One of the most common responses I get when I talk about continuous discovery is: “That would never work in my organization.” But after working with thousands of product people and organizations of all kinds, I can tell you that everyone is capable of making progress on their continuous discovery journey.
It’s all about finding the small steps you can take to build these habits.
While I understand that every situation is unique, I tend to see three main categories of resistance to continuous discovery. Luckily, I have some recommendations for how to overcome each type of resistance and meet people where they are.
I recently spoke on this topic at the Product at Heart conference in Hamburg, Germany. You can watch the video here or read a lightly edited version of the script below.
Good morning. I have not stood in front of a live audience in about four years. This is amazing. I’m so honored to kick off the inaugural Product at Heart event. Today we’re going to talk about the discovery habits—big surprise.
Let’s just go ahead and dive right in. One thing that many of you might know about me is that I’m a big reader. I typically read one to two books a week. Now, I’m weird because my superpower is I can read a book and I put it into practice. I know that’s weird.
Most of us don’t do this. I don’t know why. It’s just the way my brain works. I can’t even get through a book before I’m already starting to think: How does this affect me? How does it affect my business?
So when I wrote Continuous Discovery Habits, I tried really hard to make this book actionable. I wanted you to be able to read it and to put the habits into practice the very next day. And what’s really exciting about this is a lot of you are doing exactly that.
Already, this morning before I finished my first cup of coffee, several of you came up to me and said, “Wow, your book was great. I was able to put it into practice.”
But I also know from working with many of you week over week, it’s not that simple. So today we’re going to talk about why it hasn’t been that simple, and my goal is to give you some ways to make it a little bit easier.
Petra said I didn’t need an introduction, but I don’t make any assumptions. We’re going to start at the very beginning. If you’ve heard me speak before, you’re going to see some familiar slides. I promise this talk is brand new. It is the first time I’m giving it. I just want to level-set a little bit.
What Is Discovery? A Quick Overview
What do we mean by discovery? Discovery is the work that we do to decide what to build. This is often in contrast with delivery, the work that we do to build, ship, and maintain a production-level product.
In my book, Continuous Discovery Habits, I define continuous discovery as at a minimum weekly touchpoints with customers by the team that’s building the product where they conduct small research activities in pursuit of a desired product outcome.
That’s a handful, right? So I visualize it this way.
The heart of this visual is an opportunity solution tree. The top of the tree is our outcome. That’s the impact we’re trying to have as a product team. To build out the visual, we’re relying on two small research activities.
We’re interviewing to discover opportunities. If you’re not familiar with that language, an opportunity is an unmet customer need, pain point or desire. It’s an opportunity to positively impact our customers.
We’re then assumption testing to evaluate solutions and to match solutions to those opportunities.
In my book, I broke this framework down into 11 habits. My hope was that you would work on one habit at a time. Based on your organizational context, you would pick a habit, you would work to adopt it, you’d iterate from there.
I know from talking to teams that it hasn’t been that simple. So I want to get into why.
Like I said, I’m a big reader. My superpower is I apply what I read. It’s easy as a product person to think all of you are like me, right?
When I set out to write my book, I followed my own process. I started with an outcome. My goal in everything that I do in my work is I want to increase the number of product teams who adopt a continuous cadence to their discovery work. This is what gets me out of bed every day.
My goal in everything that I do in my work is I want to increase the number of product teams who adopt a continuous cadence to their discovery work. This is what gets me out of bed every day. – Tweet This
When I was writing the book, I identified a clear target opportunity. I heard from teams over and over again, “I don’t know what to do when in my discovery work.” This was the opportunity I was trying to solve.
I came up with what I thought was a pretty great solution, the book, Continuous Discovery Habits. It turns out a lot of you also thought it was a pretty great solution. This blows me away. I’m just floored by how well this book has done.
But here’s the thing: If I look at my outcome, there’s more work to do. Why is that happening?
It’s rare for a single solution to fully satisfy an opportunity, let alone an entire opportunity space.
So why isn’t the book enough? Well, we’re not all readers. That’s okay. We’re not all good at applying what we read. That’s okay. Sometimes we need more help with the concepts. Sometimes we just need some practice. Sometimes we just need support.
Identifying an Opportunity: My Organization Doesn’t Work This Way
So I got back to work. I started talking to product managers, designers, software engineers, user researchers, all sorts of folks, and I just started to learn about what’s keeping them from putting the habits into practice. I started building out my own opportunity solution tree. I got a lot of responses.
By far the number one response I got was: “My organization doesn’t work this way.” I can tell that resonates.
By far the number one response I got to my book—and what I’ve decided is the next opportunity for me to tackle—was: “My organization doesn’t work this way.” – Tweet This
This is the opportunity we’re going to talk about today in this talk. I want to help solve: “My organization doesn’t work this way.” We’re going to look at three common scenarios.
I’m going to tell you I’m a little embarrassed by this next slide. It’s the first time I tried DALL-E. I’m not very good at DALL-E. I tried really hard to get good images. I got terrible images. I decided to run with them. So humor me.
The first scenario we’re going to work with is the feature factory. In a feature factory, we tend to run in circles. As product people who want to work in the future, we run into the guardrails that are put up around us over and over again. So we’re going to talk about how we adopt the discovery habits when our organization is a feature factory.
The next scenario we’re going to look at is the messy middle. The messy middle is when your organization, your leadership team has said, “Let’s work this way.” You’re on the path to working this way. You can see the promised land ahead, but it’s hard. It’s genuinely hard. The messy middle is one of the hardest places to be.
Finally, we’re going to look at what was once nirvana: We got there, we’re outcome driven, we’re adopting the habits, and then the world changed. COVID happened, economic downturns are looming, and what happens? Our organization stresses out and we revert to old habits.
We’re going to talk through these three scenarios, and we’re going to go through if your organization is like one of these three scenarios, what habit can you start with today?
Scenario 1: The Feature Factory
Let’s start with the feature factory. Now, not all organizations are the same. There’s a lot of uniqueness out there. I’m going to describe some of the attributes of a feature factory. If this resonates with you, it’s just to help you slot what scenario your organization might be in.
You might work in a feature factory if, for example, your organization funds projects on an annual basis. You might work in a feature factory if your leaders are asking for a 12-month roadmap with delivery dates. You might work in a feature factory if you’re being measured by how much you build and when. You might work in a feature factory if your sales teams own the relationship with the customer and they don’t want anybody else to contact them. This is a pretty tough environment to look at how you can do continuous discovery. If this is your organization, where do you start?
Before we dive in, I want to introduce what I call the golden rule of organizational change. We’re going to meet people where they are. I’m going to say that again. We’re going to meet people where they are.
This is what I call the golden rule of organizational change: We’re going to meet people where they are. – Tweet This
What that means is in our organization, we’re not going to start by defining some outcomes. Nobody in our organization cares about outcomes. We’re not going to start by demanding to talk to customers. We’re definitely not going to say, “Let’s stop delivery to focus on discovery.” We’re definitely not going to argue about the right way of doing things.
I’ve tried all these strategies in a feature factory. I’ll just save you some time: That doesn’t work.
What we’re going to do instead is we’re going to revisit that golden rule of organizational change. We’re going to meet people where they are.
And we’re going to start with the one habit that every single person on the planet can do. To do this habit, you don’t need permission from a single person. You don’t need access to customers. You only need about 20 to 30 minutes. You don’t need to work in a product trio, although it’s a lot better with a product trio, and most importantly, every single one of you can literally do it today. Ready?
We’re going to start by identifying our hidden assumptions. This is literally something every single person in this room can do.
Here’s how it works. Our product ideas depend on a set of assumptions. You might have seen this Venn diagram before.
They depend on desirability assumptions. Why do we think customers want this product and why do we think they’re willing to do what we need them to do?
They depend on viability assumptions. Why do we think the solution’s good for our business?
They depend on feasibility assumptions. Can we build it?
They depend on usability assumptions. Can anybody find it? Do they understand it? Are they able to do what we need them to do?
And they depend on ethical assumptions. Is there any potential harm in building this solution this way?
These are five areas that our solutions depend upon. We all can talk about this internally. We can sit down even individually and take our current solution and say, “What are the assumptions this solution depends upon?” We have blind spots. It’s hard to see our assumptions.
So what I recommend you do is story map to surface assumptions. If you’re not familiar with story mapping, you’re going to take your proposed solution, fast-forward into the future, assume it already exists, and I want you to map out what your customer has to do to get value from that solution. You’re being explicit about who’s doing what when for your customer to get value. That’s the yellow boxes on this slide. You can then go step by step through your story map, and you can say, “What needs to be true for my customer to take this step?” Those are the gray boxes. We’re starting to surface assumptions.
What’s the value of doing this? We’re getting explicit about what we mean by our solutions. We’re looking at what we’re asking of our customers, and we’re starting to get really specific about what needs to be true.
I hear from teams all the time, and they say, “Teresa, why would I do this? I don’t have time to test my assumptions. I don’t have the right tooling to test my assumptions.”
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: This activity is valuable even if you never test an assumption. It’s going to help you see your thinking. It’s going to help you see where you’re expecting too much from your customers. It’s going to help you iterate and improve on your ideas, and in those feature factories where everybody is just talking about outputs, it’s allowing you to introduce a discovery habit that’s entirely about outputs. You’re meeting your organization where they are, and it’s allowing you a good starting point.
If you work in a feature factory, you literally can do this today. Whatever you’re working on, story map it. Use that story map to generate assumptions. Even if you stop there, you’ll come up with many ideas for how to improve your solution.
Whatever you’re working on, story map it. Use that story map to generate assumptions. Even if you stop there, you’ll come up with many ideas for how to improve your solution. – Tweet This
That was the easy one. I know feature factories don’t feel easy, but that was the easy one.
Scenario 2: The Messy Middle
Let’s talk about the messy middle. Your organization might be in the messy middle if you’re new to OKRs. This is probably everybody. Your organization might be in the messy middle if you’re moving to product trios, but there are some limiting beliefs. What do I mean by limiting beliefs? Product managers are the decision-makers. Designers are the voice of the customer. Engineers deliver value when they ship code.
Your organization might say, “Now you’re a trio,” but you’re not a trio yet. That’s the messy middle. You might be in the messy middle if your leaders are asking you to deliver an outcome, but they’re also asking you to deliver specific features. I see this a lot.
You might be in the messy middle if you’re allowed to talk to your customers, but you have no idea how to reach them. This is really common.
If this is your organization, where should we start? Who remembers the golden rule of organizational change? Say it with me: Meet people where they are. That was really weak. We’re going to try that again everybody. Say it with me: Meet people where they are. Thank you.
Okay. Here’s the thing about the messy middle. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the ideological war. So what we don’t want to do is ask people to change everything overnight. When we’re working in our product trios, we don’t want to engage in turf wars. I’m the product manager, I do this, you’re the designer, you do that. And we definitely don’t want to waste time on opinion battles. That’s not our goal.
Here’s the thing about the messy middle: The messy middle is a really dangerous place to be because it’s when we realize how hard change can be. It’s when we hit the trough of sorrow on the change curve. Our organization can see the promised land ahead, but it’s so hard getting there that we don’t know what to do. We want to give up.
When your organization is in the messy middle, we want to build momentum for change, and the best way to do that is to create a bright spot in your organization. What’s a bright spot? A bright spot is an example in the organization that shows the change can work in your unique environment.
When your organization is in the messy middle, we want to build momentum for change, and the best way to do that is to create a bright spot in your organization. – Tweet This
How many times have you heard about how Facebook or Google or Netflix or Amazon does something and everybody in your organization says, “Yeah, but that would never work here”?
The goal with creating a bright spot is creating an example of how this can work here. So if you work in an organization where you’ve moved to product trios, but you’re not really a product trio yet, your goal as an individual contributor is to make your product trio the bright spot.
What do we mean by product trios? We mean the cross-functional roles that you need to make the best discovery decisions. For most of you, that’s going to be a product manager, a designer, and a software engineer. User researchers, data analysts, whatever titles in the room, I promise I’m not leaving you out. It’s really about cross-functional collaboration.
How do we turn our trio into a bright spot? How do we avoid turf wars? How do we avoid fruitless opinion battles? Here’s the thing. When we disagree, it’s almost always because we’re relying on different information.
One of the ways to turn your product trio into a bright spot is to interview customers together, build a shared foundation from which you’re making decisions. This is the habit to start with when you’re in the messy middle.
Now, I know from working with teams, it’s not easy to talk to customers every week. Some people think I’m crazy for recommending that. Here’s how you’re going to do it. You’re going to automate your recruiting process.
If you have to hustle to find a customer to talk to every week, you will not do it. I promise you. You have to automate your recruiting process. What this looks like is you want to wake up on Monday morning, look at your schedule or your calendar, and already have an interview there without you doing a single thing to put it there.
The most common way to do this is you can recruit people while they’re using your product or service. It does not need to be that intrusive. The idea is to capture customers while you have their attention.
Now, once you’ve solved the recruiting problem, we got to talk about how to ask the right questions. Interviewing is as simple as just talking to another human. It really is. We don’t have to overthink this, but we do want to make sure that we ask questions in a way that gets us reliable feedback.
We want to avoid speculative questions. Speculative questions are when we ask who, what, why, how questions out of context. Let’s say I want to learn about your Netflix behavior. I might want to ask you things like, “What do you like to watch? Who do you typically watch with? What device do you watch on?” The problem is we know from lots of research, your answers are going to be unreliable. That means they’re not necessarily going to reflect your actual behavior.
The way we’re going to get around this is you’re going to spend your interviews collecting specific stories about past behavior. In that Netflix example, I might ask, “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix.” If I’m on the mobile team, I might ask, “Tell me about the last time you watched Netflix on the go.” I’m going to collect that story. In the context of collecting that story, I’m going to hear where you were, who you were with, what device you watched on, how you decided what to watch. I’m going to get answers to all my who, what, why, how questions. But because they’re grounded in a specific story, they’re going to be far more reliable.
When your organization is in the messy middle, you want to focus on making your team a bright spot. The way you’re going to do that is you’re going to interview customers together. This is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet to making your team more effective. If you can’t agree, it’s because you’re relying on different information.
Scenario 3: When We Revert to Old Habits
Let’s talk about our third scenario. This one kind of sounds like the promised land. You might be in an organization that’s reverting to old habits. If your organization has been outcome driven for over a year, you’re getting pretty good at OKRs or whatever goal-setting framework you’re using, you work in a product trio that’s empowered to reach your outcome in whatever way you see fit as long as it’s aligned with the strategic context, which means you have a strategic context that’s well-defined. You might be in an organization that’s reverting to old habits if your product trio has strong discovery habits and is actually having an impact on that outcome.
Like I said, this sounds like nirvana, right? We all want to get here. There’s one problem. The world has changed a lot in the last few years and often not for the better. And what happens when the world changes? We revert to old habits under stress. So this might have been your organization a year ago, two years ago, three years ago, maybe even a month ago. But now what you’re seeing is your stakeholders are starting to revert to old habits, and they’re asking you to deliver specific solutions. What do we do? This one’s tough, right? Because we’ve seen the promised land, we’ve lived it, and now we’re being told what to build.
What we’re going to do is revisit the golden rule of organizational change. You’re all going to do a much better job this time of saying it with me: We’re going to meet people where they are. Thank you.
Okay, so here’s what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean every time a stakeholder comes to us and says, “Will you build this feature?” We’re not going to say no. We’re not going to say no to everything our stakeholders ask for. We’re not going to get stubborn and argue for autonomy. This last one is one that I see too much. We’re not going to isolate ourselves and hide our work.
Why do I see this? We’re trying to protect our work from our stakeholders. Okay, what’s happening? Why are our stakeholders reverting to old habits? All humans do this when we’re under duress. This is a sign of stress.
First, we need to understand where our stakeholders are and how we can attack that and not the symptom. Here’s what’s happening in your organization: You’re being asked to deliver an outcome. It turns out your boss is being asked to deliver that exact same outcome. The difference is they’re not doing the work, so they feel a little bit out of touch with the work.
Historically, they’ve trusted you to do that, but now things are a lot more chaotic. It’s scary out there. So they’re starting to get a little more hands-on, and we start to get this vicious cycle where our managers don’t trust that we can deliver our outcome, and that’s fair. They’re being held accountable to that outcome, so they start to micromanage us. We don’t like to be micromanaged, so we start to hide our work and around the cycle we go.
The more we hide our work, the more our managers don’t trust us, the more they micromanage us, the more we hide our work.
Here’s the thing: Only one person can break this cycle. It’s not the manager. It’s you. The way we’re going to break this cycle is we’re going to show our work. This is the habit we’re going to focus on. We’re going to get really good at bringing our stakeholders along as we do our discovery work.
The more we hide our work, the more our managers don’t trust us, the more they micromanage us, the more we hide our work. Here’s the thing: Only one person can break this cycle. It’s not the manager. It’s you. – Tweet This
In the past, I’ve talked about this habit in depth, like at Mind the Product San Francisco a few years ago. When we show our work, we tend to make the mistake of showing our conclusions. When we show our conclusions, we’re showing effectively outputs, but not how we got to those decisions, and it’s easy for our stakeholders to disagree. I don’t want you to do that.
I want you to show all of your work. I want you to start by every time you do a customer interview, make the interview snapshot available to everybody in your organization. Now, notice how I didn’t say the one-hour recording that nobody’s going to listen to. I didn’t say the pages and pages of messy notes that nobody else is going to understand. Do a little bit of synthesis work.
If you’re not familiar with the interview snapshot, this idea comes from my book. It’s a one-page summary of what we’re learning in our interviews. When we share this week over week, we bring stakeholders along the learning journey with us. We don’t want to assume they’re going to do the synthesis work, which is why we’re also going to share experience maps that summarize what we’re learning across our interviews.
We’re going to communicate: This is how we’re synthesizing what we’re learning about our customer, and of course, I like to use opportunity solution trees to summarize how we’re going to reach our outcome.
And in an organization that’s reverting to old habits, this is one of the most important frameworks you can use. Your leader needs to trust that you can reach your outcome. You need to show you have a plan for how to get there. You need to show your decision points. You need to show how it’s built upon customer feedback loops.
If you’re in an organization that is adopting the discovery habits, but you’re starting to revert to old habits, I want you to double down on showing your work. You’re building trust to break that vicious cycle of micromanagement and distrust.
Remember: It’s All About Your Habits
We just covered three really common scenarios. If you remember, we started with this visual. If you’ve read my book, if you’ve read any of my writing, I talk about this visual as a holistic, structured and sustainable approach to discovery.
The reason why I broke it down into habits is so you don’t have to do everything tomorrow. You don’t. You really can start with one habit at a time. Here’s what I’m going to tell you. Every day I hear from teams that say, “My organization doesn’t work this way. I’m fighting the ideological war. I’m not getting anywhere.” Here’s what I don’t want for you: I don’t want you to be 60, 70, 80 looking back on your career, still waiting for your organization to change. That’s tough, right?
I hate to tell you this. Organizations don’t change. They don’t. Who changes? People change.
Organizational change starts with you. Literally, you. I don’t care what your role is in the organization. You individually can work on your own discovery habits. You can get started today, every single one of you.
Organizational change starts with you. I don’t care what your role is in the organization. You individually can work on your own discovery habits. You can get started today, every single one of you. – Tweet This
Here’s what I’m going to tell you: When I shared that slide about my book and how I’ve sold 80,000 copies, I didn’t share that to brag. I shared that because I want every single one of you—no matter where you work—to know at least 80,000 other people are on their way putting these habits into practice. You are not alone. You might be the lone champion in your organization, but you are not alone.
I want to support you as you’re doing this. We’ve built a community to bring practitioners together to support each other as they’re putting the habits into practice. I would love for you to come join us.
I know for many of you, it’s hard to read a book and apply it. We’ve got a variety of online courses to help you practice. I’m not here to pitch you, but what I’m here to tell you is you really can change your organization and you don’t have to do it alone. I want you to leave today knowing you can be the change you want to see in your organization, and I want to encourage each and every one of you, if you have any doubts, please find me today. Tell me about those doubts. Let’s talk about them and let’s change the world together.