As long as humans have organized into groups, we have craved a magical, “Silver Bullet” fix for our challenges. Greek tragedy coined the familiar phrase “Deus ex Machina,” describing an unexpected power that saves the day, and the Oracle of Delphi told Philip of Macedonia that “with silver spears you may conquer the world.” Thousands of years later, Hollywood used silver bullets to slay werewolves and the lone ranger used silver bullets to tame the wild west. And today, in our everyday work lives as B2B software product managers, we still turn to solutions that seem to cut through complexity and quickly solve whatever our most pressing problem is.
When growth stalls, we look for patterns of behavior where they do not exist and we crave a simple solution to complex problems. These simple solutions take the form of silver bullets that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, resulting in a random reward system that skews us in favor of solutions that are nothing more than the business equivalent of a lucky rabbit’s foot.
Can’t afford to fix a bloated architecture? Voila! Let’s move up or down market. Features no longer competitive? Presto! Sign marketing partners to expand your reach. Behind forecast? Abracadabra! Let’s buy a competitor.
Far from solving the problem, applying silver bullets slows us down from diagnosing the root cause of what ails us today. If that wasn’t bad enough, silver bullets are inherently high risk-high reward fixes with all the capital investment front loaded and all the benefits coming in the future.
How to Skip Silver Bullet Solutions
The randomness of which silver bullet solutions work and which don’t keeps them circulating in upper management circles. But if you’d rather base your business decisions on solid principles of success rather than luck, there are three questions you need to answer first:
1. Is it a product or a market problem?
Are enough customers buying products, just not yours? For example, if there are 1,000 customers in your addressable market buying on 5 year contracts that leaves 200 customers up for grabs each year, you need to decide if winning a reasonable share of those 200 customers would make you successful. If the answer is “No,” you need to revisit your market. If the answer is “Yes,” you’re facing a product problem.
2. How can we address problems with the product or product marketing?
Closing a product gap isn’t easy. If the problem is with the product, buckle up and get ready for hard work and late nights. First, you need to correctly diagnose the gap. Look to understand your customer’s context and how you can build a more distinctive product. Then decide which features you need to build. Second, you need to forecast where the market will be when you launch.
To have a chance at hitting this moving target, set a goal to re-launch the new and improved product in nine months. You’ll likely blow through your development budget, but it’s the only way to fix the problem. As Ben Horowitz has written, “There’s no silver bullet here. Just a lot of lead ones.”
3. How can we address problems with the market?
It doesn’t matter if you’re a startup looking for product-market fit, or a Fortune 50 CEO’s favorite growth initiative. problems with the market is a dangerous problem with no easy solution.
Whatever challenge you face, there are two questions you must ask: How can make this market profitable and attractive to us, and what other markets can we leverage into? Answering these questions won’t be easy, but they will lead directly to opportunities that transform your business for the better.
The next time someone presents a silver bullet solution, don’t fall for it. Dig deeper into the root of the problem and commit yourself to doing the work. It won’t be fun or sexy, but it will provide a reliable, effective path to success without risk.