Introduction to Strategic Product Discovery

Capability, Product Management

Once you realize that the world is organized by jobs that need to be done, you understand that product life cycles don't exist - Clayton Christensen


A product’s evolution can be constructed from several angles. From concept to replacement, there is a creation driven perception of the evolution. From zero customer to market leadership there is an adoption driven perspective. From everyone as customer to specific segment characteristics there is a positioning driven perspective.


There are even more categories like experience driven perspective, feature driven perspective, profitability driven perspective so on and so forth. Depending on the prism from which a product evolution is looked at, categories can be earmarked and analyzed to draw insights about past, present and potential future for the product.


Unlike traditional products, the cloud first and always connected digital products landscape offers unique possibilities top of which is the ability to learn from customer usage. An automatic advantage of this capability is that products evolve and continuously improve the experiences at the click of a button.

enhancing and deprecating features on the fly is backed by sophisticated data architectures, multi dimensional analytics, continuous speed deployments to name a few capabilities. Further add to this a very disciplined user research to unearth evolving customer pains and their change over time, we have a very different beast to handle.


Today, Products are an Integration of thousands of microsolutions weaved together to deliver complete outcomes. A sum of parts where both sum and parts can deliver benefits.  Instead of a product monolith, we have units of software that is a mixed and matched dynamically to deliver contextual value.While some fail others become embedded in users lives and emerge as integral to day to day outcomes.

Instead of visionary certainty, Software as a Service products embrace uncertainty of  vision, instinct, market and prospect to ensure an anticipative and adaptive culture. Evolving continuously requires a life cycle that is predicated on customer Jobs. So, Established academic theories of product management that is based on fixed product and fixated staging is irrelevant, notional, arcane, useless and dead.

Product Leaders building solutions should instead be concerned with the life cycle of micro solutions and their integrations. With each feature taking a life of it’s own and journey,there are many concurrent life cycles within the boundary of single product. With a portfolio of products, this parallel progression becomes even more complicated.

Add to this creation, adoption, positioning, feature, experience and profitability driven evolution perspectives, we have a very complicated product lifecycle management challenge at hand that is burning the midnight oil for a lot of SaaS companies. 


While all these inside out perspectives are necessary and important to manage a successful product, they are absolutely irrelevant from a customer standpoint. He is only concerned about outcomes and benefits. Modularizing the construct into a benefit life cycle stages for the whole product and individual features helps customers grasp the value cycle.

The value is in what gets used, not in what gets built – Kris Gale


Creating new solutions or features is a journey full of uncertainties in spite of integrating customer needs. Irrespective of process maturity, organizations stumble in their abilities to Keep things simple. A desire to please customers leads to capitulation of decision authority resulting in acceptance of every request. inability to say “NO” guarantees a bloated software that is complex and unmaintainable.


Good design manifests through intuitiveness, learnability and engagement while good engineering manifests through technical flexibility, continuous improvement and cost effectiveness. Together, they offer a winning combination.Unfortunately, a lot of products are neither well designed nor well engineered. 


Typical product misadventures are inundated with technical debt, exorbitant costs, long learning curves, inhibited flow or friction. Deteriorating customer experience and resulting churn takes the steam out of even the best teams. On the one hand, creators are challenged to ensure disciplined validation of user request via user research and on the other there is a need to ensure solutions are well designed and engineered.


Building the right product and getting the product right requires aligning customer objectives with business objectives. A product strategy that  capitalizes on an existing demand is a dream come true for every team. However, finding a large enough opportunity requires having a sound grasp of specific customer experiences, pains and problems.


Mapping the problem space with the solution space is no cake walk. Industry experts believe that this process is bumpy and unpredictable. Teams have to diverge and converge within each space by investing resources to uncover experiences, jobs, pains, needs, gains and features. Making money with technology products requires diligent navigation of the intangibles through product discovery. 


A flexible process to explore the problem space with the purpose to validate demand, generate Ideas, scope opportunities, deliberate options and design solutions. An approach to build software that is balanced in exploring problem and solution. an innovation methodology to create contextual value by leveraging tangibles and intangibles.

The purpose of product discovery is to quickly separate the good ideas from the bad - Marty Cagan


With the drastic reduction of technology costs and cheap availability of capital, single most scarce and expensive resource in front of any company is people. Each and every company is concerned about how they can optimize the investment of their most precious resource - staff time. Putting the effort in right places is important to ensure customer impact.


Most teams jump in head first into chaotic world of products and start building features. Delivering one after the other at speed and scale, without giving much thought to the value being created.  A desire to overcome analysis paralysis forces them to get going based on hunches and hypotheses. Couple it with a drive to get shit done, the impetus exists to prioritize output over outcomes. 


While it is true that experimentation is important for rapid iterative development, it is not a good vehicle to understand the customer need in itself. Idea that teams have to keep testing without proper upfront research and continuous feedback is a recipe for disaster. Celebrating the mere shipping of features without regular measurement of impact is a tell tale sign of teams with muddled objectives.


Having a grasp of what the customer will immediately buy is significant to answering if we are building the right thing. Good early teams focus on meaningful speed. Sandwiching the execution between pre and post validation rigor is important to avoid bad software. trauma of wasted effort and unnecessary rework of features is too costly. Recovering from the wrong path then becomes a vicious obsession 


To minimise wasted effort, we need to ensure maximum probability of building the right thing. Having an in depth knowledge of why we are building is essential to consciously consider necessities and assumptions.In other words, teams must take that squishy path early on to uncover the pains and problems properly. 


Great teams learn that meaningful impact must begin  with clarity on customer objectives. Everything else will follow based on sound inputs. A lot of times, teams are inundated with self doubt as a result of not putting a lot of upfront effort. Obscurity prevents most people from taking consistent action towards their purpose.


Irrespective of a great work ethic, teams stumble in their vision due to unexpected tailwinds of fear, anxiety, pressure etc..conviction in staying the course, then requires a strong foundational knowledge about customer needs driving the objectives. In fact, the level of insight should help teams define the ideal customer KPI’s for change.


Product companies that led the way for industries, verticals and categories are getting dethroned. Pace of that disruption is just accelerating with incumbents falling like a house of cards. Surviving in the new economy requires a resilient product. One that can stand up to fast evolving customer expectations and slow changing behavior. 


Striking a balance and arriving at an optimal offering requires a thorough understanding of latent needs, blatant priorities, futuristic perspective, available opportunities and potential solutions. A diligent research to unearth the most impactful outcomes that is neither over engineered or shabby.


In depth study of the target group persona, their habits, their journey, their motivations, their roles, their abilities, their jobs, their deliverables, their triggers, their assumptions, their tools, their risks, their dejections, their investments and their rewards. Asking in depth questions about observed behavior to narrow on the monetizable gap.


A structured design framework to select the right opportunity candidates based on objective and repeatable criteria. Strategic Product Discovery is a systematic study of people and their behavior. A tool to co-relate technological progress with human aspirations to ensure creation is usable not useless.

If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there - Lewis Carroll


A lot of teams get little value in return for significant and diligent efforts. In the process, wasting valuable time in the pursuit of shiny objects. While the intentions to build something to  a higher standard is genuine, the motivation to score brownie points with novel technology or vanity features also exists.


In environments where human bias and ego overwhelms, we take up initiatives and activities to please internal stakeholders rather than customers. Net result is wrong software, unfinished work, multi tasking, disruptions, shiny objects, feature factories etc. the pursuit of vanity becomes the norm rather than the exception resulting in purposeless effort.


Broadly accepted statistic is that two thirds of the features built are never used leading to wasted effort. Teams cautious of these fallacies do institutionalize best practices such as roadmaps, prioritization, epics, backlogs etc to mitigate the risk of wasted effort. Unfortunately, it is too little too late as teams habituated to “build it and they will come” philosophy struggle to change the underlying culture.


Filtering the right set of needs and identifying viable opportunities requires teams to move away from idea first systems. Creating meaningful backlogs that are mutually beneficial requires a sound beginning based on real customer evidence. Perpetuating a culture of assumptions has never helped teams uncover complex and subtle user needs that hold the keys to sustainable user relevance.


Knowing where you are is essential to choose a path to where you can be. While predicting the future is difficult, it is not impossible. Modern data science teaches us how this can be achieved with categorization of dependent and independent variables. More we become certain about the nature of variables, the less is the probability to go wrong with our choices and decisions. 


Transitioning from uncertainty to certainty is gradual and slow. Experts opinion that the only way to accelerate it is to capture better nuances at every iteration, increment and experiment. In other words, to establish a continuous feedback loop that is bereft of unvalidated assumptions. Taking calculated risks by playing within a portfolio of curated product options is the only way to ensure effective discovery and  efficient delivery. 


Deploying a level of multi dimensional user research upfront is essential to curtail the impact of assumptions on the value chain of activities. Building a culture of evidence is only possible with systematic application of a set of principles to gain a coherent perspective of the end picture. Product discovery is the umbrella effort that nails the coffin on a culture of “Build it and they will come”


Strategic Product Discovery or Product Strategy is tied to the study of options that has the potential to shift you from where you are to where you wish to go.


  • Establishes an explorative mindset that nudges us to progressively improve the framing of the problem and grasp of solutions.
  • Sharpens the realm of the user, identifying all unworkable impediments in his job and expected outcomes.
  • Balances the behaviour shift we wish to inspire and what is possible in the customer life given the context of his existence.
  • Empowers team with selection of big Idea and small decisions that will guide teams through the journey of value creation.
  • Ensures diligent definition of the real problem with the view to create great solutions by systematically reducing risk and uncertainty.
  • Improves confidence to double down on customer centric business vision, mission, objectives and goals.
  • Defines the boundaries of innovation, creating a framework for decision making and empowering teams to make autonomous choices.

If you don’t talk to your customers, how will you know how to talk to your customers? - Will Evans


Thought Leaders in product development have prescribed several approaches to perform customer research, product discovery and delivery. Few of the popular methods among technologists are User Centered Design, Design Thinking, User Experience Design, Lean UX, Dual track Scrum, Design Sprints, Lean startup etc. Each address, define and cover a lot themes within the overall product landscape.


Exploring abstract problem spaces, hypothesizing root causes, experimenting with multiple options, prioritizing feature backlogs and continuous feedback collection are a few of the core subjects addressed. While it is easy to be swayed by the different methods and spend umpteen hours thinking on their interconnections and overlap, it’s sane to consider each of these to  be tools in product leaders arsenal.


Leveraging these methods will help product teams navigate from the abstract to the concrete. utilizing a creative and messy process, they gain incremental insights about various risks inherent in the problem and solution space. A systematic exploration of issues through divergence and  convergence across multiple disciplines will result in refined ideas to the ones that we began with. 


Deliberating on Deep Structural Shifts, Behavioral Change, Market Signals, Inflection Points, Holistic Experience Initiatives etc could be strategic starting points. Evolving an unscientific hunch, a scientific insight, an interesting suggestion, an unreasonable request, an earth shattering idea etc are some tactical initiators.


In fact, a pyramid scheme of diverging and converging must be navigated by connecting input, process and output. Different aspects of the problem and solution under consideration are explored so that we can arrive at a comprehensive view of synergy to the vision. Deviation if any uncovered will lead to adjusting the vision to be aligned with customer needs.


Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who stumbled upon the Americas while on a quest to find direct water route west from Europe to Asia. Rest is History. Some aspects of discovery may lead to dead-ends and some stray too far off, yet it is important to follow the  nonlinear process to find resonance with market.


Strategic discovery focuses on the outcome selection while the tactical discovery focuses on the opportunity picking. It all begins with listening to the verbal and non verbal customer clues often. Great Product Leaders follow it by working with stakeholders to improve the quality, increase the volume and accelerate the velocity of conversations.


Given the non scalable nature of conversational activities, even teams with best intentions move in to solutions too quickly using experimentation approaches like Minimum Viable Product. Unfortunately, they don’t yield the necessary results as other critical steps such as sketching, pattern mapping, contextualizing and hypothesizing don’t happen in required intensity.


Having flow in mind is important when you are ramping up sales, however, cranking out series of sample solutions or experiments during the early stages without a significant pool of early adopters is a recipe for disaster. Even more, the volume of conversations is essential to find out the right customers with authentic perspectives and opinions.


It’s not just about you talking to them, real insights are chiseled when  you can find customers who want to talk with you, who want to be heard and who are dead serious about leading the effort to evangelize within their network. right customers will go beyond their specific need to align with the larger tradeoffs of pulling off a desirable, feasible and viable solution. 


While there is an ideal process that checks off on every single activity that can lead to comprehensive learning, nature of the ventures at hand really dictates what teams should consider and ignore during their discovery process. The more uncertainty, the better it is to leverage all available tools, the more concrete the grasp we might do well in utilizing those that will enhance our insights at an accelerated pace.


An important aspect of conversations is to be conscious of the difference between discovery in B2C and B2B environments. B2B research is comparatively more difficult to conduct due to access problems, heightened sensitivity and secrecy concerns. It becomes important to do a pre - research about the trends, segments, competition, communities and special events to ensure a mutually beneficial discussion.


Successful b2b teams work on issues where they have had first hand experience. They have utmost clarity on  the various stakeholders and roles that are typically involved. Leveraging this knowledge they navigate the complex labyrinth of enterprise structures and industry networks to target the appropriate decision making contributors. Finding those actively seeking solutions in the larger target pool requires careful deliberation and guidance of thought leaders.


Internet is littered with life stories of ernest founders who didn’t have the discipline and patience to pick up the right people to converse and share experiments with. Teams spend years surveying, planning, prototyping and building products to impress investors that they miss out on the real people that matter. While all of these are important, the crux of the matter is to find real customers to experiment with.


Once we find the right set, the next step is to set in motion an accelerated learning mode with the sole purpose to reduce risks and validate assumptions. For a lot of engineers, learning comes from showing. We are natural at and biased to demonstrating a piece of software to an audience in order to gauge feedback. It is indeed useful. However, teams must acknowledge that there are many forms of learning and stages of learning.  


Product Discovery is well implemented when we can touch all the forms of learning that can accelerate the feedback cycle. Put in motion a contextual process leveraging the toolbox of activities will enable your outcomes.

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