Get more out of your discovery work (OSTs)
This post explores:
- What is an OST, and how do teams use them today?
- What are the current challenges teams face when working with OSTs?
- What could it look like to get more out of an OST?
Before getting started, I'd like to credit the Opportunity Solution Tree author, Teresa Torres. You can find more of her fantastic work at Product Talk .
What is an OST?
An Opportunity Solution Tree (OST) is a visual framework for identifying higher quality solutions with a greater probability of generating business and customer value.
And another way to look at them.
OSTs are decision trees where the root is the desired outcome, the branches are discovery, and the output is better solutions.
We've had the opportunity to speak with dozens of teams using the OST framework, and through the lens of optimization and automation, we've found a few things we'd like to share.
How do teams build OSTs today?
Good ol' fashion analog.
- Pencil & Paper
- Whiteboard & Marker
- Sticky Notes
These are fine if you're working solo or your team(s) are not working remotely. As you can imagine, there are negative tradeoffs related to scale, collaboration, and efficiency.
Digital OSTs are the most common form of OST and are likely a direct result of a global pandemic and the rise of remote work. The following is a list of digital whiteboarding tools teams use. If you use something different, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll get this updated.
The key benefits of these solutions are remote collaboration and sharing.
What are the current challenges when working with OSTs?
It's common when creating opportunities to want to add more information than would reasonably fit in the tree. Teams that value persisting additional information tend to add links to external systems better suited for documentation and place them within the body of the opportunity cards in the tree. This additional metadata supports the opportunity and can assist in prioritization and other efforts.
- Who said what, when?
- How big of a pain point was it?
- What was the context?
- How many users expressed the pain point or desire?
The next step?
While the simple linking of two or more systems is a solution to this problem, it stops short of unlocking game-changing potential. It creates an immediate information disconnect that requires authors to digest the OST and external sources before making informed decisions.
What if layering aspects of the supporting information on top of the tree as metadata were possible? What questions could that answer? How could this enable consumers of the OST to make better product decisions and arrive at conclusions faster?
With layered metadata and the correct tooling, you can start to answer questions like;
- Which opportunities matter to specific users or user groups?
- Is this opportunity duplicated elsewhere?
- Are there similar opportunities to this one but explored by another team or explored in the past?
- Which pain points do users express most?
The opportunities are limitless! (I had to say it)
After working with an OST for more than a few weeks, the chances are the tree will grow quite large. Teams tend to manage multiple separate trees to help reduce noise, often one per outcome. While partitioning can help, each "outcome" can still produce hundreds of opportunities, solutions, and assumptions, often resulting in time spent locating items within the tree.
The next step?
Most whiteboard tools offer some version of text search, but the potential for significant improvement is there.
Say that you want to find something in the tree, but you're unsure where it's at or if it's even there. You could scan it or use ctrl-f and search for specific text (depending on the whiteboarding tool). What if you wanted to search for only opportunities, ones you created in the past week or two, and perhaps you'd like to also search through supporting material as well. It would be helpful if searching could occur across multiple facets, not just text within the OST.
Building a shared understanding of the opportunity solution space creates more alignment. It helps generate buy-in or provide context to a problem before designing or engineering solutions.
Here are some methods teams use today to share that information.
- Share screenshots of portions of a tree and any additional context (verbal or written).
- Synthesize the content into an easier-to-digest artifact for the audience.
- Synchronously walk team members through the tree and answer questions.
It is uncommon to share the entire tree without doing some of the above in most contexts.
The next step?
When sharing information, being concise can be effective, and reducing noise can create focus. Ideally, there should be a less time-consuming way to synthesize and present portions of a tree. The challenge is around format, information density, and context. What is the purpose of sharing the information, who is the audience on the receiving end, and what would help the audience better understand and contribute?
Imagine sharing an OST with a brand new team member, one new to the business and maybe even the industry. What questions would they have after reviewing it?
This thought came from observing a few instances of an OST "cold read" from stakeholders, engineers, contractors, consultants, etc...
Here are some questions that have come up in unmoderated settings.
- Why was this opportunity prioritized this way?
- Why are these opportunities left unexplored?
- What is the difference between branches A vs B?
- What does this term or acronym mean?
The next step?
Is it possible to leverage or improve OSTs to be living documentation of the problem-solution space more than they are today?
Organization & Editing
It's common to refine the opportunity space in an OST. Refinement happens when consolidating, refactoring, restructuring, or decoupling opportunities. These actions usually follow interviews and comparing new findings to the current opportunity space.
The next step?
When making changes, it's helpful to have your tree redrawn to account for them, keeping everything clean and easy to follow. Some digital whiteboarding tools have made progress in helping trees stay organized, but most continue to lack the features that make organization easy and intuitive by default. We believe the correct solution to this problem prioritizes consistency over infinite flexibility.
Change Management (OST Version Control?)
Each OST provides a snapshot in time of decisions and research that led to solutions built. Teams continuously build up their understanding of the opportunity space and make adjustments.
How do teams communicate additions and changes to the OST? This question gets at the heart of collaboration and change management.
The next step?
Similar to how Git is a distributed version control system for managing source code for products (not just a single feature), we see a future where product teams can continuously manage discovery work and decisions in one system with higher integrity.
Providing a way to be more aware of specific adjustments in the opportunity space can improve the overall collaboration in synchronously and asynchronously settings.
Teams often export validated solutions from their OSTs into a project management system. Typically these solutions are viewed as "epics" or "projects" within those systems and are broken down into task level items. It's not uncommon for teams to pull together some form of roadmap around the higher-level solutions.
The next step?
Simplifying the tree into actionable insights is an area where whiteboard OSTs (physical or digital) fail without tedious manual work. These tools can show relationships but fail to deliver on more complex tasks like:
- Operationalizing and automating downstream work
- Highlighting areas of improvement
- Synthesizing discovery related insights
They can not deliver these because they don't know what an OST is or understand the best practices, and anti-patterns, around them. It comes down to the classic, unlimited flexibility vs purpose-built tooling. If tooling has access to the metadata and knows the rules:
- Programmatically automating a next/now/later roadmap can happen
- Making best practice recommendations is possible
- Surfacing valuable and consolidated conclusions become something within reach
- Highlighting or preventing anti-patterns can be achieved
The opportunities are again limitless.
OSTs help product teams bring more rigour to product discovery, and with that additional rigour comes more effort (worthwhile effort). We believe some efficiencies can enable product teams to deliver even more effectively on outcomes and bring more transparency to the discovery process.
Because of the structure and well researched and tested concepts behind OSTs, we have incorporated them as one of the core aspects of Vistaly. While we've begun to address the challenges outlined in this post, some items will take time and discovery to deliver in a way that solves the root challenge of each opportunity. If you're interested in being a part of making that happen, reach out to us at email@example.com and let's work together.