The Missing Element of Product Success

Dana Publicover
Sep 6, 2020 · 5 min read

We were on the brink of what felt like a scientific discovery. We were grinning stupidly and jiggling our legs in our chairs, watching the sticky notes line up on the wall.

We were researching the product development process with teams from all over the world — Bangkok, San Francisco, Hamburg, New York — and no matter the product, no matter the team, we were able to recreate our results every time.

We’d uncovered the most important element of product teams, and it was missing in every single case.

Each team was tasked with the same experiment (I mean, we’re not scientists but we know all about controls and variables!). To map out their product process, and to identify where the challenges were. (**Run this experiment with your team! We’ll show you how at the bottom of this page.)

With the pride of a proven hypothesis (and the smug satisfaction of winning) we watched the results fall into place each time.

Every single team’s process had the same shape.

We call it the “Triangle of Doom”.

As the steps progressed, the problems increased, with most of them converging at the same chaotic point. We call it the “Triangle of Doom.” But the crucial pattern came from analyzing the individual challenges at each step. All of them — each issue they identified — could be traced back to a lack of alignment, clarity and understanding at the beginning of the project.

We had found the missing element. And we were going to spend the next year building and testing the solution for it.

Thorsten, CEO of NEON, presents the Triangle of Doom at a conference.

Teams believe they are aligned in the beginning, but as soon as that first meeting is adjourned seven people will walk away with seven different interpretations of what happened, what the plan is and what is expected of them. Even the best product manager can’t retroactively repair misalignment without starting over from the beginning.

Often, there are key stakeholders who doubt the purpose of the project or who are not convinced that the concept is the right choice. Total buy-in is part of alignment and if it’s missing, you’ll always have someone advocating to change the scope, adjust the roadmap, add unvalidated features and more — issues we found on nearly every team.

Even with a common roadmap we found a lack of clarity on roles, goals, and sometimes even budget — on teams who self-reported total alignment.

We used all of this research to build the Challenge Discovery framework: a tool to facilitate alignment and a method to kick off every project.

We build the Challenge Discovery in MURAL.

The Challenge Discovery is our framework for facilitating total team buy-in and alignment from the start of a project, but if your project has already started it can be a nice check-in to make sure everyone is on the same page.

A facilitator (your product manager, your UX lead, your own in-house facilitator or one of NEON’s expert facilitators) guides a team through identifying problem areas and clarifying big questions. You’ll have the entire team onboard with the budget, risks, timeline, assumptions and more. Each stage is designed to create a natural flow into solutioning (though that won’t be done at this step and it’s very important that your facilitator steers you out of “solutions mode” and back into discovery mode).

Challenge Discovery paints a very clear picture of the project so far, as a complete and tactical audit and a plan to move forward. You’ll discover all of the missing elements of your plan and how to fill them in. It’s the first stage of our Product Discovery process and a perfect jumping off point for a project.

We recommend a half-day workshop for the Challenge Discovery, facilitated remotely or in-person. Our remote framework is built in Mural.

Because of the global crisis, many of our frameworks are temporarily available for free to any team or organization.

Run the Triangle of Doom experiment with your team:

Want to win your team to try out a new method? Run the Triangle of Doom experiment with them to visualize why trying out something new is necessary.

  • Team size: 5–10 people
  • Duration: 20 min
  • Material: Pink and yellow post it’s, sharpies
  • Result: awareness of the problems AND a visual to support it
Tomek ran the Triangle of Doom experiment with teams all over the world.

Gather your team and ask them to write down your current product development process in 6–8 steps as a group exercise, like a user test flow: Start with the last step. Then the first step. Then fill in the steps in-between. 5 min. One of the group should present the result.

Then, together alone, have them write all of the challenges, problems and frictions that come up at each stage in the process.

STEP THREE: Finally, each team member reads out loud the problems/challenge and places them under the corresponding step.

RESULT: If it forms a Triangle of Doom, you’ve created evidence that a change in approach is needed. A perfect springboard for challenge discovery (or other new approaches) and a clear way to win the buy-in for a new approach.


WE FRAME CHAOS. Frameworks and facilitation for better work. Driven by empathy, structure, and a lit


We frame chaos to help teams get sh*t done. We discovered that problems with budget, timeline and team dysfunction come from a lack of alignment and incomplete data. So we built scalable, repeatable processes to fix both.

Dana Publicover

Written by

author, Empathy at Scale • Chief Operating Offer, NEON


We frame chaos to help teams get sh*t done. We discovered that problems with budget, timeline and team dysfunction come from a lack of alignment and incomplete data. So we built scalable, repeatable processes to fix both.

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