3 Key Takeaways from using the Opportunity Solution Tree
Putting Teresa Torres' book Continuous Discovery into practice
Teresa Torres’ Opportunity Solution Tree (OST) has quickly become one of the most widely used tools for Product Managers who are outcome-driven and looking to understand which opportunity to focus on. Discovery is not linear, but the OST gives us a way to organise what can otherwise become a very messy, chaotic process.
Recently I started on a greenfield product in a very meaningful, chunky problem space: small businesses and climate change. I knew I wanted to use Teresa Torres’ methods in order to understand the problem thoroughly, and then to list and prioritise possible solutions, while also being able to tell the right stories about what we were choosing to do and why. Not only was I confident that this would improve the quality of our discovery work, it also created a narrative to help guide others through our thinking. We were working with a lot of different stakeholders, so I knew taking them on this journey was also going to be important.
Here’s what I learned from the process:
1. Don’t skip the Experience Map
Not as widely discussed as the OST itself, the book Continuous Discovery spends a lot of time recommending that you draw what you know, and then what you learn, as you navigate the problems you’re looking to solve for your customers. Drawing helps create a shared understanding because, where words are open to interpretation, everyone can see and align on what is represented in a picture.
The first step in the process is to draw an experience map of what you know today about your customer. In our case, our product team was new to the problem space, but was working with Subject Matter Experts who had a deep understanding, and varied perspectives, of the customer. Experience mapping as a group allowed us to quickly identify where knowledge about our customer sat and how we could bring it together to increase the richness of our initial understanding.
After we drew individually, I created one map using everyone’s inputs as the nodes and links. This exposed where we were making initial assumptions, which helped us develop areas to dig deeper into in our customer interviews. We would often return to the map and update as we learned more.
We also colour-coded the map as we segmented the group of customers we were focusing on. Some customers just didn’t experience the problems we were looking to solve first – this was fine. We still got valuable information from those individuals which was added to our map, but we knew they weren’t who we were focusing on now.
As we moved from discovery into delivery mode, new team members joined and our experience map gave everyone a quick and insightful way to understand our customers. This allowed our team to grow while still retaining our shared understanding, as well as empathy for the people we were building for.
2. Add data from market research to your OST
In parallel to our customer interviews, we conducted market research in order to understand competitors, the small business market, and innovation that was happening in response to market factors. When we had our opportunities mapped out and organised into the tree, we were able to use the data we’d collected from studies and reports to show the size of the opportunity – how many small businesses are affected – and how each opportunity would affect our position in the market and in relation to emerging trends.
Having this data mapped out in a single glance doesn’t just increase your confidence of choosing the highest priority opportunity to go after, it also helps you tell the story to others. As Lenny Rachitsky wrote recently in his newsletter, one way to influence someone else is to bring evidence. He suggests that the following are the “most powerful evidence to bring, in priority order:
Synthesised user research findings
Similar examples of this working elsewhere”
With this in mind, we layered relevant data onto our OST as it emerged. It became a great way to keep everyone aligned.
3. Make sure your Design Lead and Tech Lead also feel shared ownership for the OST
The OST has quickly become the darling of Product Managers, and for good reason. It’s a simple way to break down huge problems that might otherwise seem impossible to solve (see: the climate crisis). But if we are going to work successfully in Product Trios, with a Product Lead, a Design Lead, and a Tech Lead, then all three should be equally familiar and confident in using the OST.
Before starting work, make it clear why you want to use the Opportunity Solution Tree and how it can help everyone push forward in the same direction. It’s a great tool for facilitating collaboration between the Product Trio, especially if you’re working together for the first time or are new to a lead role.
From there, make sure you’re on the same page. Does the Design Lead agree that the assumptions exposed by the experience map are worth delving into in customer interviews? Does the Tech Lead see the value in comparing and contrasting opportunities in this way before ideating on possible solutions? Is everyone aligned in this way of working, so that it can be a successful path forward and everyone’s ideas are equally represented?
Making your OST an artefact that lasts
Using the OST, our Product Trio was more closely aligned in our direction, and by extension so was the full team and our stakeholders. Our product is now entering a Beta phase, but as we validate and iterate on our solution we have the experience map and Opportunity Solution Tree to explain our learnings and decisions up to this point, and for the team in the future to iterate on as opportunities emerge and the roadmap evolves. It was also noted by our stakeholders that we moved at record speed and successfully brought everyone along the journey, which was the intention all along.
Having now used Teresa Torres’ methods in these ways, I’ll continue to use and evolve the OST in my product management practice. If you haven’t experimented yet with experience mapping or the Opportunity Solution Tree, I encourage you to do so. If you have: what have you learned, tried, or improved on? Please share!
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