The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Continuous Discovery Habits. It’s the opening to my chapter on Opportunity Mapping. Read to the end for an exciting new announcement.
As you collect customers’ stories, you are going to hear about countless needs, pain points, and desires.
Our customers’ stories are rife with gaps between what they expect and how the world works. Each gap represents an opportunity to serve your customer.
However, it’s easy to get overwhelmed knowing where to start. Even if you worked tirelessly addressing opportunity after opportunity for the rest of your career, you would never fully satisfy your customers’ desires.
This is why digital products are never complete.
How do we decide which opportunities are more important than others? How do we know which should be addressed now and which can be pushed to tomorrow?
It’s hard to answer either of these questions if we don’t first take an inventory of the opportunity space.
A single customer story might elicit dozens of opportunities. If you interview continuously, your opportunity space will always be evolving—expanding as you learn about new needs, contracting as you address known problems, and gaining clarity as you learn more about specific needs.
Managing the opportunity space is a critical activity. Finding the best path to your desired outcome is an ill-structured problem and requires that we first structure or frame the problem space before we can dive into solving it.
Mapping the opportunity space is how we give structure to the ill-structured problem of reaching our desired outcome.
Mapping the opportunity space is how we give structure to the ill-structured problem of reaching our desired outcome. – Tweet This
It’s easy, however, to bounce from one opportunity to the next—reacting to each and every need or pain point we hear about. Most product teams are devoted to serving their customers and when they hear about a need or a pain point, they want to solve it.
But our job is not to address every customer opportunity. Our job is to address customer opportunities that drive our desired outcome. This is how we create value for our business while creating value for our customers. Limiting our work to only the opportunities that might drive our desired outcome is what ensures that our products are viable over the long run and not just desirable in the moment.
Our job is not to address every customer opportunity. Our job is to address customer opportunities that drive our desired outcome. – Tweet This
Our goal should be to address the customer opportunities that will have the biggest impact on our outcome first. To do this, we need to start by taking an inventory of the possibilities.
In the quote that opens this blog post, American educational philosopher John Dewey encourages us to “carry on systematic and protracted inquiry.” Rather than jumping to the first need that we might address, Dewey argues, good thinking requires that we explore our options—that we carry out a systematic search for longer than we feel comfortable.
We should compare and contrast the impact of addressing one opportunity against the impact of addressing another opportunity. We want to be deliberate and systematic in our search for the highest impact opportunity.
In the second quote that opens this post, cognitive psychologist Barbara Tversky reminds us that structure “gets done, undone, and redone.”
As the opportunity space grows and evolves, we’ll have to give structure to it again and again. As we continue to learn from our customers, we’ll reframe known opportunities to better match what we are hearing.
As the opportunity space grows and evolves, we’ll have to give structure to it again and again. – Tweet This
As we better understand how our customers think about their world, we’ll move opportunities from one branch of the opportunity solution tree to another (more on that later). We’ll rephrase opportunities that aren’t specific enough. We’ll group similar opportunities together. These tasks will require rigorous critical thinking, but the effort will help to ensure that we are always addressing the most impactful opportunity.
In this post, we’ll tackle the challenges with managing opportunities in a backlog, why tree structures are better for managing the complexity of the opportunity space, and how you can level up your opportunity mapping skills.
Taming Opportunity Backlogs
Some teams are already capturing opportunities in an opportunity backlog. They prioritize their list of customer needs, pain points, and desires the same way they prioritize their user stories in their development backlog.
This is a great place to start. It’s better than only working with one opportunity at a time.
However, it can be hard to prioritize a flat list of opportunities, because opportunities come in different shapes and sizes, some are interrelated, others are subsets of others.
It can be hard to prioritize a flat list of opportunities, because opportunities come in different shapes and sizes, some are interrelated, others are subsets of others. – Tweet This
For example, imagine you work at a streaming entertainment company and are working with 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 my shows 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.
“I want to watch my shows on my flight” and “I want to watch on my train commute” sound similar. Are these really the same opportunity? Maybe they can be combined into, “I want to watch on the go.” That might be right.
Unless planes and trains introduce different constraints. I may need to be completely offline on a plane, whereas on a train I may still have cell data. I might have access to a power outlet on a plane, but not on a train. If these context differences are important to the experience, these opportunities are similar, but not the same. But how do I prioritize them against each other? Can I address them both at the same time?
“Is this show any good?” feels like a big, hard problem. How do we evaluate “good” for each individual viewer?
“Who is that actor?” feels much easier. Should we always prioritize easy over hard? If so, when do we ever get to the hard problems that have the potential to differentiate us from our competitors and really drive our outcomes?
It’s hard to answer these questions when prioritizing opportunities of different shapes and sizes against each other. The opportunity space is too complex to manage as a flat list. Let’s turn to a better alternative.
The Power of Trees
Instead of managing an opportunity backlog, we’ll use an opportunity solution tree to help us map out and understand the opportunity space. The tree structure will help us visualize and understand the complexity of the opportunity space.
Trees depict two key relationships—parent-child relationships and sibling relationships. Both will help us make sense of the messy opportunity space.
Trees depict two key relationships—parent-child relationships and sibling relationships. Both will help us make sense of the messy opportunity space. – Tweet This
The parent-child relationship will be used to represent subsets—a child opportunity (or sub-opportunity) is a subset of a parent opportunity. For example, in the previous section, we saw that “I’m out of episodes of my favorite show” was one reason, but not the only reason for “I can’t find anything to watch.”
Referring to the tree relationships, we would say that “I can’t find anything to watch” is the parent of the child “I’m out of episodes of my favorite show.”
We might then ask, “What are other reasons why I can’t find anything to watch?”
We might add, “I can’t figure out how to search for a specific show” and “The show I was watching is no longer available” as siblings to “I’m out of episodes of my favorite show.”
Siblings should be similar to each other—they are each a subset of the same parent, but distinct—you can address one without addressing another. For example, we can address “I can’t figure out how to search for a specific show” without addressing “I’m out of episodes of my favorite show.” But by addressing “I can’t figure out how to search for a specific show,” we partially address “I can’t find anything to watch.”
Sibling relationships help us make sense of similar opportunities like “I want to watch my shows on my flight” and “I want to watch my shows on my train commute.”
We can easily depict both on our tree under the parent opportunity “I want to watch my shows on the go.” This allows us to treat each context (e.g. plane, train) as a specific need to address, while also visualizing the similarities. They are both sub-opportunities of the same parent.
When we learn to think in the structure of trees, it helps us decompose large, intractable problems into a series of smaller, more solvable problems.
For example, “Is this show any good?” might on the surface look like a challenging problem to solve. But as we dig in and learn more, we realize that different people solve this problem in different ways.
Some people choose what to watch based on the type of show (i.e. they like dramas or crime shows). Others choose shows based on who is in it—they have favorite actors—and they use the cast list as their primary selection factor.
The more we learn about how people evaluate shows today, the more likely we can turn a big, intractable problem like “Is this show any good?” into a series of more solvable problems: “What type of show is this?”, “Who is in this show?”, “Is this show similar to another show I’ve watched?”, “Who else is watching this show?”, and so on.
The big, intractable problem of “Is this show any good?” is a parent opportunity while the rest are its sub-opportunities (or children).
The value of breaking big opportunities into a series of smaller opportunities is twofold. First, it allows us to tackle problems that otherwise might seem insolvable. And second, it allows us to deliver value over time.
That second benefit is at the heart of the Agile manifesto and is a key tenet of continuous improvement.
Rather than waiting until we can solve the bigger problem—“Is this show any good?”—we can deliver value iteratively over time.
We might start by solving the smaller problem of “Who is in this show?” because it’s fairly easy to solve and because we know a large percentage of our audience chooses shows according to this criteria.
This allows us to ship value quickly.
Now it might not solve the bigger opportunity completely, but it does solve a smaller need completely.
Once we have accomplished that, we can move on to the next small opportunity. Over time, as we continuously ship value, we’ll chip away at the larger opportunity. Eventually, we’ll have solved enough of the smaller opportunities that we will in turn have solved the larger opportunity.
Additionally, the tree structure is going to be invaluable when it comes time to assessing and prioritizing opportunities.
Our goal is to work on the most impactful opportunity, but we can’t assess every opportunity we come across. We’d spend weeks assessing the opportunity space instead of shipping value to our customers.
Our goal is to work on the most impactful opportunity, but we can’t assess every opportunity we come across. We’d spend weeks assessing the opportunity space instead of shipping value to our customers. – Tweet This
Instead, we can use the tree structure to help us make fast decisions.
While structuring the opportunity space is hard work, the effort is paid back with hefty rewards.
Announcing a New Course: Opportunity Mapping
I’m excited to announce we are adding a new course to our collection at Product Talk Academy.
Some of the most common questions I get are: “How do we synthesize what we are learning across our customer interviews?” and “How do we know which customer needs, pain points, and desires to address?”
This course was designed to answer those questions.
In this four-week course, you’ll learn how to:
- synthesize what you are learning across customer interviews—finding patterns amongst unique stories.
- identify unmet customer needs, pain points, and desires helping you decipher where your product can have the biggest impact.
- structure the opportunity space—helping you turn large, intractable challenges into a series of smaller, more solvable challenges.
- assess and prioritize opportunities quickly, ensuring that you are always working on the highest impact needs.
And, most importantly, you’ll get a minimum of four hours of deliberate practice (more if you want it) to hone your skill.
I’d love to have you join the first cohort. Learn more here.