How to Use Product Discovery Skills to Build Alignment, At Work or At Home

Me, fielding yet another concern about our vacation planning

Maybe agreeing to this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought.

I was reading the latest message in a fraught conversation with my family about something seemingly simple: where to go for an upcoming group vacation. The trip was supposed to be in just 2 weeks, and we hadn’t booked anything yet. Despite the fact that I already often felt stretched thin between working with multiple clients and projects at once and managing family life with an active toddler and baby, I’d been spending an inordinate amount of my time fielding concerns from my family about how this trip would go.

So how had I gotten myself into this situation?

One day a few weeks earlier, my brother asked if we’d like to get our families together for a vacation. I hadn’t seen my brother and his family since the summer before, and since then we’d both added second children to our families. He’d moved to London and I’d been beginning to wonder if, despite the fact that we had once been so close that I asked him to be best man at my wedding, the distance between us would keep growing greater. His family was going to be within a day’s trip of us and he suggested that we could join them at a beach.

I wanted to believe that our families could be closer, so I quickly said yes. Nevermind that we’d never taken a group vacation together before. Nevermind that neither my mom nor my own family had funds set aside for summer travels. Nevermind that we had different travel habits, with my brother’s family enjoying active adventures, air travel, and Airbnb while my family preferred to stay local or stay with family.

Soon we found ourselves disagreeing over all the details. We had lots of ideas on where to go and what to do, but there were also some strong reactions, even the possibility of aborting the whole plan.

We all had something different to say about the potential vacation.

After a decade working alongside passionate people in tech startups, I’m used to facing a plethora of strong opinions on the best thing to do. I’ve found that while people often tend to focus on solutions, when we step back to build agreement on what problem we are solving and which constraints are important, we find it much easier to agree on which solution to pick.

So, like any good product manager, I set out to understand the people and their problems better, hoping to build agreement even when it seemed impossible.

Here’s how you can use product discovery skills to build agreement with others in your own life

The next time you face disagreeing decision makers, follow these product discovery steps to define the problem in a way that leads to easy agreement.

1. Capture the solution ideas

We humans don’t generally let go of our ideas easily. If we’re told to step back from ideas to look at the problem, we often hang on tight to the ideas in our head. I’ve found it helps to get all those ideas out, so that we can feel safe in the knowledge that they are waiting for us when we are ready to return to evaluating solutions.

Our proposed vacations had differences in cost, environment, amenities, and travel requirements.

2. Prioritize your research goals

Now, you’re going to step back from the ideas to learn more about the problem space. But what’s most important to know? Try starting with a hypothesis about which differences are important to your target audience. What are the differences in the solution ideas? How do these differences affect the way the target audience would use the solution? Which differences in the solution options will impact their behaviors and decisions most strongly?

For each difference, think about the cost of choosing one choice over another at this stage. Do any set you down a path that’s costly to change? Those are the things that you want to make sure you cover in your early research, because they are the riskiest to get wrong. You also want to empathize with each person’s point of view and find out about the drivers of their decisions and behaviors.

For our vacation, the transportation options and environment would be largely fixed with this decision, so those were critical areas to learn about.

3. Do the research

Once you have prioritized your research goals, you can conduct quality research that stays focused on getting the information that you will need to drive smart decisions. One on one interviews are most effective for this kind of research, because you need to establish a rapport to dig deep enough to uncover the hidden motivations, desires, and constraints.

Digging deeper through one-on-one conversation uncovered what each person was thinking.

4. Synthesize Findings

Once you’ve conducted the research, you’ll need to share the results with your stakeholders. Did you invalidate any assumptions? What was most surprising or unexpected? Were there themes or common ground that emerged? What constraints will be most important to meet in order to deliver a compelling solution? At this point in time you should have validated that you have a valuable problem to solve and be able to say with confidence what the desired outcome of a solution is.

We all genuinely wanted to spend more time together.

5. Generate and evaluate solutions

Now that you have a clearer picture of the problem to be solved, you should give the team a chance to come up with new ideas or revisit their original ones. How do each of the options meet the constraints you identified? How well do they support the desired outcome?

6. Make a decision

Now that you and your stakeholders have a solid understanding of how well each of the solutions supports the desired outcome, don’t hesitate — make the call!

At this stage, when we found a beach house in Old Lyme, Connecticut, that was in our budget, it was easy for everyone to agree that it was the best choice.

We had twice as many happy vacationers, all feeling closer together after our trip.

So the next time you find yourself struggling to rally disagreeing stakeholders, try using these product discovery steps to build alignment.

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Liked this post? I’m considering follow ups such as how to plan and prepare for the trip like an agile design team and how to execute the trip like an agile development team, so please tell me what you’d like to hear next. Sign up for my newsletter to get insights from me on data-driven product leadership.

Want to get better at driving great product decisions? This is just one process you can use to approach the problems, but there are many more pieces to this puzzle — including persuading others to follow the direction you set. If you want to learn more, join me in NYC on October 18th for a full day workshop at Alpha on Data-Driven Product Decisions.

This piece is inspired by Tommi Forsstrom’s How To Plan a Vacation Like an A+ Product Manager, in which he discusses outcomes thinking in the context of a vacation plan.

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