The root of the tree is your desired outcome—the business need that reflects how your team can create business value.
Next is the opportunity space. These are the customer needs, pain points, and desires that, if addressed, will drive your desired outcome.
Below the opportunity space is the solution space. This is where we’ll visually depict the solutions we are exploring.
Below the solution space are assumption tests. This is how we’ll evaluate which solutions will help us best create customer value in a way that drives business value.
Opportunity solution trees have a number of benefits. They help product trios:
- Resolve the tension between business needs and customer needs
- Build and maintain a shared understanding of how they might reach their desired outcome
- Adopt a continuous mindset
- Unlock better decision-making
- Unlock faster learning cycles
- Build confidence in knowing what to do next
- Unlock simpler stakeholder management
Let’s look at each benefit in more detail.
Opportunity Solution Trees Resolve the Tension Between Business Needs and Customer Needs
Opportunity solution trees help you resolve the tension between business needs and customer needs.
Opportunity solution trees help you resolve the tension between business needs and customer needs. – Tweet This
You start by prioritizing your business need—creating value for your business is what ensures that your team can serve your customer over time. We represent the business need with the outcome at the top of the tree.
Next, the team should explore the customer needs, pain points, and desires that, if addressed, could drive that outcome. The key here is that the team is filtering the opportunity space by considering only the opportunities that have the potential to drive the business need. By mapping the opportunity space, the team is adopting a customer-centric framing for how they might reach their outcome.
The outcome and the opportunity space constrain the types of solutions the product trio might consider.
By mapping these constraints visually on an opportunity solution tree, teams can ensure that their solutions address both a customer need (creating value for the customer) and the business need (creating value for the business).
Opportunity Solution Trees Help Build and Maintain a Shared Understanding Across Your Trio
For most of us, when we encounter a problem, we simply want to solve it. This desire comes from a place of good intent. We like to help people. However, this instinct often gets us into trouble. We don’t always remember to question the framing of the problem. We tend to fall in love with our first solution. We forget to ask, “How else might we solve this problem?”
These problems get compounded when working in teams. When we hear a problem, we each individually jump to a fast solution. When we disagree, we engage in fruitless opinion battles. These opinion battles encourage us to fall back on our organizational roles and claim decision authority (e.g., the product manager has the final say), instead of collaborating as a cross-functional team.
When a team takes the time to visualize their options, they build a shared understanding of how they might reach their desired outcome. If they maintain this visual as they learn week over week, they maintain that shared understanding, allowing them to collaborate over time. We know this collaboration is critical to product success.
When a team takes the time to visualize their options, they build a shared understanding of how they might reach their desired outcome. If they maintain this visual as they learn, they maintain that shared understanding. –Tweet This
Opportunity Solution Trees Help Product Trios Adopt a Continuous Mindset
Shifting from a project mindset to a continuous mindset is hard. We tend to take our six-month-long waterfall project, carve it up into a series of two-week sprints, and call it “Agile.” But this isn’t Agile. Nor is it continuous.
A continuous mindset requires that we deliver value every sprint. We create customer value by addressing unmet needs, resolving pain points, and satisfying desires.
The opportunity solution tree helps teams take large, project-sized opportunities and break them down into a series of smaller opportunities. As you work your way vertically down the tree, opportunities get smaller and smaller. Teams can then focus on solving one opportunity at a time. With time, as they address a series of smaller opportunities, these solutions start to address the bigger opportunity. The team learns to solve project-sized opportunities by solving smaller opportunities continuously.
Opportunity solution trees help teams take large, project-sized opportunities and break them down into a series of smaller opportunities. Teams solve project-sized opportunities by solving smaller opportunities continuously. – Tweet This
Opportunity Solution Trees Unlock Better Decision-Making
As product trios explore the best path to their desired outcome, they need to make key decisions along the way. It’s easy to get lost. When you bounce from tactic to tactic, it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned and what decisions you need to make next.
Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Decisive, outline four villains of decision-making that lead to poor decisions.
- Looking too narrowly at the problem: This is exactly why we want to explore multiple ways of framing the opportunity space.
- Looking for evidence that confirms our beliefs: This is commonly known as confirmation bias.
- Letting our short-term emotions affect our decisions: In the product world, this often shows up when we fall in love with our ideas.
- Overconfidence: We are often sure our ideas will be runaway successes.
In Decisive, the Heath brothers outline many tactics for overcoming the four villains of decision-making. But the one tactic that I recommend the most is to avoid “whether or not” decisions.
A “whether or not” decision is when we frame a problem as “Should we do this or not?” Product trios get caught up in “whether or not” decisions when we react to one customer need or pain point at a time, asking, “Should we stop everything and fix this problem?”
We also encounter “whether or not” decisions when a stakeholder asks us to implement their pet feature and we ask, “Should we stop everything and build this feature?” This is perhaps the most common mistake product trios make.
Instead of asking, “Should we solve this customer need?” we’ll ask, “Which of these customer needs is most important for us to address right now?” We’ll compare and contrast our options.
Instead of falling in love with our first idea, we’ll ask, “What else could we build?” or “How else might we address this opportunity?”
Visualizing your options on an opportunity solution tree will help you catch when you are asking a “whether or not” question and will encourage you, instead, to shift to a “compare-and-contrast” question.
Visualizing your options on an opportunity solution tree will help you catch when you are asking a ‘whether or not’ question and will encourage you, instead, to shift to a ‘compare-and-contrast’ question. – Tweet This
Even with this decision-making framework in hand, you’ll still need to guard against overconfidence (the fourth villain of decision-making). It’s easy to think that, when you’ve done discovery well, you can’t fail, but that’s simply not true.
Good discovery doesn’t prevent us from failing; it simply reduces the chance of failures. Failures will still happen. However, we can’t be afraid of failure. Product trios need to move forward and act on what they know today, while also being prepared to be wrong.
And finally, we can’t talk about decision-making without tackling the dreaded problem of analysis paralysis. Many of the decisions we make in discovery feel like big strategic decisions. That’s because they often are. Deciding what to build has a big impact on our company strategy, on our success as a product team, and on our customers’ lives.
However, most of the decisions that we make in discovery are reversible decisions. If we do the necessary work to test our decisions, we can quickly correct course when we find that we made the wrong decision. This gives us the luxury of moving quickly, rather than falling prey to analysis paralysis.
Most of the decisions that we make in discovery are reversible decisions. If we do the necessary work to test our decisions, we can quickly correct course when we find that we made the wrong decision. – Tweet This
Visualizing each decision point and the options that you considered on the opportunity solution tree will help you revisit past decisions when needed and will give you the context you need to course-correct.
Opportunity Solution Trees Unlock Faster Learning Cycles
Many organizations try to define clear boundaries between the roles in a product trio. As a result, some have come to believe that product managers own defining the problem and that designers and software engineers own defining the solution. This sounds nice in theory, but it quickly falls apart in practice.
Nigel Cross, Emeritus Professor of Design Studies at the Open University in the United Kingdom, compared the knowledge, skills, and abilities of expert designers to novice designers (across a variety of disciplines) and found that the best designers evolve the problem space and the solution space together. As they explore potential solutions, they learn more about the problem, and, as they learn more about the problem, new solutions become possible. These two activities are intrinsically intertwined. The problem space and the solution space evolve together. (You can find Cross’s research here.)
When we learn through testing that an idea won’t work, it’s not enough to move on to the next idea. We need to take time to reflect. We want to ask: “Based on my current understanding of my customer, I thought this solution would work. It didn’t. What did I misunderstand about my customer?” We then need to revise our understanding of the opportunity space before moving on to new solutions. When we do this, our next set of solutions get better. When we skip this step, we are simply guessing again, hoping that we’ll strike gold.
When we learn through testing that an idea won’t work, it’s not enough to move on to the next idea. We need to take time to reflect. We need to ask, ‘What did I misunderstand about my customer?’ – Tweet This
The last thing we want to do is use our organizational roles as an excuse to artificially sever the ties between the problem space and the solution space. The product trio should be responsible for both.
By visually mapping out the opportunity space on an opportunity solution tree, a product trio is making their understanding of their customer explicit. When a solution fails, they can revisit this mapping to quickly revise that understanding.
Opportunity Solution Trees Build Confidence in Knowing What to Do Next
As a product trio gains experience with opportunity solution trees, the shape of their tree will help guide their discovery work. The depth and breadth of the opportunity space reflects the team’s current understanding of their target customer.
The shape of your opportunity solution tree can guide your discovery work. The depth and breadth of the opportunity space reflects your current understanding of the target customer. – Tweet This
If our opportunity space is too shallow, it can guide us to do more customer interviews. A sprawling opportunity space, on the other hand, reminds us to narrow our focus.
If we aren’t considering enough solutions for our target opportunity, we can hold an ideation session. If we don’t have enough assumption tests in flight, we can ramp up our testing.
While many teams work top-down, starting by defining a clear desired outcome, then mapping out the opportunity space, then considering solutions, and finally running assumption tests to evaluate those solutions, the best teams also work bottom-up.
They use their assumption tests to help them evaluate their solutions and evolve the opportunity space. As they learn more about the opportunity space, their understanding of how they might reach their outcome (and how to best measure that outcome) will evolve. These teams work continuously, evolving the entire tree at once.
They interview week over week, continuing to explore the opportunity space, even after they’ve selected a target opportunity. They consider multiple solutions for their target opportunity, setting up good “compare and contrast” decisions. They run assumption tests across their solution set, in parallel, so that they don’t overcommit to less-than-optimal solutions. All along, they visualize their work on their opportunity solution tree, so that they can best assess what to do next.
Opportunity Solution Trees Unlock Simpler Stakeholder Management
Organizational change happens unevenly. Even when a company tasks a team with a clear desired outcome, it can be hard for leaders to let go of dictating outputs. This is especially true during times of stress, when we tend to fall back on old habits.
Unfortunately, many teams struggle to get this right. When it comes to sharing your work with stakeholders, product trios tend to make two common mistakes.
First, they share too much information—entire interview recordings or pages and pages of notes without any synthesis—expecting stakeholders to do the discovery work with them.
Or second, they share too little of what they are learning, only highlighting their conclusions, often cherry-picking the research that best supports those conclusions.
In the first instance, we are asking our stakeholders to do too much, and, in the second, we aren’t asking enough of them.
The key to bringing stakeholders along is to show your work. You want to summarize what you are learning in a way that is easy to understand, that highlights your key decision points and the options that you considered, and creates space for them to give constructive feedback. A well-constructed opportunity solution tree does exactly this.
The key to bringing stakeholders along is to summarize what you are learning in a way that is easy to understand, that highlights your key decision points, and creates space for them to give constructive feedback. – Tweet This
When sharing your discovery work with stakeholders, you can use your tree to first remind them of your desired outcome.
Next, you can share what you’ve learned about your customer, by walking them through the opportunity space. The tree structure makes it easy to communicate the big picture while also diving into the details when needed.
Your tree should visually show what solutions you are considering and what tests you are running to evaluate those solutions.
Instead of communicating your conclusions (e.g., “We should build these solutions”), you are showing the thinking and learning that got you there. This allows your stakeholders to truly evaluate your work and to weigh in with information you may not have.
We have several courses designed to help you build your first opportunity solution tree. Check out our course lineup to get started.