Cover
Anna LazitskayaCMO, Fibery.io
Essays

Product Discovery isn't just for the Product Team

May 13, 202110 min read

You wouldn’t knowingly pass up a revenue opportunity without considering every angle, yet too many companies are leaving money on the table by not treating product discovery as a collaborative process.

If your discovery process involves the same handful of people, opportunities may be overlooked because the insights that would lead you to them are never acknowledged. Your business misses out as a result. Encourage input in product discovery from across the company to ensure that only the strongest ideas make it into your development cycle.

Product discovery is a collaborative process

It’s common for product discovery to become the focus of just one team or even just one person. Without collaborative input from other areas of the business, you are not exploring all your options.

The danger is that the fewer people are helping to shape product discovery, the narrower your company’s field of vision. Any discovery process that becomes siloed isn’t working to its full potential. At a C-suite level, the task is to create a discovery culture that includes—and values—many voices and insights. Here are two examples of how your departments can and should work together to discover the best new product pathways.

Normalize collaboration

Your first priority should be to normalize the idea of cross-team collaboration as part of your company culture. If everyone thinks holistically as a matter of habit, then it becomes easier to implement new ideas and change direction because employees at all levels can see the benefit to the company as a whole, not just their corner of it.

The form this collaboration takes, however, will vary from one company to another. A good basic starting point to implementing a collaborative workplace is the concept of the Four Shared Rs of Collaboration, which cover the key points of friction when introducing collaborative working into an organization:

  • Responsibility: More than just who does what, is the C-suite throttling responsibility-sharing through poor delegation?
  • Resources: Do departments feel they are being treated equitably with regard to time and funding?
  • Rewards: Do employees have a holistic view of the company’s progress, or are they concerned only with how things benefit themselves?
  • Risk: Are departments empowered to propose new avenues of development, and is there a companywide ethos of analyzing and embracing the risks involved?

Balancing these four needs means setting the example by showing trust in the decision-making of others, being transparent in how resources are allocated and shared, and ensuring that goal-setting—whether at an individual or department level—does not distract from the wider benefits and pitfalls the company faces as a whole. The more your teams understand and respect what their peers bring to the table, the easier it is to make meaningful collaboration—not just on-paper cooperation—the norm.

Be flexible rather than rigid in terms of who contributes to the product discovery process and when they do so. Placing your departments into three bands—permanent, temporary and support—is an excellent way to do this, as encouraged by product management consultant Tim Herbig. He suggests using the following banding:

  • Permanent: Product teams, UX and Research should drive the discovery process and always have it in mind.
  • Temporary: Customer support and Sales are a vital conduit for discovery data, but they can feed that data into the process at scheduled intervals.
  • Support: The C-suite executive level should be on hand to deal with hurdles and roadblocks as needed.

Eliminate confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to subconsciously look for answers that support our existing beliefs and dismiss or ignore anything that challenges them. Left unchecked, it is the critical weakness in any product discovery process.

Just like people, companies can become set in their ways—even new startups. When you’ve invested so much time, money and effort into a particular product direction, it can be hard to accept that a better option exists. Feedback that reinforces the current direction is prioritized, anything that contradicts it is brushed aside, and far from discovering new product opportunities, you simply end up validating the decisions you already made.

How do you avoid this? Your first priority is to recognize confirmation bias in yourself and the company. You can’t stop it if you can’t spot it! Then go out of your way to ensure that more voices are heard in the product discovery loop. The fewer people making the call on product discovery decisions, the greater the chance of these blind spots developing and calcifying into rigid corporate dogma.

If you find your customer support team sitting on feedback that goes against the grain of the product team’s roadmap, that means that a whole area of improvement is being missed. Dig into that feedback, ask customer support to prepare a report on the common pain points that haven’t gained traction in development and use that to illuminate new discovery pathways.

A practical example of how to overcome confirmation bias in a business setting comes from Warren Buffet, who has gone as far as inviting rival investors and personal critics to annual meetings in order to ensure that his ideas and decisions are challenged robustly. It’s one thing to be aware of the danger of confirmation bias, quite another to train yourself (and, by extension, your company) to be OK with contradictory input. But the real change happens when you actively seek out challenges to your current course of action.

Product discovery requires time

Fully exploring all the possible avenues of product discovery means devoting time to the process. A common pitfall that companies make is to engage in discovery as an obligation, squeezed into the schedule to meet a desired update window. Not only does this leave little room to enact the steps above for true collaboration and eliminating bias, but it can result in a blinkered workflow where people are fixated only on getting to the end of the process and are not open to the process itself.

The aim should be to shift toward a way of working in which product discovery is ongoing throughout the company. It’s here that the collaboration bands mentioned earlier will pay off, with some teams constantly keeping one eye on product discovery opportunities, and others entering and leaving the process when they have value to add. This rolling discovery cycle, once established, means that ideas are identified more quickly, tested for feasibility and put into action without a laborious stop-start rhythm interrupting the workflow.

It’s understandable that when encouraging greater collaboration between departments on discovery, there will be some concern about taking time away from actual product development. In the traditional model of project-driven product discovery where days or weeks are spent devoted to the process, pausing development, those concerns might make sense. In those cases, only when discovery is complete can development begin or resume.

Product discovery coach Teresa Torres is a keen advocate of the “continuous discovery” model, she and offers an excellent example of how it can be implemented in a way that fits around existing workflow: “I teach people how to do five-minute interviews. Go out into the world and find people that might use your products and just ask them a single question. Talk to them for five minutes. Most teams can do that over a lunch break. They can do it on the weekend. They can do it driving to and from work.”

This sort of outreach can be done personally, but can also be automated to a certain extent using tools like Ethnio or Qualaroo that are designed for fast one-question surveys that can find out if a user is available for a feedback interview right now. “If you have to email 400 people to get five responses and three of them cancel, you’re not gonna interview every week. That’s not sustainable,” Torres says. “A lot of the teams that I work with, if they’re consumer sites, are using something like Ethnio or Qualaroo to just pop up a question… And this question will be ‘Are you available in the next 15 minutes to do an interview?’ They’re recruiting live off of their site to conduct an interview right then and there. And that removes a lot of the legwork which makes the process a lot more sustainable.”

The next priority is then to ensure that this ongoing stream of live feedback is available and visible to your teams. The ability to link and cross-reference particular pain points, even specific phrases in a customer conversation, helps you see the patterns of data that will guide your product discovery in real time.

Product discovery demands leadership

The risk with opening up any process is that it can lose focus and start to drift. The responsibility at the executive level is to ensure that the whole company understands and supports product discovery, is directly involved when relevant and won’t resist changes to the orthodoxy just because of tradition.

This is more than just a question of managerial efficiency though. With any shift in working practices, it’s necessary to lead by example, putting in place the company values that will liberate product discovery. You should embody a culture that is able to make mistakes, admit to them and change course accordingly. As Teresa Torres says, “If your experiments never fail, you’re probably not good at running experiments.” Nothing deflates product development faster than an unwavering executive who helicopters into the process, demands new features based on their own whims and then retreats to the boardroom, convinced they have the only solution.

More than anything, opening out the product discovery process across department lines means keeping a tight hand on incoming data and feedback, and making sure it is then seen and acted upon. It’s that reliance on open data that is at the heart of Fibery, which is why we are so passionate about freeing companies from rigid and outdated workflow.

The best product ideas should be unexpected

Chances are that there are product opportunities your company is missing because your discovery process is using the same sources over and over for input. A shift towards a more visible and collaborative company culture will transform your product discovery, but will also benefit processes and working practises in many other areas as well.

Here is a checklist of five practical steps you can implement to get your company into the right mindset.

  1. Instigate more visibility between departments in terms of responsibility, resources, rewards and risk to lay the ground for truly collaborative working.
  2. Work out which teams and staff members need to be in your permanent, temporary and support bands for product discovery.
  3. Switch to a “little and often” form of ongoing customer outreach, asking quick but vital questions on a regular basis rather than overwhelming them with one lengthy survey.
  4. Lead by example and show that you, and by extension the company, are willing and able to change course based on what feedback says.
  5. Ensure that every department has its own specialist input into the product discovery process.

The more disciplines you bring in from across departments, the more chance somebody will ask a question that hasn’t been considered before. And all of a sudden, whole new development paths can open up. 🙌