Product discovery best practices for product leaders – a discussion with Hope Gurion
In a recent Productboard webinar, host Scott Baldwin welcomed Hope Gurion, founder of Fearless Product LLC and a coach to product leaders and teams looking to be more customer-centric and evidence-based. The subject of the chat was product discovery – what it is, why it matters, and what best practices product managers can employ to make it effective.
In case you missed it, here’s a lightly edited version of the conversation.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do with product leaders today, particularly around the topic of discovery?
I’ve been in product leadership roles for many years, and more recently, I decided to go solo. Just as we value autonomous teams, I value being autonomous myself. I wanted to spend my time and energy on the things that I care a lot about – and that’s helping product leaders and teams succeed in what is a very challenging role.
Some of the folks joining us today might not have the same definitions or thoughts around what product discovery is and isn’t. How would you describe it, who does it, and when should it happen?
Product discovery is about figuring out what to build, or how to evolve a product or experience for your customers, internal employees, or partners. It’s about ensuring that a product or service – usually digital – delivers real value for its intended users and your company. It’s like, how are we going to decide what we should do next?
Who does discovery? I believe it’s essential for that to be the product team, or at least the product trio – the PM, a designer/UX person, and the engineering lead. So it’s a cross-functional team. They may even expand that and pull in other experts to help with decision-making and what to do next.
When should it happen? Well, it should be happening continuously.
“You should be doing discovery before you build the product. You should be doing it when the product is in development to help calibrate your decisions and ensure that you’re on the right track. It’s how you evolve your product to ensure that you’re truly meeting your customers’ needs, especially in relation to their alternatives to using your product.”
In a recent episode of your podcast, you said that customer discovery is the lifeblood of product teams, helping them uncover the most critical customer needs to solve next. In many product teams, there could be a tendency to bypass or skip discovery. Why do you think that is? Why do we make that mistake?
There’s no one reason. In larger companies, teams may feel like they have to cut corners somewhere. They’re pulled into countless meetings and spend all their time focusing on viability issues instead of customer value. If the product leader of that team is not protecting and enabling them to dedicate a portion of their time to discovery, there’s no real incentive for them.
Marty Cagan estimated that product teams, especially product managers, should spend four hours a day doing that hard, critical-thinking work. A lot of people might say, “Four hours? Are you crazy?” But these are hard decisions, with a lot of choices and consequences. So you need to make sure you are creating the time.
In startups, one of the main reasons they often don’t do product discovery is that the CEO is leading them. The CEO has the experience, instinct, and vision, and they’re purely in execution mode. Again, all of this is at your peril.
“At some point, it will become clear whether what you created has met the needs of your customers in ways that were better than their alternatives. You can figure that out early, or you can figure it out later.”
You’ve led over 40 B2B and B2C product teams through your career and coached many product leaders to help them improve the way they create products. How is it that we’re still talking about this topic and trying to do product discovery right? Is it because it’s not understood, or because it’s not valued?
“We’re still early. It’s hard to believe, with digital products being around for decades, but most companies are still early on the learning curve.”
I sometimes meet with teams who are going through discovery coaching, and they’re like, “We want to do it right.” And I’m like, “Why is right the goal?” We could do more of it. We could do it better. It’s really about how we figure out what we most need to know, right now, to make a good decision – and what’s the fastest, most reliable method to do that.
Discovery isn’t well understood by enough teams. It’s not well understood by enough stakeholders of those teams. And it’s not well understood by the leadership of those teams. That’s why many teams either don’t make time for it or don’t have the internal mentors to help them get better at it.
We’ve seen that product teams are still somewhat confused about what product discovery is or isn’t. What steps can they take to improve their understanding and approach to product discovery so that it leads to outcomes that drive business and customer value?
Are you a hungry and active learner who’s motivated and willing to invest your time to get better at this? Are you willing to work in an environment with a team that values it? That willingness is key.
Beyond that, there are three practical things you can consider. The first is to dedicate time to it. You don’t have to start at four hours a day, but if you don’t block time as a team to make sure you are thinking hard about what you need to figure out, how will you make the right decisions? How are you going to make sure that you’re calibrating your decisions with customers’ needs?
The second is having an outcome defined. Teams who want to do discovery can easily get overwhelmed by the infinite choices and decisions.
If you don’t have an outcome anchoring your focus, it’s going to take forever, and you’ll get stuck in analysis paralysis. If you don’t know what you’re working towards, make it the priority for your team to define an outcome.”
For any product leaders, you must help your teams decide on the best outcome to focus on. And again, best is relative. It doesn’t have to be the perfect product outcome, but it has to be something that’s meaningful and gives purpose to your team.
The third is guarding against confirmation bias, which is really the whole purpose of discovery. We continuously need to be asking ourselves, “How do we know we’re right?” “How do we know this is the right decision?” This is especially important if a decision is difficult to unwind. And if you aren’t sure, set some criteria. For example, we’d be more right if we observed this in terms of evidence, and we’d be less right if we saw this.
That way, you’re going to get a good outcome either way. You were either wrong, but you’ve learned something, or you’ve got more confidence that you should proceed down the path you’re on.
Do you see some teams facing time pressure to get something done and thinking, “Well, this is right enough, I guess”?
Yeah. The best way to approach discovery when under time constraints is to figure out your riskiest assumption that you must resolve next – because if that turns out not to be true, none of your other decisions are going to matter. That is what you need to learn next.
That’s a great lead-in to our next question. When choosing the needs to address next, how can product leaders help teams connect their discovery choices back to the product vision and key themes and objectives?
If you don’t have a vision of what the future will be like, you’re not working towards a destination. So you need that vision. That’s why strong product leadership is so important.
Some people use OKRs. Others use different goal-setting approaches. But if you are expecting your team to make good choices, you owe it to them to help them with this piece. Otherwise, they’re aimless. They’re going to be overwhelmed by the infinite choices. So you need to help them with that.
Your business is about helping people become fearless product leaders. Thinking about the product leaders you coach, what discovery-related challenges do you see inside their product practices or their jobs as leaders?
There are a few challenges that continue to emerge. Again, one is that they don’t have a clear vision. Outcomes may not have even been defined even at the company level. So it’s difficult for them to create a focus for their team. One of the first challenges many product leaders face is making those hard choices as an executive team if they only have financial targets and nothing else.
The second is that a lot of new product leaders have inexperienced teams. That creates problems for product leaders – because even if they can get the executive team aligned on a strategy and vision and define the outcomes they’re going to work towards, if they don’t have the requisite skill set on their team, their challenge as a leader is around how to coach and develop their team to increase the probability of success on those outcomes.
Marty Cagan speaks to the importance of the entire product team — including the trio of product manager, designer, and engineer — when it comes to product discovery. In your experience, how can engineers balance their involvement in discovery with the delivery and execution side of the equation?
“If engineers don’t have that firsthand understanding of what matters, you will spend more time trying to educate them. If you can do discovery together as a team, you end up having better product outcomes. So that’s why when we do discovery coaching, it’s always the trio: product manager, designer, engineer.”
It all comes back to protecting people’s time. You want to give your engineering team all the flow they need to be effective when they’re in delivery mode. But you also need time protected for discovery mode, whether it’s being involved in customer interviewing, ideating on potential solutions, or assessing and prioritizing the different paths to achieving your outcomes. You want the team to be all-in on those choices.
We conduct product discovery because we want to build customer-centric products and reduce the risks around what we decide to build. What are some of the key mistakes you see product leaders and teams make here?
There are a few patterns in the product discovery mistakes I see. First, teams can be quite narrow in their approach. They tend to fall back on a limited set of discovery techniques, like, “We do A/B testing. That’s our discovery.” But if you’re not doing a more qualitative, generative exploration of what’s going on with your customers and their alternatives, you could be A/B testing all day long and not move the needle because you haven’t understood the problem or opportunity space. It’s all about finding the right way to learn what you need to know for a particular decision.
The second is that they don’t consider enough of the risk categories. Typically they’re like, “Oh, yeah, we do discovery.” But when you dig deeper, it’s more like usability testing. Don’t get me wrong, if the product isn’t intuitive to use, that is a risk. But if that’s the only risk that you’re doing discovery around, you’re probably missing more critical risks.
And then the last is they haven’t defined their success or fail criteria. So they end up test running forever because they’re hoping that a clear answer emerges at some point. Again, it comes back to the question: What do we need to know that would give us confidence that we should keep moving forward or force us to revisit whether we’re even focused on the right thing?
How have you helped product leaders mobilize their product organizations towards a continuous discovery approach?
“For product leaders in organizations that think discovery is a waste of time, or for those trying to bring that cultural change to their companies, there needs to be sufficient pain and recognition of all the product failures that have happened due to a lack of discovery. There needs to be an understanding of the things they learned too late.”
You also need an understanding of the other side – the better future, where you have created a product experience using discovery in the decision-making, and the success that resulted. You need to have that frame of reference, which may not be at the forefront of your leaders’ minds.
What quick techniques can we use, particularly as product leaders, to get over that hurdle of executive buy-in?
It’s a bit of a landmine. You want to help people recognize that product failures didn’t happen because their opinions were wrong – because nobody likes to feel like they were wrong. They happened because we didn’t de-risk our decisions and learn soon enough where we made some risky assumptions. And there are actually some very simple things we could do that might have changed the course of history.
If you have that post-mortem diagnosis where you look at what you could have done differently, you can point their attention to this other initiative that is critically important to your success. You can invite them along on that journey with you.
Collaboration with customer-facing teams can lead to significantly better product outcomes. But so few product leaders and teams successfully navigate the inclusion of these voices in their discovery. Over your career in coaching, how have you seen product leaders include those teams in the discovery process, and what challenges have they faced along the way?
Again, it’s about dedicating time to it. If you already dedicate time to discovery within the product team, you might also save some time for collaborating with stakeholders from customer-facing teams. They’re going to want to give input anyway, so why not give them a chance to participate and structure it in a way that allows you all to benefit from the session?
It’s about making the time and space, letting people share their expertise, relating it back to what you’re trying to get done right now, and ensuring you can capture that as an opportunity and return to it further down the line.
Bringing customer feedback and insights into discovery is critical. We see many product teams that have a treasure trove of qualitative and quantitative data, but they’ve failed to bring that all together. How have you seen teams tackle this?
It can be a challenge to keep all the insights we’ve learned at the forefront of our decision-making and make them accessible but not distracting. This is where I think the Opportunity Solution Tree is so valuable because as you’re capturing insights, you can keep all that information in a visual representation that you can refer back to.
Then you revisit it every quarter, every month, or whatever is the right cadence to see if there is any new information or insights you can add to it. It can help you see patterns and decide whether it’s time to focus on a different opportunity. That’s how I’ve seen teams bring insights together in a qualitative, quantitative, but highly visual and collaborative way.
One of the challenges we have in discovery teams is the problem of decision velocity. It’s important for product teams to have good decision velocity and move quickly through activities to get to the required conclusions. Where have you seen product teams being slow to make decisions, and what approaches could they use to help speed up their decision-making?
All I tell people is that they should have a goal – but that’s part of the challenge. Not enough teams have a goal. So when you’re stuck in that, unable to make the decision, the first go-to questions I’m trying to ask are: What’s your objective? What’s your goal? How do you know what success looks like? You need to figure these things out first.
Sometimes it’s unclear who’s making the decision. Is this something that the product team solely decides? Should the trio members make the decision? Should we just trust the engineering team to make this decision? Is this a design question? Is this a business viability question? Do we need to check with legal or operations?
Then the third thing is, how would we know we made the right decision?
“If it’s what Jeff Bezos calls a ‘two-way door decision,’ it’s a low-risk decision that we can recover from if we get wrong. But if it’s what he calls a ‘one-way door decision,’ we’re going to be stuck with it for a long time, so we need to double down on our understanding of the success criteria and the options. We need to understand why we picked this one.”
How can leaders more effectively communicate the value of discovery to their teams, the leadership, and the rest of the organization? What can they do to get better at that craft of storytelling?
Most of the time, the people in your organization think they know the right thing to do, whether that’s because of confirmation bias, overconfidence, or whatever. These people might think you are wasting time doing discovery. So when you’re communicating what you’re working on and why, one of the most compelling things you can do is share a surprising insight that has changed your work’s direction that you wouldn’t have uncovered had you not done the discovery.
The more you can share those stories and insights, the more people start to realize that they don’t know it all. That’s the sort of storytelling you want your teams to be doing. You need to keep reinforcing why this matters and why you are going to keep protecting teams’ time to continue their discovery efforts.