding why. I have a rule on my design team. I call it Rule #1.

Rule #1: If you don’t understand it, you can’t design it.

Glen’s only rule

The exercise is pretty easy. If something is wrong, you ask “Why?” and try to get an answer. Then you ask “Why does that answer exist?” and you get another answer. You repeat this 5 times. Let’s take an example:

  • Base Problem: We have low NPS scores.
  • Why 1?
    Because users say the system doesn’t do what they need.
  • Why 2?
    Because they want to perform use case XYZ and we don’t have that
  • Why 3?
    Because we prioritized different use cases that a big customer wanted instead
  • Why 4?
    Because product management cares more about the big customers than NPS scores
  • Why 5?
    Good question! This is the heart of the issue!

If you slow down and really think about it, you will realize that arguing about 1-4 is meaningless. We shouldn’t argue about NPS or use case XYZ or even what we prioritized. We need to talk about why product management cares more about big customers than NPS scores. It is a strategic question that has enormous implications.

The crux of the issue is strategic. In fact, most serious problems an organization suffers from can be rooted in strategic optimization questions. Optimizing for one group over another, or one metric over another, will yield very different tactics and decisions.

Getting to the heart of a problem is solvable. But it requires that you stop running sideways and stop arguing about downhill effects. You need to dig deeper to the underlying assumptions and strategies and argue about those.

Here is one last example for young designer candidates:

  • Base Problem: Hiring managers are rejecting your candidacy
  • Why 1?
    Because they don’t like your site
  • Why 2?
    Because it’s long, hard to read, and looks exactly like everyone else’s site
  • Why 3?
    Because designers think they need to be “the same” to succeed
  • Why 4?
    Because our higher education system is structured to create good little soldiers, carbon copies of each other for easy fungibility and they teach/force students to make their sites identical. (Use the template!)
  • Why 5?
    Good question! This is the heart of the issue!

One could go further into how higher education is based on the Prussian military model from the 1800’s, but that is a post for another day.

I hope this is helpful. Maybe try it and see what happens.

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