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Optimisation vs Discovery


Reading Marty Cagan's article on PM problem areas, one particularly caught my attention - optimization versus innovation. Numerous product managers face this problem. Sometimes the choice is clear (a startup building their first product), some other times it's a struggle (a mature company with multiple products).
Firstly, let's clear the definitions.

To Optimise your product you need

  • to have a product
  • to have users/customers
  • to have time to run multiple iterations
The perfect case for optimisation is when you have already decently performing product with some history. Then you can change little things, evaluate their impact and continue until your product performs better than before.

The process of optimising is rather simple:

  1. Map the process you want to improve
  2. Measure current performance
  3. Introduce changes
  4. Measure impact
  5. Repeat until the desired impact is reached
Sounds familiar? If not - then you may want to learn about customer journey maps and how those could help you to improve your product.

Now to Discovery

  • you have to accept risks
  • you got to go big
  • you should be flexible and focused on learning
Discovery could be extremely valuable when you want to make a major leap with your product. It could be used to create a new product or develop existing one into uncharted user needs.

Discovery process is easy to describe but tricky to do

  1. Uncover a poorly satisfied customer need/problem
  2. Understand current solutions
  3. Design a radically better solution that will convince customers to switch
Discovery is indeed very similar to innovation. I'd only argue that Discovery as a term is broader than innovation as it may include optimisation as well. Discovery is an umbrella term that PMs use to describe efforts to increase the value of a product.

Now back to Marty's observation that product teams often confuse increasing existing value by optimising and creating new value by innovating.
I think the confusion is driven by PM leadership and a company's culture.
If you have a company in a dominant market position with leadership focused on retaining the status quo - you almost guaranteed to be doing only optimisation work. Often in such situations, a company's culture prioritises safety with little to no growth rather than taking any kind of risks. In such environments innovation even when happens - never sees the light of day. Think Kodac and their digital camera fiasco.

Major breakthroughs happen when leadership recognises the value of rapid learning which inevitably means taking risks. In such environments, product people are encouraged to experiment, fail, learn from it and try again.

Reading this you might think that Discovery (innovation) is always better than Optimisation. That is not the case. The real product management mastery is to identify when to use what method. It's by combining innovation and optimisation (into true Discovery) a product team reaches great success.

To identify the right approach you need

  • to understand the current state of your product
  • to detect the situation on the market and competitive landscape
  • to learn how customer needs are changing 
  • to identify your technical and financial possibilities
  • to make sure your team has a skill-set needed to innovate or/and optimise
As you can see it's not trivial to choose the right method of improving your product and even harder to apply it with success. To increase your chances - learn more about product discovery and start doing small steps. Give your team space to experiment and share their experiences. Let them fail and learn from it. Try discovery in small iterations being focused on improving the process as much as the outcomes.

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