I cringe every time I see product teams use a spreadsheet to rank the ideas in their backlog based on some made-up math formula usually consisting of things like business value, user value, and technical difficulty.
While this exercise is pervasive, it misses the point entirely. Our job is not to prioritize solutions. A product team’s job is to create value for the customer in a way that creates value for the business. This is rarely done by fixating on a ranked idea list.
A product team’s job is to create value for the customer in a way that creates value for the business. This is rarely done by fixating on a ranked idea list. – Tweet This
Prioritizing solutions is a left-over side effect of being output focused. When we are judged by what we deliver, the key decisions are focused on what to build when. But when we are judged by what outcomes we drive, it’s less about what solutions we deliver and more about what problems we solve for our customers.
Product teams should stop prioritizing solutions and instead prioritize opportunities.
Collect Stories in Customer Interviews to Generate Opportunities
Opportunities are customer needs, pain points, desires, wants—they are chances for us to intervene in a way that makes our customers’ lives better. You can’t prioritize opportunities if you don’t know what they are.
Thanks to tools like Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas and Jeff Patton’s Opportunity Canvas, more teams are talking about opportunities. However, we are talking about an opportunity in the context of a solution. We are starting with a solution and asking, “What problem does this solve?” This is backwards.
Instead, we want to start with our desired outcome and ask which customer needs, pain points, desires, and wants—if addressed—would drive our desired outcome. The best way to answer this question is through customer interviews.
For example, if I work at Netflix and my desired outcome is to increase the number of viewing hours per viewer, I might interview Netflix users and ask, “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix.” In their story, I’m listening for needs, pain points, desires, wants—opportunities that if we addressed them may lead to more viewing hours.
I like to frame opportunities as something a customer might say. This helps to ensure that I’m solving a real customer need and not a business need disguised as a customer need. For example, a customer might say, “I couldn’t find anything to watch,” but they aren’t likely to say, “I wish I binge-watched Netflix more.” The former is an opportunity that if addressed would lead to more viewing hours. The latter is something we wish our customers might say, but isn’t very likely.
I like to frame opportunities as something a customer might say. This helps to ensure that I’m solving a real customer need and not a business need disguised as a customer need. – Tweet This
Even though we might want our customers to spend more money with us, no customer would say, “I wish I spent more money on groceries.” However, they might say, “I’m looking for new ideas for dinner,” which if we did a good job addressing this need, may very well lead to the customer spending more money.
If we focus on collecting stories in our interviews, opportunities will emerge from those stories.
If we focus on collecting stories in our customer interviews, opportunities will emerge from those stories. – Tweet This
Map out the Opportunity Space Using an Opportunity Solution Tree
It can be hard to prioritize a flat list of opportunities, because odds are your opportunities are of different shapes and sizes, some are interrelated, others are subsets of others.
For example, if I have the following list of opportunities:
- I can’t find something to watch.
- I’m out of episodes of my favorite show.
- I can’t figure out how to search for a specific show.
- I don’t know when a new season is available.
- The show I was watching is no longer available.
- I fell asleep and several episodes kept playing.
- I want to watch my shows on my flight.
- I want to skip the show intro.
- Is this show any good?
- I want to know what my friends are watching.
- Who is that actor?
- I want to watch on my train commute.
I don’t know how to compare “I can’t find something to watch” with “I’m out of episodes of my favorite show.” These opportunities are not distinct. Running out of episodes of your favorite show is a reason why you might not have something to watch. But it’s not the only reason, so these aren’t exactly the same either.
To simplify this process, start by grouping related opportunities using an opportunity solution tree. Reframe similar opportunities to make sure they are distinct from each other. That might look like this:
This isn’t a perfect science. There is more than one way to group the same set of opportunities.
Two ideas that you want to keep in mind are similarity and distinctness. You want to group similar opportunities together, but you also want to make sure they are distinct.
“I want to skip the intro,” “I fell asleep while watching,” and “Who is that actor?” are all similar in that they all happen while watching an episode. They are also all distinct. There’s no overlap between one opportunity and the next.
As an example of how subjective this exercise can be, take a look at “I can’t find something to watch” and “I don’t want to miss out on something good.” Are these distinct? They are similar as they both involve deciding what to watch, but they have different connotations. I could make an argument that “I want to know what my friends are watching” could belong under either one of them. So what’s the right answer?
There isn’t one. The goal is to find the grouping that best reflects how your customers think about the opportunities. If your customers want to know what their friends are watching when they don’t have anything to watch, then it belongs under that branch. But if they also want to know what their friends are watching, because of a fear of missing out, then it might appear under both branches. If too many sub-opportunities belong to two of the same parents, we might need to question whether those parents are truly distinct.
The key when mapping your opportunities using the opportunity solution tree is to play with different groupings. Different groupings will help you understand the opportunity space differently. Some will make more sense than others. But each will give you new insight into what you know about your customers.
This exercise can be deceptively challenging. It’s really a critical thinking exercise. It forces you to question what you know about your customers and you’ll uncover a lot of gaps. That can be uncomfortable, but it will help inform what you need to learn next.
Prioritize Opportunities Using the Tree Structure to Guide Your Decisions
While grouping and framing your opportunities can be challenging, it’s worth the effort because we can now use the tree structure to help simplify our prioritization process.
We don’t need to assess every opportunity on our tree. We can simply assess the first row. We can start by assessing our four top-level opportunities:
- I don’t know what to watch.
- I don’t want to miss out on something good.
- I want a better viewing experience.
- I want to watch where I want.
Once we’ve identified our top priority in the first row, we can ignore the other branches of the tree, and move to prioritizing just that opportunity’s sub-opportunities.
For example, if we decide “I don’t know what to watch” is our top priority, we can ignore the other three branches, and simply assess and prioritize “I can’t figure out how to search for a specific show,” “I’m out of episodes of my favorite show,” “The show I was watching is no longer available,” and “Is this show any good?”
Assess Opportunities Using Fast Two-Way Door Decisions
I like to assess opportunities by sizing each opportunity (i.e. how many customers are impacted by it, how often), evaluating how addressing that opportunity might affect our position in the market, how well an opportunity fits with our company vision, mission, and strategic objectives, and how important it is to our customers. Ultimately, we want to estimate how much impact addressing each opportunity would have on our desired outcome.
This too is not a perfect science. These factors will not all agree. One opportunity might win on one dimension and lose on another. You might be tempted to develop another made-up math formula to help you make these decisions. But I don’t recommend that.
These are subjective decisions. The more we quantify them, the more likely we are to treat them as truth, and we don’t want to do that. We want to stay open to the idea that we might have made the wrong decisions. These are messy, subjective decisions and that’s okay.
When assessing opportunities, we want to stay open to the idea that we might have made the wrong decisions. These are messy, subjective decisions and that’s okay. – Tweet This
Jeff Bezos in his 2016 Amazon shareholder letter, introduced the idea of Level 1 and Level 2 decisions. He defines a Level 1 decision as a decision that is hard to reverse. I like to think about Level 1 decisions as one-way door decisions, because once you’ve walked through the door, you can’t turn around and come back through. With Level 1 or one-way door decisions, you want to take your time, collect data, and make a cautious decision.
Level 2 decisions, on the other hand, are easy to reverse. Think about them as two-way door decisions. Once you walk through the door and see what’s on the other side, if you don’t like it, you can always turn around and come back through. For Level 2 or two-way door decisions, you want to move fast, you don’t want to wait for perfect data, because you’ll learn more by acting than by waiting.
Opportunity assessment and prioritization decisions are “two-way door” decisions: You can always turn around and walk back through the door. You want to move fast because you’ll learn more by acting than waiting. – Tweet This
Your opportunity assessment and prioritization decisions are two-way door decisions. Once you choose a target opportunity, you’ll test whether or not you made the right decisions by prototyping and experimenting with solutions that address those opportunities. If you learn through experimentation that you didn’t choose the best opportunity, you can always walk back up the tree and choose another opportunity.
Product Strategy Happens in the Opportunity Space
Product strategy is the result of these series of assessment and prioritization decisions. The opportunities we choose to go after are what distinguish us from competitors. It’s what allows us to carve out a unique space in the market.
The opportunity solution tree helps to ensure that you are considering enough opportunities. It helps you to group similar but distinct opportunities, simplifying your prioritization decisions.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
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