At most high-growth startups, engineering time is scarce, and targets are high. If you work on the wrong opportunity for a few months, you run a significant chance of missing your results. So how do you get the maximum amount of value out of a resource-constrained tech team?
Product manager Nicolas Hemidy and I put our heads together to work out the best solution. We had one core belief – if we always had a well-researched set of opportunities to prioritise, we would spend our time working on the right things. And if we worked on the right things, even limited tech resources couldn’t prevent us from creating value.
Focus on doing the right things, not doing things right
Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things. Peter Drucker
At its simplest, excellent product development is the high-quality execution of well-chosen opportunities. But I believe you unlock the most value from choosing the right thing to build, rather than executing a poor choice flawlessly.
As Erik Bernhardsson, one-time engineering manager at Spotify and CTO at $600M+ valued Better.com puts it:
Prioritisation is the most value-creating activity in any company. Generating ideas and executing things is, of course, also important! But what I’ve seen to set apart great teams from good is a brutal focus on prioritisation.
In 2019 we were not discovering enough to prioritise well. This lack of robust discovery work was in part due to a scarcity of design, analytics and insights resources. But it was also because we did not choose to spend more time validating our instincts.
We wanted to move to a new world where we always had enough information to make reliable decisions on prioritisation. We’d unlock other benefits in this world too – better-researched opportunities would inevitably mean better execution. And if we developed pipelines of discovery work, squads would never waste any time waiting for valuable things to build.
But how would we journey to this new world?
Unlocking opportunity discovery
In growth, we had much to learn about our new domain. We were the first in Gousto to approach onboarding and engagement systematically, but our product manager Nico was the bottleneck on research. He didn’t have enough time to explore new opportunities, and while product time was a constraint, commercial stakeholder time wasn’t. I had a team of six highly motivated and skilled growth managers who had time to devote to discovery alongside their other work.
To unlock our discovery capabilities and step-change the quality of our prioritisation decisions in a controlled and scalable way, we created a concept we call discovery teams. These teams are cross-functional groups tasked with discovering value in a given theme (a collection of similar opportunities). They work with clear timelines, so we always have the right insight at the right time to prioritise strong tactics to achieve our goals.
Discovery teams (DTs) structure our discovery processes at Gousto. They usually map to our core strategic themes (e.g. “educate all customers about our subscription after signing up”). We might uncover these overarching themes through a range of market insights and customer research. And once we feel strongly about a theme, we launch a discovery team to validate whether it’s genuinely valuable and identify the most compelling opportunities within it.
Both product managers and commercial stakeholders lead these workstreams, enabling us to move fast on multiple themes. The structure also encourages rigour and excellent planning in our discovery execution. And their ceremonies provide visibility to everyone around goals, decisions and progress.
Discovery teams sit above tech squads, managing the “incoming flow of insight” and making sure each tech squad prioritises effectively. But squads and product managers still own and manage delivery and ultimately make prioritisation decisions.
The three critical components of discovery teams
1. Tightly-aligned discovery groups
We compose DTs with the minimum number of people required to investigate an opportunity properly. However, we always include engineers from squads that will deliver the work, as well as a product manager and a designer. Different individuals may be more or less involved at various stages of the DT’s lifecycle, but each person needs to be aligned and aware of direction at all times.
Incentivisation requires substantial involvement from the finance team. When we give discounts or gifts, we need to calculate payback and ROI scenarios. Meanwhile, onboarding requires insights and also multiple commercial stakeholders. In-depth research will generate a lot more knowledge, and when we test, we will do so across both the signup journey and early lives of customers with Gousto.
Benefits of tightly-aligned teams
- Fully-aligned stakeholders. Each relevant stakeholder is close to the research and decisions of the group.
- Better developer engagement. Engineers can see work from initial opportunity validation to final build, and contribute to the process.
2. Structured ceremonies
We expect each discovery team to run a structured fortnightly meeting, covering:
- Updates from workstreams in DT remit
- Timeline review (more on this later)
- Decisions or discussion points
- Actions and next steps
This structured meeting brings high-quality project management thinking to messy discovery processes, which is critical to make sure they stay on track to deliver value. It is not about reducing the scope of creativity or longer-form insights processes. Instead, it provides a shared understanding of goals and timelines. We’ve found that these constraints drive momentum and high-quality thinking rather than limit it.
Benefits of structured ceremonies
- Rigorous action-setting and completion cadence. Clear actions and timelines from each meeting ensure we are always on track to achieve our goals. Teams get addicted to the momentum that these forums provide.
- Forums provide concise updates to others. Key stakeholders, including product and commercial tribes leads, are kept up to date with actions and summaries of these meetings. Anyone else can drop in to get updates too.
3. Agile discovery roadmaps with clear targets
We give each discovery team clear targets for their work. These targets either outline what they need to learn in a quarter (learning OKRs) or recognise that they will need to discover value for teams to deliver in future quarters (delivery OKRs). Teams use agile roadmaps to work back from these goals and ensure their work is ready for prioritisation at the right time. These roadmaps also make it clear when the team expects to involve insights, design or tech. Once these expectations are clear, we can plan to ensure every team gets the support they need.
Take a hypothetical example of our onboarding discovery team. If we expect a specific retention uplift from investing in onboarding opportunities by the end of Q2, the team knows they need to ship at least one test in that quarter to deliver this uplift. Working back, that means we need to conduct insights and concept testing work straight away in January, closely followed by design refining and user testing. We also know that if we’re only planning to ship one test, we have one month of flex with which we can push timings back.
Alternatively, if we set a tighter deadline for retention uplift, we might look to compress discovery and design work to achieve our goals. The timeline would be adjusted accordingly, and the sequence of discovery work duly expedited.
Benefits of agile discovery roadmaps
- Deadlines for validating opportunities become very clear. So we can work back from those timelines to ensure we will deliver high-quality research at the right time. Everyone knows these timelines and are very obliged to stick with them.
- We effectively manage insights and design resourcing. Discovery teams present plans of what insights, analytics, or user testing they might need to achieve their goals. Once we know these plans across all teams, we can unblock resource bottlenecks by shifting timings around or making sensible prioritisation decisions.
Saying “no” with Gousto
Discovery teams have surfaced and validated so many great opportunities that our product teams cannot prioritise each one, even though they are all supported by meaningful data. We think this is great. We want to make these hard decisions, and give a well-rationalised “no” to a lot of opportunities to focus on the best ones.
Nothing is more satisfying than rejecting well-researched great ideas. It means you’re making decisions with high-quality information. And if you’re weighing the evidence well, great things will lie ahead.
As Steve Jobs said:
People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.