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Solution Space vs Problem Space: The Tale of NASA's Space Pen

Before I tell you about the true and popular folk tale of the space pen that NASA built, let me begin by emphasizing the importance of discerning between solution space and problem space as a product manager. Working in solution space can restrict the creativity and innovative thinking of your team as well as put you in situations where you invest capital, time and effort in products or features that do not address the appropriate customer needs. Working with a beginner's, problem space mindset vs a solution space frame of mind can make or break any project. A great example of this is the space pen story.

When NASA was getting ready to send the first astronauts into space, they knew that any of the ballpoint pens used on Earth's surface would not function in the zero-gravity environment of outer space. The president of Fisher Pen Company - one of NASA's many contractors - decided to invest $1 million of his own money in R&D in the hopes of developing a pen that would work in a zero-gravity environment. Fortunately for him, the company invented the Space Pen in 1965. Great news for Fisher Company and NASA, at least for a short while. As many people familiar with the story know, it wasn't that far after the Space Pen came to life, that news from Russia were all over the newspapers and tabloids. Faced with the same challenge, Russia (the main competitor of the US in the space race) decided to equip their astronauts with pencils instead.


The lesson we learn from the Space Pen story is simple yet powerful, "Do not get fixated on the solution, and in fact, do not think of the solution until you'd given the problem enough thought and reflection."

What Russians did which the American did not was that they had restricted themselves to the problem space while NASA and Fisher Pen Company jumped into the solution space prematurely. Jumping right into the solution space means going for the "let's invent a pen that works in outer space" right away. However, constraining ourselves to the problem space first allows for more creativity and a potentially higher ROI. The problem space is usually a questions space while the solution space is a statements space. The "let's invent a pen that works in outer space" of the solution space is contrasted by the "how do we allow our astronauts to take notes and write down important observations while they are in space in a zero-gravity environment?" of the problem space. The lesson we learn from the Space Pen story is simple yet powerful for any product manager, "Do not get fixated on the solution, and in fact, do not think of the solution until you'd given the problem enough thought and reflection." The customers don't really care about your solution, they care about their problems and needs, and as product manager, so should you.


Now as a disclaimer, the Space Pen ended up being not a bad idea after all. After the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire in 1967, NASA had made it a requirement that all objects in the cabin be nonflammable. Furthermore, the Russians might have prematurely jumped into the solution space themselves as well. After all, a lead pencil pencil tip could, as it usually does, break off and could float into an astronaut's eye or into an electrical connection. In the end, the Space Pen was adopted as a useful tool by both NASA and their Russian counterparts.

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