These days, most solid product teams practice some form of agile software development. But there's a lot more to launching successful products than releasing code regularly.
Marty Cagan, founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group and former product executive at eBay, Netscape, and many more, says in his article on Continuous Discovery,
"Rather than a 'Product Discovery Phase' where we come up with several weeks of validated product backlog items and deliver them to engineering, I encourage teams to do continuous product discovery – where we are constantly identifying, validating and describing new product backlog items."
But how do you successfully transition to practicing effective continuous product discovery, especially if you're not yet the head of product?
I'm going to share with you the best way to get started on building your continuous product discovery practice, no matter where you're at today.
I've been working with startups and product teams for over 15 years, and for over a decade of that I've been practicing what we now call continuous product discovery. Since founding H2R Product Science, I've worked with dozens of startups, high-growth companies, and enterprises like FalconX, MediaMath, Shutterstock, The Lean Startup Co, Unilever, Capital One, and Weight Watchers. Through these experiences I've developed the Product Science Success Path, which you can use to identify where you are at on the path from agile product developer to high-growth product leader.
The Product Science Success Path has 5 stages:
- Agile Product Developer
- Product Discovery Practitioner
- Continuous Product Improver
- High-Impact Experimenter
- High-growth Product Leader
In this article we'll cover each of the 5 stages in more detail, the one question to ask yourself in each stage to determine if you've mastered that stage, and what next step to take to go from each stage to the next.
Ready? Let's dive in.
Agile Product Developer
At this stage, teams release code regularly, ranging from every sprint to continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD). But they are not yet doing product discovery of their own.
It often looks like this:
The team has transitioned to agile, adding practices like scrum, extreme programming, or kanban to their software development approach. But they haven't shifted how they go about deciding what to build. It's handed down from the company leadership, or they go to stakeholders and gather requirements. The person in the "product" role is mainly an order-taker and spends most of their time grooming the backlog and coordinating releases.
But the team isn't getting the true value of agile, because they aren't inspecting and adapting their plans based on new learnings from the market.
Do you develop and release new software on a regular basis, either in sprints or continuously?
If the answer is no, you need to start there. Find an agile coach and begin updating your infrastructure.
If the answer is yes, you've made it to at least stage 1. I'll tell you what next steps to take at the end of the article, but first, let's see how far down the path you've made it.
Product Discovery Practitioner
At this stage, teams conduct some direct product discovery of their own rather than just taking direction from above. But they are not yet practicing it continuously.
It often looks like this:
The product manager, UX designer, or even the founder conducts research in bursts, usually at the start of a new initiative. They might talk to current or potential customers, interview industry experts, research the competition, or look at current product usage data. They might do this work in a few weeks or a few months, and in some cases such as at large enterprises, this research phase might even stretch out over the course of a year. They might even contract a third party to do this work instead of getting face to face with potential customers themselves.
At the Product Discovery Practitioner stage, product teams conduct research with the customers to learn about the problems they have and to test solutions.
Once they've done enough work to get the project green-lit, the research basically goes on a shelf. They make a plan and focus on executing.
Then they get to launch, and more often than not, the results are disappointing. They may have correctly identified a real customer pain point, but their solution misses the mark. They missed out on the benefits of continuously learning more about context and constraints and of testing and iterating on solutions.
Do you plan and conduct research with users to help you design and build the right product?
If the answer is no, you're still at the first stage, Agile Product Developer. If the answer is yes, you've made it to at least the second stage, Product Discovery Practitioner. So what's next?
Continuous Product Improver
At this stage, teams conduct some form of research at least every sprint. They might talk to customers, test prototypes, or run A/B tests.
It often looks like this:
The team has a go-to form of experimentation. It's often solution testing or A/B testing, but it might include customer interviews. It's likely that the whole team is involved in the experimentation.
At this point the team could be said to be practicing continuous product discovery, but they still aren't getting is full benefits. They often flounder around with random ideas and solutions, struggling to move the needle on their key metrics. Or they focus on customer interviews but can't quite figure out what to build.
Do you plan and conduct research with users at least each sprint?
If you don't, then you're still at the third stage, Product Discovery Practitioner. If you do, then you're at least at Continuous Product Improver.
Let's keep going!
At this stage, teams both conduct multiple forms of research regularly and are good at figuring out what customers will do with the solutions ideas they have. But they often struggle to get buy-in from company leadership and stakeholders, so they can't always build what they think they should.
It often looks like this:
Some members of the product team, typically the product manager, designer, or UX researcher, regularly conduct both quantitative and qualitative research. They might even look at both the customer and market levels.
But they are still struggling to get support from leadership to invest in new ideas that affect strategy. They often feel like they are stuck "putting lipstick on a pig." They feel pressured to launch things they don't fully believe in, but they can't quite convince leadership to invest in doing things right.
Do you commonly find that once you release software to your users, your data shows that they use it in the ways that your discovery research suggested they would?
If the answer is no, you’re still in the third stage, Continuous Product Improver. If the answer is yes, you’ve made it to at least the fourth stage, High-Impact Experimenter. Read on to learn about the next stage.
High-Growth Product Leader
At this stage, teams are continuously delivering solutions that impact their key metrics. And they are advocating for their success, showing leaders and stakeholders that they can be relied on to deliver.
It often looks like this:
There is a core product trio that includes product, design, and engineering leading the customer product discovery. There may be a UX researcher involved who helps to ensure the quality of the research and a data specialist who helps with quantitative analysis.
The product trio involves stakeholders and leaders in the discovery process, making sure to hear their concerns and address their questions with evidence. They also do an excellent job of communicating goals and outcomes to the wider company.
Typically the product manager on a team like this becomes a resource for other product managers at the company as they lead by example.
High-Growth Product Leaders recognize how interconnected they are to the rest of the company and leverage that to make an impact.
Do your stakeholders trust your product team to make good decisions and consistently deliver on the desired outcomes for your users, other teams, and the business?
If the answer is no but you've answered yes to the rest, you're at stage 4, High-Impact Experimenter. If the answer is yes, you go! You're doing fantastic. But keep reading, because I've got next steps coming up for you too.
So now that you can identify what level of the Product Science Success Path you are at, what should you do next?
To go from Stage 1, Agile Product Developer, to Stage 2, Product Discovery Practitioner, start small. How can you get closer to your customers? Talk to 2 customers and focus on getting to know them and why they use your product.
To go to Stage 3, Continuous Product Improver, try setting one learning goal for each sprint. Begin doing a Built-Learned-Planning Demo to include what you learned and what you're planning next in your team demos.
To get to Stage 4, High-Impact Experimenter, do a Pre-Mortem Risk Assessment exercise to think through the biggest risks in your product plans, then tailor your research to focus on the biggest risks - this might be known challenges or areas that your team knows the least about.
To get to Stage 5, High-Growth Product Leader, involve key stakeholders into the product discovery process. Invite them to the Pre-Mortem Risk Assessment and the Built-Learned-Planning Demos or make sure they have another forum for regularly engaging with the discovery and its results.
And once you’re at Stage 5, you’re not done. Stay curious and authentic. Create tools, frameworks, and training so that other product teams can collaborate using the same tools for research and communication. Reach out to other product leaders and learn from them!
Here’s a handy chart that you can use to see it all at-a-glance. What are you going to do differently next week to put this into practice?
Liked this article? Please share it with a colleague or on social media, it means a lot.
Want more interactive guidance on how to practice continuous product discovery? Come to one of my upcoming workshops in New York City or San Francisco.
Want more learnings from my time working with teams to implement continuous product discovery? Sign up for the Product Science Journal to get my monthly newsletter.
Founder and Product Management Consultant and TrainerH2R Product Science
Holly Hester-Reilly is the founder of H2R Product Science, a product management coaching and consulting firm that teaches the science of high-growth product development, and the host of the Product Science Podcast. Holly is a former Columbia University research scientist and has spent the last 15+ years leading product initiatives at startups, high-growth companies, and enterprises like FalconX, MediaMath, Shutterstock, The Lean Startup Co, Unilever, Novartis, Fitch Group, Capital One, and Weight Watchers. With those experiences she has developed the Product Science Method, a framework to discover the strongest product opportunities and lay the foundations for high-growth products, teams, and businesses.
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