A Journey of Discovery

Marty Cagan, founder of the Silicon Valley Product Group and a popular writer and speaker on the craft of product, says, famously, “the job of product management is to discover a product that is usable, valuable, and feasible.” Cagan has written extensively on the meaning of usable, valuable, and feasible. Product professionals around the world have embraced that triad in their work.

While those three adjectives are certainly worth considering, I’m more interested in the verb Cagan uses: to discover. After all, verbs are the greatest part of speech. (Wait: doesn’t everyone have a favorite part of speech?)

The product manager’s job is to discover a product.

And by extension, an integrated cross-functional product team’s job is to discover a product.

That’s a radical idea for some of us. When we describe our work on products, we tend to use words like “develop,” “design,” “fix,” “release,” “manage”: industrious, productive verbs. But “discover”? That’s a word for lost continents, new galaxies, cures for disease. For us, discovering feels uncertain, and maybe even uncomfortable.

But I encourage us to get familiar with the notion of product work as discovery. If we shift our orientation towards discovery, limitations and biases dissolve, and new priorities and ways of working emerge.

For one, if our primary job is to discover, then we must acknowledge that our prize hasn’t yet been found. And we won’t find it here in our spreadsheets, backlogs, and code branches; it’s out there, in boardrooms, classrooms, living rooms, and newsrooms, where our users are.

And discoverers never presume to know exactly what the result will be. We can envision it, imagine it, and inspire others to pursue it too, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can perfectly define it up front. (Another Cagan line “the first inconvenient truth of product management is that at least half of what you try won’t work.”)

That means we should get our hunches and hypothesis out where we can test them and learn about them. And we should build in capacity for learning and get comfortable with the idea that some attempts may not succeed.

Picture that game of “hotter and colder” we all played as kids. The goal is to find some hidden object, while others tell us if we’re getting hotter (closer) or colder (further). The way to succeed is neither to stand still, afraid to try, nor to head to a precise location with misplaced confidence. Instead, you need to move at a steady pace, in focused increments, listening carefully, and adjusting your course based on the signals you hear. If you hear positive signals (“you’re burning up!”), accelerate in that direction. If the signals tell you you’re on the wrong course (“ooh, it’s chilly in here”), don’t continue just because you liked that direction when you started.

Embracing discovery means we’re going to plan, attempt, observe, learn, and adapt in pursuit of solutions for those who use our products. Those user partners will tell us whether we’re getting colder or warmer. Our job as discoverers is to listen to them.

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