The Teresa Torres Hypothesis: The Best Product Teams Continually Improve Both Their Product and Their Process

Teresa Torres is a product discovery coach and the author of the Product Talk Blog. She spends most of her time coaching cross-functional product teams on how to adopt continuous discovery practices. On this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we get into how you can refine your product discovery practices.

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Questions We Explore in This Episode

The Teresa Torres Hypothesis: The Best Product Teams Continually Improve Both Their Product and Their ProcessHow did Teresa get into product management in the first place? What role did mentorship play in her career path? How has she seen the role of product designers and UX designers evolve over the years?

How did her experience as a startup leader inform her work? What problems did she see with most teams that lead her to start her work as a product discovery coach?

What mistakes do companies often make with hiring product managers? What is the role of the product management team in today’s landscape? Is setting clear boundaries between UX designers, product managers, and tech leaders helpful?

How can you use visuals to external thinking and make sure that your team is aligned? How can you use mapping to make better decisions?

How is the legacy of the agency model holding back UX designers and product managers and their teams and what should we do differently? What are the challenges to achieving continuous interviewing, and how do you overcome them?

How do you get buy-in from business leaders to make changes in your organization? How do you build a culture of good discovery? How can you build processes to learn key information earlier and do something about it?

What are the challenges of teaching product discovery, and how does Teresa’s own process play a role in evolving and iterating on her curriculum? Where does reflection and synthesizing learnings come into the process? How does Teresa approach work-life balance? What are the challenges of saying no to things when you’re running your own business?

Quotes From the Episode

“Most product teams don't spend enough time with their customers, most businesses are making business first decisions instead of customer first decisions.” - Teresa Torres Click To Tweet “It's not just about continuously improving our products, it's about continuously improving our practices.” - Teresa Torres Click To Tweet “What's far more important to say, 'Given the people that we have on this particular team, how do we leverage each other's strengths and each other's expertise?' And I think that's a culture change for business.” - Teresa Torres Click To Tweet “The reason why I focus so much on visual synthesis is that language is very big, and it's easy for us to have a conversation and think we're aligned, and then walk out of the room and go slightly different directions.” - Teresa Torres Click To Tweet “Because we're making product decisions every day, I argue that in a minimum, a product team should be interviewing their customers every week.” - Teresa Torres Click To Tweet


Holly: Hi, and welcome to the Product Science podcast, where we’re helping startup founders and products leaders build high growth products, teams and companies. The real conversations with people who have tried it, and aren’t afraid to share lessons learned from their failures along the way. I’m your host Holly Hester Reilly, founder and CEO of H2R Product Science.
Holly: Teresa, I’m super excited to welcome you to the Product Science podcast. For any of our guests who don’t know much about you, if you could start by sharing who you are, and what you do today, and how you got there, that’d be great.
Teresa: Sure. First of all, I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me. Let’s see. If we start with today, I work as a product discovery coach. I’ve been doing that for about the last five to seven years. The first couple years, I don’t know that I had dialed in on discoveries particularly, but, I think we’ve seen definitely in the last 10 or 15, the industry is moving more towards a continuous discovery model. I’m sure we’ll get into that. And so, I’ve really seen that, that’s the area of product that I just really love, and I think it’s where a lot of product teams are hungry for more help.
Teresa: I spend most of my time these days coaching cross functional product teams in how to adopt continuous discovery practices. I also do a whole bunch of …. My coaching is based on a curriculum that I’m constantly developing and iterating on. And then I’ve made that curriculum available in a few other places, so I teach. I’m actually just about to teach my first public workshop in April in San Francisco. I have a couple of-
Holly: Congratulations.
Teresa: Thank you. I have a couple of online courses, and then I’m always experimenting with just what’s the right way to get the right types of learning environments, and tools to product teams that are eager to learn.
Holly: That’s awesome. Before we dive more into what you do today, I’d like to go back a little bit. I would like to hear about how people got into product management in the first place. Tell us a little bit about your journey here.
Teresa: For that question, I’ll definitely start at the beginning. I was really fortunate, in that, as a undergraduate, I was introduced to the world of human computer interaction. Got exposed to design, in human centered design, very early on in my career. I actually left college naively thinking that’s just how business worked. Of course, we would start with our customers, and then of course, was shocked to learn otherwise. Even as a 22 year old, I was really frustrated with the lack of the voice of the customer, and the businesses that I was working in, and really just was a advocate for that from day one. Often got myself into a little bit of trouble as this squeaky wheel employee who wanted to do things a different way.
Teresa: My first job out of college, it was … I wanted to do work as a designer, but this was 1999, and there wasn’t a lot of companies hiring designers, so I actually started out in a hybrid role between a front end software developer, and an interaction designer. And then, over the course of the next 10 years, I always worked in hybrid roles, some combination of software development design. Eventually, I had a boss tell me that really what I was doing was product management. I’ve never even heard of one. I never worked anywhere with product managers, had no idea what that meant. But, I think he was right. I really, from day one, had really focused on customer needs, what we build to address those needs, and really just looking at the whole holistic challenge.
Teresa: And then, most of my employee experience was at really, early stage startup. I got some good exposure to how business works, and was really lucky in my late 20s, I was an executive at a startup. By 32, I was a CEO of a startup. And, I got some really awesome just executive experience at a pretty young age, and then that really helped with really developing my ability to think across the organization, and really understand business needs. And then that really refined my thinking on how do we shape our product practices to be supportive of our businesses, and not just tangential? I know a lot of designers get stuck feeling like they have to be the voice of the customer, and everybody in the business is the voice of the business, and there’s this natural tension.
Teresa: And I really felt like that’s silly. A business shouldn’t have that tension. They should be … The business needs to be met by meeting the customers needs, and a lot of that, I think, I honed during those years of being an executive, and just trying to reconcile that tension. And then ultimately, I saw the same problems everywhere I went, and that’s, that most product teams don’t spend enough time with their customers, most businesses are making business first decisions instead of customer first decisions, so I just decided I wanted to step out of the full time employee life, and spend my time working with teams.
Holly: There’s a lot of things in there that are really fascinating. Thank you for walking us through the whole story, or the abbreviated version, but a lot of details around it. If I could, for a minute, I actually wanna step back, because I imagine some of our listeners are newer to the industry, and the statement you made about how not a lot of companies were hiring designers back in the late ’90s. Can you explain a little more, why is that, and do you think it’s changed?
Teresa: Yeah, that’s a good question. If we think about the late ’90s, I think there were designers. I mean, I think most companies I worked at had a designer or two, they were more of the visual design school like. This was the era where I think, like on the internet, a thought leaders were debating about little D design and big D design, and information architecture versus interaction design, and user experience design versus visual design, and it was really this convoluted mess of people trying to carve out what ultimately became UX. What we’ve now commonly referred to as UX. And it was just … It’s not that designers didn’t exist, and that UX folks didn’t exist, and there weren’t plenty of age human centered folks at that time, but then I think most businesses didn’t fully recognize that as a role yet, and so, a lot of those people were bringing their mindsets from other roles, which is a lot of what I was doing.
Teresa: My first title was application software developer. Now, in my interview for that job, I talked about being human centered, and wanting to get involved in design. And I was told I would be in a hybrid role, and I was, in fact, in a hybrid role. But it wasn’t … They didn’t post a job rep for a interaction designer. I don’t even think they knew. I think, I introduced them to that term. And, I think, how has that changed? I think in the late ’90s, early 2000s, we saw a lot o’ design agencies that really did a lot to further the practice of UX. UX, especially in the thought leadership space. I know Cooper did a ton to evangelize design. The Adaptive Path folks did a ton. There’s probably dozens more that I’m just gonna forget, ’cause this is almost 20 years ago. But I think that really helped.
Teresa: It’s what’s interesting, though, is I actually think the fact that design grew up by agencies trying to sell it, it’s also why design today takes a really big project mindset, and why we’re now seeing a big push to move more continuous. While I think those agencies did a huge service for pushing UX forward in the industry, we’re seeing some leftover side effects that I think we’re still course correcting on.
Holly: That’s really fascinating, that element. It’s something that … I entered the industry a bit later. I was an avid early adopter of all the technologies. I myself was in college in the early to mid 2000s, and when I started going out and really join the industry more in the late 2000s, there was enough conversation about UX in at least, in the … I mean, I was started with the thought leaders, and then went to the company. I read everything I could. And so, I got into the companies, and I was like, “This isn’t exactly what they were talking about in the books.” But, one of the things that I think, it took me a lot longer to realize is, the effect of the agency model.
Holly: I was surprised when I first started encountering it, because I had read these great Agile Manifesto books and things about UX and human centered design. And then I got to companies where people were trying to even treat their internal designers like they were an agency inside the company, and I was just scratching my head like, “Why are we doing it that way? What’s happening here?” But I love how you put it in context with the history of how that developed.
Teresa: And I think what’s important to recognize is even in the ’90s, there were really great designers doing great work. I mean, we were just talking about Marty Cagan before we started this interview, and most of his full time employee experience was in the ’90s and early 2000s. And he obviously, if we look at what he’s done for furthering the practice of product management, he obviously was doing great work back then. And I know folks at Google that were in the late ’90s that were already thinking about being human centered, and really committed to design. There were folks at Yahoo. It’s not that it didn’t exist. I think it’s that it wasn’t a norm. I mean, even today, we see companies that are hiring their first UX designers. I think the William Gibson quote, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”, applies really well here.
Teresa: And I think that’s … When we … You talked about reading how these teams work, and how this should work in practice, then you went to your work, and it didn’t work that way, I think that’s what we’re seeing. I think it’s great that people are talking about, what are the best practices, and what are some of the best teams doing? I think it’s also really important to recognize that it’s gonna take a long time for the whole industry to catch up. And we’re 30 years in, and it’s still taking a long time for this to catch up. And I think that, one of the things I don’t like about what I do, because I tend to write about the most leading edge practices, oftentimes I’m in a position where people are telling me, I’m making them feel bad about how they work today. They really, they’re desperate to work this way, and they just don’t know how to get there. And I think the important thing in all of this is to remember that change is slow, and it takes a lot o’ time. We’re talking about really big cultural changes in business.
Teresa: And, I think, it’s not … I definitely don’t wanna paint the impression that there weren’t very many good human centered people working in the ’90s. I just think it’s a mindset that has been very slow for business to adopt, and probably will continue to be slow for business to adopt.
Holly: And I think that’s actually a wonderful parallel to the world of product management, and evidence based in product management, and continuous delivery, and continuous discovery. Talking to users all the time, those are things too, that maybe were even a bit behind where the design world was, and how they got to the place where startups, at least, usually know they need a UX designer. But they’re still confused about when they need a product manager. I mean, I see that anyways Do you see that?
Teresa: Yeah, product management is such an interesting role, and that I think companies actually go too far on either extreme, and that they wait way too long to hire a product manager, or they hire way too many. I think finding that right balance is really hard, because the way we define the role is continuing to evolve pretty quickly. Depending on who you talk to, you should have product owners and product managers, maybe you just have product managers that do both, maybe you have business analysts who … It’s a mess. I think the role of product manager is very similar to where we were in that late ’90s, early 2000s, with this idea of UX. And I think what’s funny about that is, product management is an older function than UX, but, I think, the internet product manager or the digital product manager is really morphing into a new role, and I think it’s way less about a particular role, but the product team and this idea of, “What does it mean to make cross functional team decisions?” Because that idea is developing at the same time that the product manager role is evolving. It muddies the waters a little bit, and I think everybody’s generally confused.
Teresa: I don’t know that it’s that, they don’t know whether or not they should have product managers. I think it’s just that there’s so much noise around this, like, if the product manager, the CEO, the product manager … Not a CEO. You’re gonna find somebody to argue all sides, and I think that’s a challenge when we’re talking about who and when, and how many should a company be hiring.
Holly: Oh, that’s really well said. One of the things that you just mentioned that I wanna hear more about is the evolving perspective on product teams versus the role of the product manager. What do you teach teams today about that? What is your perspective on what people should be doing, and what the role of the team is?
Teresa: I tend to work with the trio, or the triad; that’s the product manager, the tech lead and the design lead. But sometimes if it’s a data product, there’s a data analyst in there. It’s kinda depends on the type of team that I’m working with. But I think, generally … First of all, I think people spend way too much time trying to define these roles. Part of that is because, I’ve always worked across them, and I don’t actually think setting clear boundaries between them is a good thing. Because, no two UX people are the same, no two product managers are the same, no two tech lead are the same. And I think, what’s far more important to say, “Given the people that we have on this particular team, how do we leverage each other’s strengths and each other’s expertise?” And I think that’s a culture change for business.
Teresa: In business, we really wanna draw nice lines on an org chart. We wanna draw clear boundaries, and we wanna know who’s responsible for what, whereas I think, product practices is really pushing us to learn how to be a true cross functional collaborative team, and I think that’s a really good thing. While I think it’s probably most likely that your designer’s gonna do the design work, and your engineer’s gonna write the code, and your product manager is gonna manage stakeholders, and maybe dive into analytics a little deeper, and really understand the business context a little bit deeper, those are our traditional roles. I actually think it’s important that the whole trio be well versed in some of all of that. I’m not arguing that a designer needs to write code, or a product manager needs to design, but I think that … One of the things that I learned as an executive that was really valuable in my career, was learning how to think across the business. Not just thinking from my point of view, but looking at, “How do we coordinate across the business, and how do we get all of these different organizations and functions working well together?”
Teresa: And I think a product team is a microcosm of that. If we wanna build a really good software products, we need all three of these perspectives. We need them to work really well together, we need to leverage all three areas of expertise. And I think, traditionally, we’re not used to working that way, and so there’s a whole bunch of learning that has to happen, and a lot of that is, setting your ego aside, not really worrying about, “What’s my turf, what’s your turf?”, and that’s just … It requires a lot of adult behavior, which we don’t always see in the workplace.
Holly: Amen to that. One of the things that just made me think about is. whether you have any examples that might help illustrate the way that you got to that learning. Maybe when you were an executive, I’m just curious, you point back to what you learned about the cross functional value, and how important it was to see across the business. How did you come to that?
Teresa: My first executive role was as a head of product. And one of the things that drove me nuts was, I could not believe that our CEO wasn’t doing more work to align our executives. As the product leader, I had a product vision that went in one direction, and our head of sales had a product vision that went in a totally different direction. And it was my job to reconcile that, but we would sit and executive meetings and debate, and never agree, never aligned. And so we had our sales team going one direction, our account management team going another direction, and our product team going another direction. And it was a ton o’ work. It was a ton o’ work to try to get everybody to move in one direction. I mean, that’s not just all on the CEO, that’s on all of us, on that executive team. It’s all of our collective responsibility to make sure we’re all moving in the same direction.
Teresa: But it was really easy, because I think, business culture reinforces silos. It was really easy for the head of sales to think about what’s gonna win the next sale, and that was his job. He was his job to do that. But it was my job to think about, what’s gonna win the market? And it wasn’t always the same as what’s gonna win the next sale. And I think, a really, well functioning cross functional team is making those trade offs and balances. We were doing some, doing the next sale, and we’re doing some doing the market. I don’t know a lot of well functioning executive teams. This is a genuinely hard problem. Every CEO probably will tell you their hardest challenge is keeping alignment at that team level. That’s not a knock, executives are smart, experienced, season people, that’s why they’re executives. But I think, working cross functionally is genuinely hard, and staying aligned is genuine hard. And, when we push a lot of decision making down to the individual product team level, we’re taking this really hard challenge that even seasoned executives struggle with, and we’re asking our product teams to solve that challenge as well.
Teresa: But we’re not teaching them how to do it. In fact, everything in the business is reinforcing work in your silos. We set KPIs or OKRs for each of the individuals, but not a shared team one. The engineers focused on performance, technical performance, and the product managers focused on a business outcome, and they’re at odds with each other. And maybe the designer is focused on adhering to a design pattern. And all of that is free. All those things probably need to happen, but they also need a shared goal, and they need a way of aligning their disparate needs. And I think that’s new to a lot of folks.
Holly: That’s really helpful, and it made me think about the boardroom conversations, and the executive team conversations, and how many times … It’s a lot easier to find a company where people are not creating than it is to find a company where they all know what their mission is, and how they’re gonna get to what that visual need looks like and that they’re all on the same page.
Teresa: I actually think that disagreement is really good. I think it’s one of … I think point perspective disagreement and conflict is a really positive thing in business. I know in a lot of that problem solving, research, and decision making research, we know that the more different perspectives we take into account, the more likely we are to make better decisions. I think what’s hard is that, we don’t always then make a joint decision. And that’s when I work with teams, and when I work with them on how to collaborate as a cross functional team, a lot of my emphasis is on, “You can divide and conquer. Do what you need to get your work done. But when you get to a point where you need to make a critical decision, that’s when you need to come together and make a joint decision.” And I think that’s the piece that we don’t always follow up on. We get one person making a decision over here, that doesn’t align with another decision over here.
Holly: How do you help them come together to make those decisions, and even know when they should do that, and when they should just do it on their own?
Teresa: A lot of what I work with teams on is visual synthesis. How to use external visuals to capture what they understand about their space, to capture where they think they are, we can get into more specifics, so that they’re building a shared understanding. And I think this is actually a really important piece. I think, language … The reason why I focus so much on visual synthesis is I think, language is very big, and it’s easy for us to have a conversation and think we’re aligned, and then walk out of the room, and each go slightly different directions. I think, our intent is good, we think we did the work to align, but really, there’s some gaps between what we’re aligned around. And I think, product team specifically can do this through customer journey mapping, experience mapping, as a way to synthesize around what do we know about our customer? They can do process maps for what do we know about how our business works? They can do story maps for what do we know about what we think we’re gonna be building?
Teresa: I teach a tool called the opportunity solution tree, which is a visual that helps the team align around, how are we gonna reach the outcome. It’s more of a discovery roadmap. And I think all of these tools really help us get concrete and specific, ’cause they’re visual, and by externalizing our thinking, we’re better able to examine it, or better able to justify it. We’re better able to say, “I agree with this, but I don’t agree with that.” And I think it just helps us have much better conversations, whereas without it, I think we’re trying to do too much cognitively in our working memory. I think we’re trying to communicate in broad strokes, and handle our way through hard conversations. And I think that leads to really misaligned decision making.
Holly: That’s awesome. I love how you bring the science of decision making and the cognitive capabilities into that. I wanted to ask you, you mentioned building shared understanding, and that we could go deeper. Let’s do that. Let’s go a little deeper, when you first start working with a team, what do you get started with? What are the first challenges you see, and how do you help them with those?
Teresa: The very first thing I want my teams to do, is to start building a habit of interviewing customers every week. What … And we talked a little bit earlier about the design agency model really influencing UX. And I think, what that has done is, now that most companies have internal UX teams, and a lot are moving towards UX as a embedded resource on a cross functional team, we’ve outgrown the agency model. We don’t need to interview six to 12 customers in a week, three weeks from now, to answer a big research question, where you might have a research report six weeks from now. What a product team that’s shipping every week needs is, answers to their weekly questions. And that’s, “How do we expose this feature in a way that makes sense to the customer? How should it work? What do we label things?” And there’s lots of little questions that come up every single week that we wanna infuse with customer feedback.
Teresa: And because we’re making product decisions every day, I argue that in a minimum, a product team should be interviewing their customers every week. This is really hard for most teams. I think they are still working under a project mindset. Maybe they interview once a month, or once a quarter. They’re interviewing half a dozen people for doing affinity mapping, they’re creating research reports. That’s not something you can do every week. I think the first thing is really reframing what we mean by interviewing, doing much smaller research activities, and maybe you’re not doing a full blown hour long interview with a 40 questions discussion guide, but you’re doing two or three, 15 minute conversations where you ask one question. And really helping teams understand this idea of continuous interviewing, and the benefit of continuous interviewing.
Teresa: In week one, a hardest part to get that cadence going, is recruiting. Most companies when they say, “I wanna interview a customer.”, it takes three weeks to get an interview on the schedule. We focus a lot on automating the recruiting process. The way that I highlight that for teams is, imagine if you could wake up in the morning, come to work on a Monday, look at your calendar, there’s already an interview on your calendar, and you didn’t have to do anything to get it there. Now, doing a customer interview is just like going any other meeting in your weak. You’re more likely to do it than to not do it. That’s what we’re shooting for. And that’s one of the very first activities I have the team do.
Teresa: The second thing I have ’em do right off the bat is, I have them do a drawing exercise, where they’re basically drawing what they think their customers’ experience is, with their problem area. Not necessarily with their product, ’cause its what their opportunities face. And this starts as an individual exercise, and then they share their perspectives with each other. And then they do a group exercise to align around a team vision of what they think their customers’ context looks like, and then they’re using the interviews to test that team vision, and to continue to evolve and iterate on it. From week one, they’re starting with a weekly cadence of interviewing, and they’re starting with visual simple system o’, “What do we know, and how do we communicate together?”
Holly: And how long does it take for them to establish a habit of that? For you to feel like, “Well, if they had to stop working with me tomorrow, and I could come back to them in six months, I’m more confident than not, that they’d still be doing this thing.”
Teresa: Yeah, I work with teams for 12 weeks, and our goal in those 12 weeks is to develop sustainable habits, so that after coaching they’re able to be a high functioning, continuous discovery team on their own. Most of the teams that I work with get there in those 12 weeks. We’re at a point where I think, most product folks wanna work this way. They’re reading about it in blogs, they’re hearing about it in conferences, they’re hearing about it on podcasts, they’re excited about it. And I think there’s a gap in how do they want is how to do it? Usually the teams that I’m working with, they’re so eager to learn the how, they’re super engaged, they do their homework, they do everything they can to meet their weekly goals, and by the time they come out of coaching, they’re hitting their cadence and has built sustainable habits.
Teresa: I do occasionally get a team where maybe the product manager’s a little resistant. Usually it’s people later in their career, because they’ve had 20 years experience of success, and there’s a little bit of, “I know my role. I know what works. Why are you changing, redefining my whole role?” I get a little bit of that. It’s not just people later in their career, it really can be anybody. And it’s … I work as a coach, and the what’s hard about coaching, is I can’t force you to learn anything. You have to be a willing participant. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a team of willing participants that weren’t able to build the habit. I have worked with teams where their target market is teeny, tiny, or super hard to get in front of, and a weekly cadence is hard. What I tell those teams is, “If you’re interviewing quarterly, let’s try to get to monthly. Once you’re in monthly, let’s try to get to bi-weekly. Once you’re a bi-weekly, let’s try to get the weekly.” And it really is this idea of continuous improvement. It’s not that weekly is hard and fast rule. In fact, I have teams that are doing almost daily. That’s a team that’s more mature, and has more mature recruiting practices, that has really lots of ways to automate the recruiting process.
Teresa: And, it really … It’s so team dependent, which is why I love getting to work with a team over time in the context of their own work.
Holly: That makes a lot of sense. Tell us a little more, just because I don’t want anyone … I don’t wanna let anybody off the hook that may be there in this case, and that their audience is really hard to find. How do you identify when that is? How would a person in a team that doesn’t have the perspective that you have, know that their audience is a little harder to get to, and they should try more things, or what did they do?
Teresa: The first thing is, no matter who your audience is, you gonna always do more than you’re doing today. I think this is a really important mindset. I mean, it is the continuous improvement mindset. It’s not just about continuously improving our products, it’s about continuously improving our practices. I mean, I think this is right out of the Agile Manifesto. And, I think, this is, no matter what you’re doing today, you can always be doing more. You could always be getting … Like I said, we make product decisions all day, every day, we really wanna be customer-centric, we wanna infuse as many of those decisions to the customer feedback, which means … I look at it as, “Can we reduce our cycle time between customer touch points?” I have people say, “How many hours a month should I be talking to customers?” Wrong metric. Reduce the cycle time between touch points. You’re reducing the time that you go without getting customer feedback. That’s the first thing.
Teresa: Now, I’ll give some examples of markets that are hard to recruit. I worked with a company where their customers were Canadian medical schools. There’s not very many of ’em. I worked in a business where our customers were US universities. There’s not that many of them. It’s a pretty small market. I mean, there’s lots, but if you think about that market versus Facebook’s market, it’s night and day. When you’re talking about really small markets, you need to be careful, because you don’t want to burn out your customers on interviews. Now, I hate saying that because, most people think that they’re gonna burn out talking to their customers, if they talk to them once ever, or they talk to them twice, ever. And the reality is, a customer’s like, “If we are building a product that they value, they are going to wanna talk to you. They’re gonna want to give you your feedback, they’re gonna want to hear, they’re gonna want to share their world with them.” Every human being loves talking about themselves and what they do. I think, it is important to keep that in mind, and for really small markets, what I recommend doing is a combination of things.
Teresa: One, is set up a customer advisory board. Not where you’re meeting with them as a focus group, but where you requires participation on the customer advisory board, that they participate in one interview each month. [inaudible] interview could be as short as 15 minutes. Now, you need to incentivize that customers do that, so they probably need a ongoing incentive, maybe a monthly discount on their subscription if they participate in that interview. That gives you an ongoing relationship with a customer, where you’re able to go deep over time. That’s really valuable. Now, you wanna supplement that with another way of recruiting, because you don’t wanna build your product around a dozen customers. You need some ad hoc interviews coming in through other sources. But if you have really teeny tiny market, customer advisory boards can help a ton with that. Other market that can be really hard. If you’re selling the high powered Fortune 100 CEOs, you’re selling to physicians, you’re selling to basically, people who don’t have a lot of time, and your hundred dollar incentive is means to them.
Teresa: In those types of environments, there’s a few different things. There’s recruiting services that you can pay to find those folks. Now, you’re gonna pay for those interviews. Some o’ them charge as much as 1000 or $1500 an interview. That’s a good way to get started, but it’s not sustainable over time. For really, people that are really busy, I think you have to think about what’s a teeny tiny ask, where you give them a ton of value in return. A teeny tiny ask might be to ask a physician for five minutes in the hallway in a trade show they’re already going to, and give ’em a gift certificate to a restaurant near the conference in exchange. Now, what’s nice about a gift certificate to the restaurant, it’s gonna seem more valuable than the equivalent dollar [inaudible 00:32:32]. Because if I’m a physician making a good salary, $100 doesn’t mean very much to me. But if you treat me my dinner, while I’m traveling and away from home, that’s a little more valuable. There’s ways to think about teeny tiny ask, high value. You can use each interview to get other interviews. “Who else should I talk to you? Would you be willing to introduce me to them?”
Teresa: And I think, really, this is where you can learn from your sales team. If you can’t find people to interview, you’re not gonna find people to sell to you. You can use your account management teams, your sales teams, to help you with, “I’m looking for people like this, how do you typically reach them?” The other one that I get a lot, that I’ll share, is, people that work in regulated industries. I hear from a lot of banks … In banking, there’s a ton o’ regulation on how you talk to your customers, how you engage with them, and their support staff go through training to be compliant with those regulations. A lot of banks don’t train their product folks, and then they say, “We can’t interview our customers, ’cause we’re not allowed to talk to them.” If that’s your context, if you’re really getting pushback from your organization, where they’re protecting the customer relationship, whether it’s because your sales team wants to own it, or because you’re in a regulated environment, and there’s real reasons why you can’t reach out to them, what I would recommend is, don’t worry about whether or not they’re your customer. Interview people who have the problem you’re trying to solve.
Teresa: If I work at a bank, and I’m not allowed to talk to my bank’s customers, what I wanna look for is, based on the products and services we offer, who are the types of people that have the problems we’re solving, and recruit them, whether they’re a customer or not. And you’ll still gain a ton o’ value. The other thing you can do is, you can partner with the groups who have been through that training to help you with your interviews.
Holly: Awesome. Those are some really good tips. I know, for myself, I’ve been practicing continuous interviewing for years, but I had previously done it within a particular environment, so I figured out how to do it there. And then when I started helping teams from a more wide set, I didn’t quite know what to expect. When I hit a company that had a very different market, and all of a sudden, it was like, “Whoa, those people are very different to recruit.” I love that you have tips for everybody. Hopefully, if any of our listeners think that they still don’t know how to get to their people, reach out to Teresa, to me, and we’ll see if we can unblock you, because-
Teresa: Absolutely.
Holly: I think we’ve got a lot of, for me, a really big value is unlocking the … Like you said earlier, people are excited to do this, but they still have trouble making it happen in their own company. Bring us your challenges. Let’s talk a little bit more about, how do you help your teams get buy in, or do you ever have to help your teams get buy in for why they should be doing continuous interviewing? I think we briefly talked about …
Holly: Maybe we touched on this before we started, but the development over time, and the best teams are acting differently from the other teams. I know a lot of times, the people who are the most excited, who are the most curious, who are going out and saying, “I’ve read all these things, and this is what I think we should be doing.”, become that squeaky wheel that you described about yourself earlier, where they’re making their managers hate them, because they’re constantly trying to change the way things are happening. How do they get the buy in to make this happen in their organization?
Teresa: Fortunately, the teams that I coach are typically the head of product engaged me. The teams that I’m working with through coaching, their leader has already committed to, “We wanna work this way.” Just ’cause the product leader is committed to working this way, doesn’t mean the whole rest of the organization is committed to working this way. And, even in that best scenario, where the product leader has not only decided continuous discovery matters, but they’re investing in training their teams, teams still get stuck on this. They do great discovery work, and some executive helicopters in, and says build this instead. I think, one of the … Regardless of where you work, I think one of the things you can do right away to help make the argument for better discovery practices, is to instrument your product. And every time you release something, before you release it, document. This is what we … This is the intended impact of what we’re releasing. It’s important that you document that ahead o’ time.
Teresa: If your CEO come in with his or her favored idea, and you’re sick of being on the feature factory floor cranking out ideas that simply don’t turn out, what you can do is, you can work with those stakeholders and say that, “Sounds like a great idea. Help me understand why you think we should build this?” Document it. “What’s the impact?” And document it from a metric standpoint. “How do we think this feature is gonna impact our business metrics?”, then release it, and make sure that when you release it, you’ve instrumented it in a way you can actually measure the impact that release had on those business metrics. What this does, is it allows you to then start taking measurements, and chronic creating a scorecard of all of your releases. “Did the things we build have the intended impact we thought they would?” And, this can be a little bit depressing, ’cause oftentimes, a lot of what we build doesn’t have the intended impact, and it seems counterintuitive, because what product team wants to say, “Hey, we built all the wrong stuff.”
Teresa: But, this is how you start to build a culture of good discovery, is when you built the wrong stuff, you can start asking, “How could we have learned that sooner?” And that reflective question will help drive your iterative improvements on how do we get better and better at discovery.
Holly: And how can they … What are your favorite tactics for how they can answer that sooner, as they start getting down that, building a little bit of that support, and realizing that, maybe they were a little bit late in realizing something was gonna fall flat? What can they do to make that faster?
Teresa: I think it really depends on where they are in this journey towards continuous discovery. For a lot o’ teams, the only testing we’re doing of their ideas is usability testing, really late in the process. They’re still working … Marty calls it mini … Marty Cagan calls it mini waterfall, where the product manager writes requirement for designer designs, and then, it goes into a sprint, and the engineers build and then we ship it and what happens is usually the usability testing is happening at the end of the design sprint right before it goes in [inaudible 00:39:01]. And, if we learn that something is big is wrong with that design, we don’t really have time to fix it, because it was supposed to go in the very next sprint. And what happens is, we fix the small cosmetic stuff, but we don’t fix the big … First of all, we don’t even fix the big usability problems, let alone desirability problems, “Does anybody want it? Are they willing to do it? Do they need it?” We don’t solve for the viability challenges of, “Is it worth building? Is this gonna create value for our business?” We rarely spend any time on the ethical question that is , “Is there any potential harm? Should we be doing this?”
Teresa: And, I think, often times that question of, “How could we have learned this earlier?”, involves breaking that mini waterfall process, and from day one, doing faster iterative cycles of testing, assumptions, prototyping, trying and failing, trying and failing, until you iterate and evolve your way towards something that’s gonna work.
Holly: Awesome. I see a lot o’ teams too, that think they’re doing discovery, because they do usability testing. And they go, “That is better than nothing, but let’s go further.”
Teresa: I actually think this is a really good sometimes. I think every team I’ve talk to, have said, especially at the beginning of coaching, teams are already doing continuous discovery, This is awesome. This is a testament to the growth of UX and all the work UX thought leaders, and more recently, product manager thought leaders, what impact they’re having on our industry. The vast majority of product teams are now doing some discovery activities. But I would say, the majority of them are doing them from a project mindset, and not a continuous mindset. They’re kicking off a project, and doing a bunch o’ research to start. There’s a research phase, and then they move in to the requirements and design and development stage, or they thought insert usability as a step in the project flow. And I think, we’re just starting to see really good public examples of what continuous looks like. I think that’s helping with changing the conversation. And that’s a lot of the work that I like to do with my blog on, Product Talk, is I really, I’m trying to show what continuous discovery looks like, so that we can paint a really clear picture, not to make teams feel bad about what they’re doing today, but to help them see what’s the next step on the spectrum for them, so that tomorrow looks better than yesterday.
Holly: I feel like that was very meta, ’cause continuous discovery for the team, and then discovery for them on their own process in getting there. I guess that feels like a good time then to ask how you’ve been applying these to your own business, and I think … Clearly you know what great continuous practice discovery looks like. But then there’s also the active teaching it, and getting other teams to learn it. And I’m curious to hear, have you been applying these principles to do that, and what does that look like, and what are those challenges been?
Teresa: I use all the same tools that I teach my team. I have customer journey maps, and experience maps that reflect a team’s journey of adopting more continuous discovery practices. I use a opportunity solution tree. I actually look at, “How do I help the whole organization make this shift, not just a product team?” I focused my work on the product team level, but the reason why my opportunity solution tree reflects the whole organizational change, is ’cause my teams that I work with, won’t be successful if the rest of the organization doesn’t also make the shift, and so, I like to partner with other consultants on working on the other pieces. Barry O’Reilly does a ton of work at the leadership level in coaching leaders, and I love to bring him in, and be like, “Let’s help these leaders get good outcomes. Let’s help them understand how to manage teams when they’re working on a continuous discovery with.”
Teresa: There’s other consultants that work with individuals. I focus on working with teams. Depending on what an organization needs, I wanna look at that whole map, and then I look at my curriculum, and my services as a solution, but there’s other solutions in the market that I can help bring and guide those organizations to, to help them solve all of their needs. And then, I used to do weekly product team interviews with folks, but now, because I spend so much time coaching teams, I use that as my continuous interviewing practice. I do still interview leaders pretty consistently, and really just trying to understand what our leaders’ challenges, with shifting their organization towards working this way. But, I pretty much apply the exact same tools to my own business.
Teresa: And then your question of what are the challenges of teaching this stuff. I view my job as a product. I am a product manager. My product is my curriculum. And I actually only coach two days of the week, the other three days, I’m working full time on improving my curriculum. And that is really important to me. To me, it’s the biggest asset I have in my business. I think it’s one of the hardest products I’ve ever worked on. Everybody learns a little differently. You gotta explain things lots of different ways, different ones are gonna connect. And, I just love that process. And I run experiments, I try some things with some teams, and other things with other teams. I coach in cohorts, and at the end of every cohort, I do … And I map each team’s progress, the pace through the curriculum, and I use that as feedback for where their points in the curriculum need to be improved. Every cohort, after every cohort, I take a couple weeks off from coaching, and I do a deep dive on trying to address the challenges that I uncovered during that cohort.
Teresa: I look at it as, “I’m a product manager applying all this stuff to my product that is my curriculum.”
Holly: That’s awesome. I love that you spend so much time on the improving, and the reflection part. I think that maybe we could touch on that a little bit more, even just what it means for any product manager, not necessarily for someone who’s building a curriculum, but … We talked about continuous discovery, and interviewing, and prototyping, and touched on testing and experimenting, but where does reflection and synthesizing learnings come in to the process?
Teresa: I think it’s Paul Graham wrote an article called … I think it was Paul Graham; wrote an article called Maker versus Manager Schedules. Right?
Holly: Yes, definitely.
Teresa: And there’s [crosstalk] of like, “If you’re gonna make stuff, you really need a long period of uninterrupted time, whereas when you’re managing stuff, you get pulled into meetings, and you’re constantly interrupted, and there’s a lot o’ ad hoc this or that.” Most jobs both are required, but I think it’s really important to have maker days and manager days, and so, my coaching days are my manager days, ’cause those are the days that I do all of my client facing work, and then I have two and a half days of create day. I do have a three hour block on one of my maker days for all my administrative phone calls. Actually, we’re doing this interview during that afternoon block. And it really … I have found that I need long stretches of inner uninterrupted time to create anything. I just need … I read a lot. I need a lot o’ just thinking space. I need a lot of wandering through the woods. I have no idea where this thing is going. I mean, I think I’ve written 200 blog posts, and I have 120 drafts started that I have not completed.
Teresa: I write a ton that goes nowhere, that I’m sure someday will turn into something. And I think, having that much maker time in my calendar really allows for that. I mean that’s my schedule during the weeks that I’m coaching. I actually take three extended breaks during the calendar year off from coaching all together, and that’s 100% maker time. And that’s really where my continuous interviewing course was the product of one of those maker months. I am working on a opportunity solution tree course that will probably get done in April, which is my next maker month. It’s like, I really try to balance the ability to stop, and think, and synthesize, ’cause I just think that’s what’s required to create. And I think that’s true for all product teams. I think, when I was doing product manager interviews, I would ask product managers to share a screenshot of their calendar with me, and most product managers are triple booked every hour o’ the day. And I don’t know how good product work happens when that’s your calendar, and I think, for product folks, it’s really important to be ruthless about your calendar, and then push back and not go to every meeting you’re invited to.
Teresa: It feels good that you go to feel like we’re needed in all of those meetings, but I think you do good product work when you really have to carve out time to think and to create.
Holly: It’s definitely a skill for people to be able to push back, but it’s also really important skill for product managers to be able to do that. If you don’t mind, I’d actually love to hear a little bit about your … It sounds like you’ve been incredibly thoughtful about the design of your weeks, and you were talking about your work, but I’m curious how you got to that, and if you’ve designed your life, and your work life balance, and things like that. Because I’d like to hear from people about, “We’re more than just our work days.”
Teresa: I love this question. Every year in December, I do a big annual review of how did the year ago, and I do planning for the next year. One of the questions … I spend most of the year focusing on how to serve my clients needs. In that review process, I focus on, “What changes am I gonna make in my business to better meet my needs?” And the question that I ask myself is, “How can I make my business even more awesome for me?” And that question is what’s fueled a lot of my schedule changes, and the cadence of my work. I love coaching, but I am super introverted. And when I spend all day on the phone, I am literally would never see my friends, ’cause I was just done with people. And it’s partly why I only coach on two days of the week. I take a ton o’ time off, ’cause I know I need it to recharge.
Teresa: I really pushed the envelope on how I can mix working and playing. I live in Portland, Oregon. In the last four days, I’ve just cross country skied in three out o’ the last four of them. I took Friday off, because it’s a maker day, and I could trade it for another day at some other point. That flexibility is really important to me, ’cause if we get fresh snow, I wanna be out playing in it. Whereas if it’s just raining, and I don’t wanna be outside, I’ll gladly work on a Saturday. And so, a lot of that reflective questions at the end o’ the year, is to really drive, “How do I improve my quality o’ life?” And then that frees me up most o’ the year to focus on, “How do I improve my clients quality o’ life?”
Holly: That’s amazing. I’m gonna try to do that.
Teresa: It’s a really powerful question.
Holly: If I can copy. If I may copy from you, I will try to do that. Awesome.
Teresa: I actually … I wrote a blog posts in January called the Power of Saying No. It was actually one of the outputs of that annual review process. One of the things I do is, I just reaffirm, “This is what I’m gonna say yes to. This is what I’m gonna say no to.”
Holly: I read that article, and I was like, “This is good.”, and I’ve been working on it myself. Obviously, I’ve been doing product for years, and learned how to say no pretty early, but it’s interesting, for me, it’s been a different experience applying that to running my own business, and what are … I’m used to saying no to people who are asking me to build a feature. I’m not as used to saying no to, “Go to that conference, talk to that person, help this person.”, and I’ve had to work up my prioritization and my filtering for that, and so I used your post as inspiration, and …
Teresa: This is actually one of the hardest thing for me to do. I get a ton o’ email. I get Twitter requests, LinkedIn requests, a ton. I spent most of my career as the only product manager early stage startup trying to learn everything on my own. I really wanna help the people who reached out to me, ’cause I really learned so much from other people who blogged when I was that individual product manager. But, if I said yes to every request, I would not be able to work. And, even though every time I say no it breaks my heart a little bit, I’ve had to develop templates, and I now literally reply with a template. Because it’s the only way I can get through all of it. And it’s … I even have an assistant who helps me with this, because I’ll say yes to things that I should not be saying yes to. And then … She’ll even see things on my calendar, and be like, “I’m gonna tell them you’re not gonna do that.” Which is good.
Holly: That’s a really good assistant. That’s awesome. I also … I do my fair share of reflection, and I’ve realized that, saying yes too easily is a weakness that I have. And I’m like, “I’m gonna tell the people that I work with, that this is something I need their help with, and they can call me out on it.” I guess, sometimes you just gotta lean on other people, right?
Teresa: Yeah, absolutely.
Holly: Awesome. Well, this has been so much fun, and so enlightening. Thank you so much for sharing your insights, and I want to wrap it up with, if there are any major thoughts, or just recaps that you want people who are on the journey too, trying to do better continuous product discovery, what is your advice for them? What do you want to have as a take away?
Teresa: I think the big one is that, I think we read about how other teams work, we read about best practices, we hear it talk at a conference. It’s really easy to adopt the default mindset of, “Here’s why that won’t work at my company.” And I think we miss a lot o’ lessons, because we’re not open to them. And, I think, the best thing teams can do is flip that mindset. Even if it sounds like it’s completely irrelevant to you, look for the one or two nuggets that you can apply to your company, or to your team, or to your context. And I think will help fuel your learning way more than … I catch myself doing it all the time. You’re at a conference, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s a great idea, but that wouldn’t work for this, this and this.” The more that you can flip that on its head, every article you read, every podcast you listen to, every talk you hear, what’s the one or two nuggets you’re gonna apply”
Teresa: ‘Cause I think we live in a very high information consumption world, but we rarely act on them. So just adopting this habit of, “When I consume something, how is it gonna change what I do?”
Holly: Awesome. All right. Well, final question for you is, how can people find you if they want to know more?
Teresa: I blog at product, entirely about continuous discovery. I focus a lot on sharing examples of what good continuous discovery looks like. I also offer online courses I’m active on Twitter, @ttorres. That’s T-T-O-R-R-E-S. Those are my primary channels.
Holly: All right, great. Well, we’ll also include those in the show notes, and we’ll be excited to share that. And we’ll let you know if people have questions and thoughts for you.
Teresa: Perfect.
Holly: Thank you so much for your time today, Teresa. It was a true pleasure.
Teresa: Oh, thank you. This has been a lot of fun.