In addition to delivering a keynote at the Product at Heart conference (in case you missed it, you can find the video and transcript of that presentation here), conference co-organizer Petra Wille also invited me to participate in a fireside chat at the Leadership Forum event.
We discussed a few of the common stages companies tend to go through when they adopt continuous discovery, some of the challenges and setbacks they’re likely to experience, and how leaders specifically can help teams overcome them. Then we opened up the floor to questions from the audience.
I had a lot of fun during this open and candid discussion and I thought Product Talk readers might want to check it out, especially if you’re in a leadership role and you have a product team or teams reporting to you. You can watch the video here or find a lightly edited version of the transcript below.
Introduction: What Is Product Discovery?
Arne Kittler [Product at Heart Co-Organizer]: For our next session, which will be, again, totally different than the two formats we’ve had before, I have the great pleasure of introducing two of the leading voices in product management today, Teresa Torres in conversation with Petra Wille. Petra doesn’t need much introduction, because you’ve already seen her today, and also, Teresa, I think, in this round, probably does not need much of an introduction. Most of you, I guess, will be familiar with her work already. For those of you who are not, let me just briefly still say a few words.
Teresa is particularly well known for her contributions to the field of product discovery, and also, she is the author of the great book, Continuous Discovery Habits, which came out recently. Well, not so recently, but still feels very close to me. One thing that I was really impressed about when we prepared for this event is that over the years, Teresa taught 12,000 product folks through her Product Talk Academy. 12,000 people that she taught. I think that’s really amazing. That’s a lot. I’m trying to imagine that as a group of people.
You could say, you made the world better by teaching them your methods. I think that’s definitely an important contribution. It’s also safe to say that Teresa knows about the state of product discovery and the role that product leaders can and should play in this context, and so Product at Heart, please welcome Teresa Torres and Petra Wille.
Petra Wille [Product at Heart Co-Organizer]: Some people said I should grill her, I won’t. We’ll just have a nice conversation. I was geeking out with Arne yesterday about podcasts, and we said that, to some extent, we like the ones that start with basic questions to set the ground, so that everybody has the same knowledge about a certain topic. We like it when podcast hosts do that, so that’s what I will be doing first because definitions are key. My coachees know that I’ll always kick off with, “Okay, but what do you mean by product discovery?” That is my first question. What do you mean by product discovery? What is it, in your own words, that you would say product discovery does for all of us in our organizational contexts?
Teresa: Perfect. I like this question. I put it in every single talk that I give. What is product discovery? I think these terms have been really helpful with helping us distinguish the work we do to decide what to build, from the work we do to build, ship, and maintain a production-quality product. We tend to say discovery for the first category, and delivery for the second category.
I think there’s a whole bunch of stuff around trends, where we’re now saying, “If we’re going to make good decisions about what to build, let’s include the customer in the process. Let’s have feedback loops. Let’s test our assumptions. Let’s make sure we’re not just sitting in a room and figuring out what we should build by ourselves.” I think it’s that simple. It’s just, how do we make better decisions about what to build, and include the customer in the process?
Product discovery is essentially just asking, ‘How do we make better decisions about what to build, and include the customer in the process?’ – Tweet This
Petra: Sounds easy—
Teresa: It is, right?
Defining Where You Are on Your Discovery Journey
Petra: But we know it’s not. Just to give us a bit more of an idea of what we’re working with here today, I thought it’d be nice if we did a quick exercise. You heard Teresa’s definition of product discovery. What would you say on a scale from one to five, and we do show of hands, five is yes, my organization has fully adopted exactly what she’s talking about, and we’re breathing it, discovery all over the place.
Two, three is, yes, we’re well on our way. We have adopted it in some areas of our organization. We are wrapping our heads around it, we see the first positive impacts of it. One is maybe, we read a book, we have the book, that is maybe one. Zero is: never heard of product discovery. What the heck are you talking about? Could we do a quick show of hands? Where do you put yourself on that scale? One, two, three, go.
Teresa: Oh, a good mix. I like it.
Petra: Ooh, that will be tough. Which questions to use now?
Teresa: This is going to be fun.
Petra: Yes. So we’ve seen a lot of twos and threes, and some fives, which is super exciting.
Teresa: Yes, I’m excited about that.
Petra: That’s super exciting.
Teresa: Let’s talk during the cocktail session.
Petra: Yes. Now, we have to cover all the questions that I’ve prepared.
Teresa: Yes, okay. Let’s just do rapid-fire as fast as we can go.
Petra: Okay. For the ones in the audience that are still early in their product discovery journey, what are the main challenges companies typically face in establishing a strong discovery culture, and how can product leads overcome these? Us as product leads, because all of those ones are product leads.
Teresa: The good news is, you’re a product lead, so you can have an impact on this. I think the first thing is, since we had some twos in the room, let’s talk a little bit about some of the current trends in discovery, and then how that impacts the challenges you might face. The first thing I’ll say, one thing I try to look at is, discovery can be really messy. You’re constantly learning, there’s a lot of noise. The last thing most organizations need is more product ideas, more input on what should be built, more people fighting about whose idea is best.
I like to look at, how do we give structure to this process? One of the ideas I write about in my book is that the way we can give structure to this is to start with an outcome. This is like Stephen Covey, begin with the end in mind. It’s not a new idea.
What are we trying to accomplish? Then how do we look at customer needs, pain points, and desires, which we’re going to call opportunities—unmet customer needs, pain points and desires, that if we address them, would help our organization get that outcome?
What we’re doing there is we’re going to align customer value with business value, which I know sounds revolutionary. Then how do we do the work to discover what are the right solutions that actually address those needs in a way that drives that outcome?
That’s the rough structure of how I teach discovery. Where do people have challenges? First, it’s hard to set outcomes, especially if you don’t have a strong strategic context in your organization, which I know is true—
Petra: Oh, yes, to the strategic context.
Teresa: …for a lot of companies. The good news is, as a product leader, I think that’s an area where we all can help fill that gap. Now, it’s a little unfair, because I’ve been a product leader at a company with a crazy CEO, and I couldn’t just fill that gap on my own, but you can more than the individual contributors in your organization. That’s an area where I think we all can look at, how can I help? How can I contribute? I think the next thing if we’re going to really understand the opportunity space, our teams need access to customers on a continuous basis.
This is a huge obstacle I see for a lot of companies. It’s cultural—the sales team owns the relationship. Why do you need to talk to a customer? I want you to just build my idea. Lots of that.
Then I would say the third piece is tied to, to identify a good solution, we really need to rapidly test our assumptions, and there’s some tooling involved with that. How do we get our teams access to the right tools to quickly test assumptions?
Then there’s a lot of know-how related to that, like, “How do we upskill our teams so that when they talk to customers, when they do their rapid assumption testing, they’re getting reliable feedback?”
I think it follows that structure, all three levels. Can we define the right outcomes? Can we get access to customers? Can we get access to the right tools? Can we upskill to do all of those things well?
Gaining Access to Customers Doesn’t Have to Be Hard
Petra: Another question is coming to mind—other than the ones that I have on my prepared questions list—which is, exposing teams to the user and the customer. How do you do this in, let’s say, a regulated environment or something like that? We both know that that is often an excuse to some extent, and a valid reason that you just can’t directly talk to your customers and clients. Any ideas on that?
Teresa: Yes. One of the things I liked about what Sam said earlier today is that organizations are made-up things. One of the things that we make up in organizations is rules about how humans are allowed to talk to other humans. These rules aren’t real, like we’re all talking to each other today, and we’re doing it pretty effortlessly. I’m pretty introverted and not very good at small talk, so I can’t say it’s totally effortlessly, but it happens, and we get through it, and we exchange knowledge and information.
Now, let’s talk about interviewing customers. Suddenly, we want to make it a thing. It’s not just a human talking to another human. This drives me nuts. The salesperson is afraid you’re going to say something to their customer that’s going to blow up the relationship, but how often do we talk to another human and totally blow up the relationship? Almost never.
The first thing to recognize is we turn talking to customers into this big thing, and I want to remind you: It’s just talking to another human. It’s learning about their lives, it’s learning about what they’re trying to accomplish, what’s easy for them, what’s not easy for them. That’s one side of the coin. The other side of the coin is: If you want reliable feedback from that customer, we do have to learn how to ask better questions. We need to learn a little bit about how we collect good feedback.
We turn talking to customers into this big thing, and I want to remind you: It’s just talking to another human. It’s learning about their lives, it’s learning about what they’re trying to accomplish. – Tweet This
“Reliable” is a researchy word, and really, all I mean by that is: When I ask Petra a question and she gives me an answer, does that answer reflect what she does in reality? If I were to ask her again tomorrow, am I going to get a similar answer? There are some questions that I can ask Petra that are going to lead to really unreliable answers. Who’s really good at this is prosecution attorneys. When they’re interviewing a witness, they’re asking all sorts of crazy questions, trying to get Petra to be inconsistent.
Now the defense attorney is not doing that. The defense attorney is trying to ask Petra really simple questions in a way that helps her reliably tell her story—if Petra’s a defense witness.
We have tactics and actually, I use the criminal justice world because there’s a lot on the line in the criminal justice world, which means we have decades of research on how to get reliable reports from people.
There is a skill to interviewing, even though it’s just talking to humans. I think first we have to overcome this barrier of like, you’re not going to blow up the relationship with the customer by just saying, how’s things going? It’s probably going to be fine. And to get more reliable information, we want to learn a little bit about what are the best questions to ask.
Red Flags and Warning Signs: What NOT to Do with Continuous Discovery
Petra: All right. Some nice takeaways I’d say. Any red flags that you could point out when companies start—to the ones that showed ones and twos and maybe even threes? Are there any red flags us as leaders should look out for in our organizations when we see, okay, our efforts to do more discovery go sideways? Are there set-up structures that are not ideal when starting the discovery habits that you are talking about in your book?
Teresa: Really good question. It’s almost that I see opposite poles. I see some teams, they get really excited about discovery. They want to talk to a customer every day. They want to draw experience maps till the end of time, and they don’t ship anything. Ever. Okay, that’s not good. We’re not doing research because research is fun. It is fun, but that’s not why we’re doing it. I want to see a continuous cadence of putting things in the world.
If a team is stuck, if they’re going three, four weeks—this is going to depend on your delivery environment—but if you regularly ship on a weekly basis and a team is new to discovery, if they’re suddenly going three or four weeks and they stopped shipping things, we have a problem.
The fastest way to kill momentum for discovery in your organization is to stop delivery. That’s going to kill everything right away. That’s one end of the spectrum. I see some teams get really excited, they dive too far and they stop shipping things.
The fastest way to kill momentum for discovery in your organization is to stop delivery. – Tweet This
The other end of the spectrum is they go, okay, I read the book, I talked to some customers, this is the one problem we should solve. This is the absolute best solution. There are no assumptions. It’s perfectly safe. I checked all the boxes, I did my discovery, let’s build it. Then what happens? We fall short of our expectations as the vast majority of our solutions do, then we don’t reflect and say, how could we have learned that sooner?
That’s two very opposite ends of the spectrum. They’re really common in the beginning. Then as you learn and as you get some cycles under your belt, you start to see, okay, how do I do just enough discovery to get this next idea out the door so that I can do some more discovery to iterate on that idea?
Petra: You would say: Avoid the extremes. Try to find a balance if you’re product lead and try to put your teams in the middle of that scale of shipping nothing, doing research forever, and—
Teresa: No research.
Petra: No research. That is actually what we want to create as an environment, right?
Teresa: Yes. I can simplify this. I would say, when a team is new to discovery, keep them focused on their current delivery cadence. That’s the constraint. We’re going to do discovery without negatively impacting our delivery schedule. That’s going to make sure they don’t do too much.
When a team is new to discovery, keep them focused on their current delivery cadence. That’s the constraint. We’re going to do discovery without negatively impacting our delivery schedule. – Tweet This
Petra: Nice. I like it.
Teresa: Then I’m going to say, look at activities. What are the discovery activities they’re doing on a regular basis? How often are they talking to customers? How often are they running assumption tests? If they’re going six weeks without running an assumption test, we have a cycle problem. If they talk to 12 customers one week and then go 3 months without talking to a customer, we still have a cycle problem.
I think we can balance this with: Maintain your delivery schedule and then build—this is why I put it in the title of my book—habits that are consistent week over week. Then I think usually if both of those things are in place, we start to see teams build their intellectual honesty and rigor around research. They learn how to do just enough research.
Petra: So many things! You talked about strategy and that is a void that we could fill as product leads. You talked about interviewing as a crucial skill. As product leads, we could try to help people to get this interview training, I guess. We could get them more into mapping things out without breaking the delivery cycle. That’s all the things that I already heard. Is there anything else that comes to mind? Secret tips? What are the go-to fixes that product leads could do in their company’s product discovery culture? So other go tos, evergreens?
Setting Strategic Context: A Must-Do for All Product Leaders
Teresa: I think for leaders, there’s a few things. I don’t want to gloss over the strategic context piece because it’s so critical. We now have a number of terms that I think are problematic, so empowered team, autonomous team, outcome-driven team. They’re kind of a problem. Here’s why. If I say you’re an outcome-driven team, you’re going to take that to mean, I shouldn’t do anything other than what drives my outcome. That’s not the reality in our businesses. We have all the “keep the lights on” work, we’ve got things that come up. We’ve got an angry customer we’ve got to respond to.
If I say autonomous team, it sure sounds like you can do whatever you want. That’s definitely not true. I think with empowered, we’re trying to get closer to like, we want to empower you to make decisions to stay close to the customer while working within the strategic context. It’s not while building whatever you want. We need coherent products, we need products that align with our company strategy.
I think the reason why individual teams struggle with these terms, I can’t be an empowered team if I don’t know how to align with my organizational strategy because I don’t know what it is.
I’ll say it is rare that I have worked with a team that clearly understood their strategic context, and I’ve worked with teams where they had really strong product leaders.
There’s something going wrong here. I don’t think this product leader was like, “I’m just not going to define a strategic context.”
I think we do define strategic context. I think it’s always evolving because our leadership team is always evolving, the market is always evolving, but I think we underestimate how much we have to communicate that strategic context, how often, and in what forms, and how to make it really tangible and concrete for our teams.
I think for leaders, I would spend an overwhelming amount of time—I know you’re already really busy. What is really going to unlock the ability for your teams to do more on their own is to really define that strategic context. What do I mean by that? It’s such a vague term. Who are we as a company? Who are we trying to serve, so who are our customers and who are not our customers? We always forget to include that part. Who are we choosing to serve? What are the types of value we’re going to create for them, so what are our primary value propositions?
What are the ways in which we’re going to deliver those value propositions? I don’t mean the how—I’m not getting into product solutions, but we’re going to do it this way and not that way.
Some really good examples of this are: Google is all about open systems. It’s really tied to their advertising business model. Apple is really about closed systems, owning the hardware and the software. Those are two companies with very similar products, very different strategic contexts.
The vast majority of product teams I talk to, they can’t tell me. They say everybody in their market is their customer. That means nobody in the market is your customer. They can’t enumerate the two or three biggest initiatives for the company this year. They can’t enumerate the two or three strategies for their product this year. I do believe the product leaders in those organizations could enumerate those things. They’re not communicating to the teams enough in ways that land with the team. I think that as a leader is where I would focus a lot.
Petra: Definitely, storytelling around the strategy, equally important, right?
Petra: Totally agree. We are opening this up for questions from the audience and we already have one.
What If Someone Isn’t Getting the Strategic Context?
Audience member: All right. It’s going to be a bit, let’s say, less savory. Where do you draw the line between, “Hey, I didn’t communicate this well and open enough, or is this person maybe not smart enough to get it and maybe shouldn’t be here anymore with us?” Where do you see the boundary because maybe some people don’t get the strategic context because the market has moved or a lot of things have moved and they just haven’t caught up with that? We see that in some cases.
Petra: Can you repeat the question just through the microphone, or should I?
Teresa: Why don’t you try?
Petra: Okay. I’ll try.
Teresa: Then I can think about my answer.
Petra: Quickly the question is, how do we deal with people that are not catching up with the methodologies and framework and the market as product leads? Where do we need to draw the line to say, “Hey, maybe it’s not working for you in a product role”?
Teresa: Maybe they’re not getting the strategy and they don’t know how to work within the strategy. I have a lot of empathy for both sides of this problem. I’ve been that product leader with a really tough product manager that just wants to do things his way. I’ve been the product manager that didn’t want to agree with the company’s strategic context, so I literally have empathy on both sides of this equation.
I think first of all: We’re adults, we have to recognize that not all employees are the right fit for companies. That is a reality that has to be on the table.
I think we jump to that option far sooner than we should in a lot of cases. I think there’s a lot of things I would want to answer, like how do I know they understand the strategic context? What evidence do I see of that? Okay, maybe they can’t understand the strategic context. What’s happening in the organization that’s preventing that?
A lot of times when someone’s not smart enough for something, it’s because there’s a competing incentive. It’s not that they’re not smart enough; it’s that they know they’re going to be rewarded for not following that strategy. We see this because there’s misalignment on the executive team, so maybe you as the head of product are telling them, “This is the strategy,” and the CEO is going behind your back and saying, “I need you to do this pet thing for me. By the way, that’s why you got a bonus this year.” There’s a lot of that going on in our organizations.
I want to look at this from a very nuanced standpoint, how do I evaluate the skills and the abilities of this person? How willing are they to grow? How much time as an organization do I have to let them grow? There’s a lot to this. I can’t give you like a, well, here’s the line. I know Germany has much stronger employment contracts than we do in the US.
I work in an environment where we’re all at-will employees. I could walk in the next day and fire an employee with no reason whatsoever, and off they go. Same with that employee, they could walk in tomorrow and quit, and off they go. In that environment, I think we tend to jump to severing ties with employees sooner than we should. I think we should be generous with people. I think we should assume that people that work in our industry are smart and capable, they care about the products that they’re building.
While I’ve rarely met a team that understood their strategic context, I’ve rarely met a product person—and I mean, product manager, designer, software engineer, add all your other favorite titles to that list—who didn’t care deeply about what they were building. We’re all really privileged because if we didn’t care what we were building, we could go work somewhere else. I think we forget that.
While I’ve rarely met a team that understood their strategic context, I’ve rarely met a product person who didn’t care deeply about what they were building. – Tweet This
I would start with the bias of there’s probably something happening in this organizational context that’s leading to this behavior, how do I uncover that, how do I fix that? Don’t make it about: there’s something wrong with this person. Now, eventually, you’re going to get to the point where you feel like you’ve tried everything and you might have to have that conversation of, is this the best fit for both parties?
How Do You Start from Level 0 (When Your Company Doesn’t See the Value of Discovery Yet)?
Audience member: Teresa, I noticed that you’re very eager to discuss these level five challenges of product discovery, and I’m really sorry to take you back even one step further. I think we already discussed level one, but we missed the zero. I just joined a company that has been following the feature factory model for I guess 15 years now, and they’re very much just doing what the sales department is telling them to deliver.
I joined basically because they want me to speed up the delivery process—that’s I think their main concern. We are just not delivering fast enough, and now I’m telling them, we have to add another type of process even before we start with the actual delivery and we call it the “discovery” phase. They’re all thinking it’s just a waste of time. What’s your strategy in getting someone in the higher level departments to actually sign off these efforts in doing discovery in the first place?
Teresa: The first thing I’m going to say is: Don’t think about discovery as a phase. Here’s what happens when we think about it as a phase: We think first we do discovery, then we do delivery, which means we’re postponing delivery. You just killed any chance of discovery in that organization.
Discovery is not a phase. It is something we are continuously doing. Even if you never talk to a customer, you are continuously making decisions about what to build.
Discovery is not a phase. It is something we are continuously doing. Even if you never talk to a customer, you are continuously making decisions about what to build. – Tweet This
Everybody in this room is continuously discovering. You may not be doing it well, but we’re continuously making decisions about what to build.
The continuous discovery habits are about: How do we look at how we’re making those decisions and make them in a way that gets us a little bit better of a bet? That’s the goal. How do we make a better bet? If I’m in an organization that’s a feature factory… Actually, let me ask you a question, will you be joining us on Friday?
Audience member: Sure.
Teresa: Perfect, because on Friday morning, I’m going to be talking about feature factories specifically, but I’ll give you a little preview. Here’s the thing. When you’re working in a really tough organizational context, you have to start with, where is this organization? What’s their appetite for change? What’s the teeny-tiny first step that I can make?
The biggest mistake I see—and especially among product leaders—is they look at something like the continuous discovery habits framework, and they say, we’re going to do all of this tomorrow. Don’t do that. Humans don’t like change. Period. Full stop. We don’t like change.
The reason why I titled the book Habits is because I wanted to encourage people to think about it as: How do we adopt these habits one at a time? As you get to know your organization and what they stress about and what language they speak and what their values are, I would look for: How do I match the right habit for where this organization is right now? You’re going to get more on that on Friday morning.
What Are Some Situations When You Should Strive to Overcommunicate Strategic Context?
Audience member: You mentioned that we have to overcommunicate strategic context or the product strategy—can you give examples of not-so-obvious situations where we should be pushing it? The rule of thumb is, okay if there’s an all-hands, try to talk about it. If there’s context, create somewhat of an update meeting where people can join stuff like this. When you see a behavior that is going against it, make it a point to listen, this doesn’t follow the strategy, but what other not-so-obvious situations can be a good fit?
Teresa: You know what’s hard about this question is—I’m going to introduce a problem that not everybody in this room has control over and so this is where we’re going to get into the messiness of real life. You could be a product leader with a very clearly defined strategic context, you could do an overwhelmingly amazing job of communicating it, and you could get to the point where every single one of your teams can communicate it back. It does not mean they’re going to work within that strategic context. Here’s why.
If your executive team isn’t aligned on that strategic context, even if they say they are in name, but then the next prospect picks up the phone and that strategy just went out the window because we’re going to chase that revenue, it doesn’t matter how much you communicate it.
Your team just learned that that big customer is more important than our strategic context. What’s hard about strategic context, literally to define it and to literally communicate it, that’s the easy part. It’s the walk and the talk. It’s us leaders in our organization walking the talk, literally, every day, every single time.
What’s hard about that as product leaders, we can’t always get our CEOs in line, we can’t always get our heads of sales in line. It’s hard. I think what we can do is we can explain those exceptions and those mishaps to our teams, like look, we did make an exception, it feels like it’s not consistent with our strategic context. Here’s why we did it. You’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to say, “We shouldn’t have done it.” You’ve got to stay in line with where the organization is going.
Here’s the thing: Humans know everything is messy. I don’t think there’s anybody who expects a company to really 100% stick to their strategic context. I think what’s hard is we say this is our strategic context and then we sweep under the rug all the exceptions and pretend like they didn’t happen.
I think as the leader, we can give context for why those things matter. Like, “Look, in an ideal world, we would not say yes to that big customer, but here’s the deal, we’re in a tough economic time, we want to make sure we can hit payroll three months from now.” You might have to soften that a little bit for your employees. We can communicate more about why those exceptions need to happen, and then I think it helps, and it helps your teams know when it’s okay to deviate and when it’s not.
I think, typically, we communicate just the strategic context, then we make a whole bunch of deviations on the side, and really what we’re telling our teams is, this is just the strategic context on paper but we have this different emergent strategic context that nobody’s talking about, and then we create a lot of confusion.
I think I would look for, where do we deviate? Can we start to implicitly or explicitly put that in our strategic context? In an ideal world, this would be our strategic context. In reality, we’re going to make exceptions like this for these reasons, just to help with that gap.
Petra: Which would require all of us product leads to talk more to peers and manage upwards, right?
Teresa: Yes. The hard part about product is you’ve got to talk to everybody. I’m introverted. Again—
Petra: Yes, that’s an important part of the job and it’s often neglected. We do a lot of the work with the teams and with the direct reports. We have one-on-ones and we sometimes forget that we’re managing upwards, and sidewards is equally important, I’d say.
Teresa: One of the things that was really important to me in thinking about what’s the structure of discovery, I really wanted to connect the dots between business value and customer value. I think for a lot of teams, at the individual contributor level, it’s easy for them to see customer value. Especially if they’re talking to customers, it’s really easy for them to see, here’s how I can solve customer needs. It’s a lot harder for them to accept business value.
I’m going to tell you, I teach a class called Defining Outcomes, where we teach teams how to define outcomes. We start with teaching them what your company cares about is growing profit. The inputs to profit are increased revenue and decreased costs. This is where we start. Then we teach them how to generate revenue through a business model formula, and we break this down.
About 50% of our students get upset with that first premise. The purpose of your company is to grow revenue. They say, isn’t the purpose of our company to serve our customers? Yes. There are lots of ways to serve your customer without growing revenue. If you serve your customer without growing revenue, you go out of business. This is a big gap for a lot of our individual contributors. They’re uncomfortable with the point of business is we need to make money.
This is part of this strategic context that we have to communicate. We have a business model. Your job is to support that business model. We’re creating value for our customers in a way that creates value for our business, that’s how we can afford to pay your paycheck.
This sounds so obvious and I’m sure as leaders you’re like, “Duh.” I can tell you right now, your teams don’t get this. That’s what they need help with. How does the work they do day in and day out… They can see how it helps a customer. You have to help them see how it helps your company, and why that matters.
Petra: Another good piece of advice, I’d say. More questions from the audience.
How Do You Upskill Your Teams?
Audience member: Hey. Actually, I have two questions. The first one is: You said something about upskilling the teams, which is interesting to me because I’m in a similar situation. I’m at level two, but I’d like to evolve the team a little bit more. My question is what practices can I use or what would be a good way to go? Of course, it’s the context where the teams are, but maybe you have some advice.
Teresa: I run a training business…
Petra: I knew that was coming.
Teresa: All around upskilling teams.
Audience member: Let’s talk. It’s that easy.
Teresa: It’s called Product Talk, by the way. There’s a lot of ways to do this. Here’s the way that I look at it. Historically, we’ve asked our product teams, here’s a roadmap. Your stakeholders got in a room. This is what we’re building this year. Build these things. We measure their value based on: did they deliver it on time? Now we’re trying to help them be more empowered. Here’s a customer problem, go solve it.
If you don’t change, help that team upskill, they’re going to look at that like deer in headlights. They’re going to have no idea because we’ve never asked them to solve an open-ended problem before. We have to teach them how to do that.
Again, it sounds a little bit silly because all humans are problem-solvers. Again, it’s like, really, you didn’t know our goal was to grow profit? There are gaps here. You as leaders—especially in recent years—are used to facing unknown complex problems.
Our teams are not always experienced in that, especially if we’re moving from a feature factory to more empowered teams. We have to look at: How do we help them build those skills? Again, one of my goals is to give structure to that process because teams need structure to do it. I look at: How do I help them understand the outcome and how it relates to the business? I would look at: How do I teach them how to talk to customers in a way that gets reliable feedback? I would look at: How do I help them take a solution idea and deconstruct it into its underlying assumptions? How do I teach them how to quickly test those assumptions?
Leaders—especially in recent years—are used to facing unknown complex problems. Our teams are not always experienced in that, especially if we’re moving from a feature factory to more empowered teams. – Tweet This
That’s all my language. It turns out we have classes on all of those things. I’m going to generalize this for you. It’s this simple. Discovery is about: How do we build fast feedback loops to support our decisions? That’s it. It’s: How do I build fast feedback? I need to make a decision. How do I get fast feedback that this was a good decision or a better decision than this other decision?
There’s lots of people who can teach you that and teach your teams that. There’s lots of flavors of this.
In fact, we recently were talking about Lean UX, product discovery, service design. We’re all teaching the exact same stuff. Pick the flavor that works for your organization, and there’s lots of training out there now. Thanks to COVID, everybody’s moved online. It’s affordable. You can have teams all over the world do it. I think if you look at how do I upskill my team? There are so many options. Hopefully, that wasn’t too much of a sales pitch.
Petra: It wasn’t. Oh, sorry. I need to wrap things up, so last question.
How Important Is It to Label What You’re Doing “Discovery”?
Audience member: I hear you say, discovery should not be a phase where you do it and then go to delivery, but it should be a rather continuous process. I’d like to share an observation. Maybe you agree with that. This somehow seems to be an infatuation with this whole discovery as with the product people, and they somehow make a big fuss out of it and there’s too much attention that scares the management.
Would it be better off, like you said, not make too much noise and just train your teams to incrementally try to include discovery topics that would avoid this kind of friction between trying to make a big deal out of it and try to get the goal from management? Say, “Yes, now you get my blessing,” and then you go ahead with discovery as part of your process. What would your best approach be?
I think introducing such practices often can also be done under the rug. You as a leadership team can influence that and say, “How about I train my people to do it,” but I somehow find that too much noise around discovery and then just talk about how can I do it in my projects and my teams. Is there something that you also agree with or do you think it probably should get that attention for transparency and spreading the word across the organization maybe?
Teresa: This is a really good question. I am allergic to ideological wars. I’m embarrassed that I have my own framework because I don’t really like frameworks. I don’t want to be dogmatic about anything. That’s the reality. In the last answer, I’ll tell you what skills I would teach, but I also want you to know a more general principle, because you might disagree with me and there might be a different trainer that’s better for your team. There are 100 billion ways to build products well. There really are. There’s a lot of ways to do this.
Where I see teams get into trouble and where I see leaders get into trouble is we decide this is the one right way and we decide to change our organization by engaging in an ideological battle. Nobody wins an ideological battle. Everybody loses. No. Nobody changes their mind.
Where I see teams and leaders get into trouble is we decide this is the one right way and to change our organization by engaging in an ideological battle. Nobody wins an ideological battle. Everybody loses. – Tweet This
I’ll tell you—I don’t even want to say that out loud—for 30 years now, I’ve watched people argue about, does a product manager do this? Does the designer do that? Is it Big D Design or Little D Design or are engineers doing this or are they just writing code?
We debate and we argue and what’s the right way? Should we call it a product trio or a three-legged stool? You know what I’m going to tell you: Who cares? Who cares?
Here’s what I would say. I would not start with, “Hey, I read this great book.” I wouldn’t do that, and I want you to share my book. But I would not start with: “I read this great book.” I would look at what’s happening in my organization and I would say, “What’s the easiest habit for my team to adopt?”
I’m not going to talk about a new framework. I’m not going to talk about, we’re changing the way we’re working. I’m probably going to walk in and say, “Hey, I heard some people talk to their customers more often. What do you guys think about trying that?” That’s it. I’d get my teams talking to customers more often.
When they were doing that, I would look at the next one, which by the way, this is just an iterative process of how we build our products. It’s how we try some things, see what works, iterate, adapt. That’s how I would look at organizational change because I think I as an employee made the mistake over and over and over again trying to fight the ideological war. I can tell you it worked zero times. Now I try to do it online.
Petra: Now we decided to not do it online, Teresa. We are no longer doing this. We don’t feed the trolls.
Teresa: True. True.
Closing Thoughts: What Does the Future of Product Discovery Look Like?
Petra: Let me bring this back to what we promised the people to answer today. One thing is the current state of product discovery.
Teresa: We made promises?
Petra: Yes. With the title of the talk, I somehow… They’re here for a reason. One reason is that we talk about the current state of product discovery, but what are the things that are coming up? Are there any trends in product discovery? I think I know the answer to some extent, but are there any tweaks or something like that that we all could do to product practice? What is AI doing with all of us product discovery-wise? Any thoughts on that before we wrap up the day?
Teresa: I laughed at this because in 2016, I gave a talk where at the end of the talk, I was introducing my opportunity solution tree. If you know what that is, great. If you don’t, don’t worry. I just put like…
Petra: It’s her framework.
Teresa: Yes, it’s my framework. Who cares? I put the popular books of the time next to the framework to show—I was trying to put into context, we have all these different tools, but really they follow this structure. Then I said, in five years, our tools will probably have changed, but I don’t think the structure will. I regret saying that because we’re now, seven years later, our tools have not changed.
What was on that board? Christina’s book Radical Focus. What else was on that board? The Jobs to be Done book. What else was on that board? Probably some design thinking book. The Lean Startup. You know what? Our work does not change that fast. Do we have current trends? AI is interesting. People ask me, can I just ask ChatGPT who my customer is? No, don’t do that! Don’t do that.
Petra: They can.
Teresa: They can. I don’t know. If your customer is a generative AI, sure. I have students in my classes that are now trying to generate assumptions by explaining the solution to ChatGPT. I actually thought this was an interesting idea, and I tried it because ChatGPT is pretty remarkable in a lot of ways. I’m not dissing ChatGPT. I use it almost every day. Here’s the deal. ChatGPT is really good at generating a lot of content. It’s not very good at specifics. If you want to do a good job of testing assumptions, your assumptions need to be really specific.
I’m really open to experimenting with AI and how it can help us in discovery. I think it’s really good for sentiment analysis. I think it’s really good for like, “Hey, you might have missed something here.”
The thing is, if you just feed ChatGPT all your interview data and it says, “Here’s the opportunities,” we’ve all seen ChatGPT make things up. How do we know those are the real opportunities? Are we going to bet our company and our products and our engineering time on something ChatGPT told us? I’m not ready to do that yet, personally. I do think generative AI might be like the internet step function change in the future of the world. Might be. I’m not willing to say that yet. Might be. I’m not dumb enough to stand here and say, this is what I think will happen.
If you feed ChatGPT your interview data and it gives you a list of opportunities, how do you know they’re real? Are we going to bet our company on something ChatGPT told us (and might have made up)? – Tweet This
Petra: We have it on record.
Teresa: But I will say broadly, I think it’s really easy to chase frameworks. I think it’s really easy to chase tools. I get asked about tools all the time. I think it’s really easy to chase tactics. I think fundamentally, the root of what we do is we have to be good decision-makers and good problem solvers. We have a hundred years of research on good problem-solving and good decision-making. I link to a lot of it in my book.
My analogy is this is our version of first principles. We really can just focus on: How do we make smarter decisions? And it probably involves feedback loops. As the tools change around you, if you just remember that, that’s the trend to remember. I need to make good decisions on a daily basis. How do I use whatever’s available to me today to do that? Then it doesn’t matter if the tools change.
Petra: I really love that. A great compass for all of us to take on.
Teresa: I’ve learned a few things in seven years. Don’t answer future questions.
Petra: Yes, okay. Just learning in-depth for all of us. Cool. Thank you, Teresa. That was really a pleasure having you on stage today at the Leadership Forum.
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