PLL (Product Logical Levels) framework to escape unproductive discussions
I went through NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) training recently and I was very impressed with the “Logical Levels” pyramid from Robert Dills (complete theory here). I found it extremely powerful and I thought it could be very useful to adapt it and bring it to the product world as a way to escape from sterile discussions that can happen between product people and their tech, business, or investor stakeholders. After a short intro about why product discussions are so often sterile, we’ll see how to apply PLL (Product Logical Levels) through 4 tangible examples.
Why are Product discussions so often sterile ?
It is very hard in the product world to have constructive discussions. To me, it is because everyone has an opinion regarding any products (except perhaps highly technical products). Besides, every one has their own “map” about how the product should be. This map is often biased through :
- Personal experience (I need this very specific feature for my own usage)
- Specific feedback (often a friend or a relative of him)
- Vision one has in mind (which might not be the same as other people in the company, especially if the company’s mission is unclear)
- Professional agenda (a Sale’s rep willing to close a big deal with a specific prospect, an Ops wanting to speed up some process…).
Discussions often happen about the solution, which comes too late in the process to create alignment. A compelling case is a CEO who asks for a given feature they “absolutely believe in” and tries to convince -at best- the product team their solution is great. This usually ends up in a “please do” mode that disempowers the team and create mercenaries.
The Product Logical Levels pyramid
Here comes the magical solution : moving upward in the PLL pyramid to re-create alignment.
The PLL (Product Logical Levels) pyramid offers a simple approach to recreate the conditions of a collaborative and constructive discussion between stakeholders. The key principle to understand is that to solve a conflict on a given level of the pyramid, you need to move up to the level above. Even if the steps might look natural for you, usually it is not for your stakeholders. Thanks to PLL pyramid, you will be able to easily guide them. We will detail each step but here’s the big picture :
1/ From Solution level to Problem level
People love discussing solutions. As we saw in the intro, everyone has their own standard for what good looks like, so converging on a solution is hard ! Let’s look at an example taken from an e-commerce platform that sells shoes. Your executives (represented by let’s say Thomas) have asked you (Sonya) to offer a 1 day delivery option (fast-delivery seems to be mandatory nowadays in e-commerce). You disagree with this solution, and start arguing that according free return would better answer your customer needs. The discussion heats up but fortunately, you are now aware about the PLL pyramids and you are able to move up to the problem level.
It all starts at the solution level.
Thomas : “We need to offer 1D delivery option”
Sonya : “I understand that this 1D delivery feature is important to you, and I guess you must want to address a big problem for our users. Would you mind sharing it with me ?”.
Thomas : “1D delivery is a standard in e-commerce”.
Sonya : “I agree that many e-commerce platforms offer 1D delivery, but this comes with a very high cost for us. Which problem would we solve for our users offering 1D delivery ?”
Now we move up to the problem level.
Thomas : “I assume they want their shoes as soon as possible”
Sonya : “When speaking to them, they almost never quote delivery speed as one of their concerns. Rather they complain about returns… Around 30% of them need to return their shoes and this is a pain. Besides it is expensive. Do you think that 1D delivery could help with this return issue ?”
Thomas : “Now that you’ve framed it like this, I’m no longer certain… I was not aware it was such a big deal, neither our board… Perhaps we need to talk again about this. Perhaps a solution like a free return would be more interesting for our users”
Note that Sonya did not even mention the solution Thomas suggests (free return).
2/ From Problem level to Need level
In this new example, you will see that moving up one level (to Problem) is not enough. You need to go one step above to the Need level. The discussion is about offering a pre-ordering solution to order takeaway ahead in restaurants to skip the line.
Discussion starts at the solution level.
Thomas : “I think that an online ordering solution for takeaway would allow people to skip the line. It would be amazing, let’s do it !”
Sonya : “I am not sure such a solution would be of any interest for many users…”
Thomas : “Of course it would be, every one hates queuing. This is pure genius !”
Sonya knows the discussion is no longer rationale, so he tries to move up to the upper level, aka problem level.
Sonya : “So you presume queuing up is a problem ?”
Thomas : “Of course it is ! Who likes queuing up ?”
Sonya : “Many people queue up every day at this restaurant close to the office despite the time it takes”
Thomas : “Because they have to !”
Sonya : “They are many other restaurants in the neighborhood…”
Thomas : “This one is the best”
Sonya : “But they don’t look like they are annoyed ! They are all smiling and laughing….”
Again the discussion will not be productive… Let’s move to the upper level, the Need level.
Sonya : “Do they really need to go faster ? Don’t you think that what they need is more to “take their time and relax” while queuing up ? If they were really in a rush, they wouldn’t have chosen a restaurant where they know they will queue up for quite a while, would they ? Lunch break is a break, perhaps their real need is just to be able to chat with their colleagues while waiting in line. Rushing is not a way to relax.”
Thomas : “Perhaps you are right… I did not have that perspective. So perhaps the problem that the line is causing is more about stress when ordering with 20 persons waiting behind you ? Perhaps the solution would be an order machine where they could order at their pace without feeling rushed…”
(That’s actually what McDonald’s offered to its customers in their restaurants, you don’t have any human taking orders. Instead, they can now provide table service).
3/ From Need level to Context level
This example deals with the issue of deferred payment for B2B on an e-commerce website. We will to go to the penultimate level, the context level.
As usual, we start at the solution level.
Thomas : “We definitely need to offer deferred Payment to our business customers”
Sonya : “I am not sure this would be the right solution for them”
Thomas : “Come on, this is a standard in the B2B payment Industry”
You know the discussion is doomed. Let’s move up to the problem level.
Sonya : “What would you say deferred payment would solve as a problem for them ?”
Thomas : “They are used to it ! So not having it is a problem !”
Again, we need to move up. Now we are on the need level.
Sonya : “But what do our pros need that deferred payment could fill ?”
Thomas : “They need to manage their cash flow”
Sonya : “But do you think they face a need for treasury on our website ? What they need when buying on our platform is more about convenience, reliability, trust… “
Thomas : “Still, they spend moneys, that hurt their treasury. We need more repeat sales from them, we need to offer them ease of payment”
Sonya : “This is what we as a company need, but not what they as customers need…”
We finally need to move up to the context level. A need is deeply related to the context. Different contexts will raise different needs.
Sonya : “Since the beginning, we made the hypothesis that buying online would be the same context for businesses that buying offline. But these are very different don’t you think so ?”
Thomas : “How different ?”
Sonya : “Businesses have trade agreements with retails stores and they need to spend high amounts in these stores to benefit from the agreements. So they need cash flow management solutions in that case. But what about their online spendings ?”
Thomas : “I guess they represent a tiny fraction of their total spendings…”
Sonya : “So before quite a long time, deferred payment might not be their top priority need….”
Thomas : “I agree that given the amount of cash they spend online against offline, cash flow is not as important as a problem to manage. Thanks for raising this up !”
4/ From Context level to Mission level
This last example will also demonstrate that sometimes, you need to go as high as to the company’s mission (and values). This is particularly true for new products that create new habits. The example is taken from my new company (WILL), we don’t know yet if it will work ! But it provides a great example. As you already went through 3 examples, I will try to be more concise.
Through WILL, we try to provide a new way for companies to hire talent. We try to offer an alternative to Head Hunters (HH) through what we call “talent agents”. Following our User Research, companies complained about HH’s current fees being too expensive (20% of the annual salary). They would use more HH services if fees were lower. We think that going through a HH is better both for talents and companies so we decided to lower the fees to increase the number of recruitments going through HH.
As you can imagine, setting the right level of commission was not easy.
Let’s start from the solution
Thomas : “We should set a commission of 15%”.
Sonya : “I would prefer a 10% commission”.
Let’s move to the problem level :
Thomas : “10% is too low we are leaving money on the table, we could price higher…”
Sonya : “Even at 15%, HH remains too expensive for companies. There won’t be enough opportunities”
You can see that Thomas talks about WILL’s problem (business centric approach) while Sonya talks about companies’ problem (user centric approach). The goal is to please users in a viable way for the business.
Now let’s move to the need level.
Sonya : “Companies need lower fees to be able to create more opportunities”.
Thomas : “But we need higher fees to be able to attract HHs”
Let’s move to the context level.
Thomas : “HH get 20% today for that kind of contracts !”
Sonya : “I agree that 5% would be way too low given the current situation, they wouldn’t trust us… But 10% is still ok !”
At that point, none of the levels could break the tie. Probably because this issue needs a complete takeover. Such a new perspective requires a higher level to be considered, the company’s Mission.
Sonya : “We need to go back to our manifesto : Talent first. In order to make that possible, we need way more recruitments goes through an agent since this is the key for us. So we need to be very aggressive on fees, not because we think fees are too high now (if HH manage to do business at this price I understand they keep it), but because we want to increase the indirect opportunities. So perhaps we need to change our approach or business model to be able to deliver on that promise.”
Thomas : “I agree that we won’t be able to close the discussion if we remain stuck to the existing ecosystem. Perhaps we need to attract new profiles for our agents instead of HH ? Or perhaps we need to address different talent segments (instead of C-levels) ? And what if we could bring in the mandates so that they don’t have to do the sales with the companies ? Perhaps a 10% would become more sustainable for them ?”
Thanks for reading and I hope you found it useful. Many thanks to Axel Sooriah for the English language proofreading ! I would be very interested in getting your feedbacks about it. You can email me at pierreg.fournier[at]gmail.com !
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