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Taming Opportunity Solution Trees (Part One)

Matt O'Connell
Matt O'Connell

"Our Opportunity Solution Tree is too big. I’m overwhelmed!"

If you use Opportunity Solution Trees (OSTs) and start to feel overwhelmed, you are not alone. This feeling creeps up when confronted with too many opportunities at once and no great way to size and prioritize them. The good news is that a little structure or pruning often goes a long way.

This is a big topic, so it's broken into two parts:

  • Part One (this post): Deep dive into five Mapper Archetypes. Each one showcases different ways we've observed individuals, trios, and entire teams become overwhelmed by their trees.
  • Part Two: Interview with Dr. Else van der Berg (product management, discovery & validation enthusiast) on tactics she uses within her trios to keep noise down and signal high.

The Wandering Mapper

The Wandering Mapper sees the value in mapping the opportunity space but doesn't have a clear outcome to anchor it. With no outcome at the top of an OST, opportunities will surface everywhere, but you will drift and lose focus and direction. The result is a broad smattering of opportunities that are difficult to prioritize.

No Anchor

Most of these mappers find themselves here when the business is not accustomed to setting outcomes. The problem compounds when business and strategic contexts are unclear, making it difficult for a team to define outcomes themselves.

Essentially, these mappers operate in environments that make this way of working difficult, and changing culture is hard, but there are a few things you can try to take steps towards showing the value of working visually and adding focus to organize opportunities.

Option 1: Learn the business

When you don't know how something works, it's hard to influence or fix. Investing time to learn the business and how it works positions you to create change.

  • How do we acquire customers?
  • How do we engage them?
  • How do we convert them?
  • How do we retain them?
  • What's our monetization strategy?

As you understand how the business works, it will become easier to find areas that require improvement and overlap with your responsibilities. Set an outcome or share your ideas to create buy-in on one.

Pro Tip: Leverage visuals to help. Use a KPI Tree to visually map how the business works. These are excellent tools for collaborating with others to build a shared understanding. Take a look at this article on KPI Trees.

With a KPI Tree in place, it becomes easier to see which areas of the business require attention, and, as a result, it becomes easier to set an outcome and focus discovery.

Moving to a KPI Tree

Option 2: Cluster opportunities

Clustering opportunities is a reverse engineering approach. Start by grouping opportunities by themes. This can help clarify broader areas that require improvement. Share these findings with the business to build consensus on where to invest further.

Warning! This approach suffers from the same issues as the (Indecisive Mapper), specifically when you fail to converge fast enough to create focus.

The Over-Mapper

The opportunity space cannot be fully mapped—it's always evolving! The over-mapper tries to map the entire opportunity space, adding every opportunity, sub-opportunity, and sometimes every solution!

Every opportunity does not need to be identified and addressed to achieve an outcome. The objective of mapping the opportunity space is to make sense of your best options, find the quickest path to success, and move on.

Mapping every opportunity is similar to addressing every item in a backlog. It's just not going to happen. You shouldn't keep all discovered opportunities in your tree!

The fix

Embrace the 80/20 rule (Pareto Principle). As you identify opportunities, which ones are in the top 20%? Focusing on the top 20% will often get you most of the way to your goal. That means investing more in fewer opportunities and ignoring the others – for now.


This process can be repeated at different levels of the Opportunity Solution Tree.

80/20 Deep

Pro Tip 1: If you're using Vistaly to manage your OSTs, use opportunity statuses to highlight the selected paths. This shows which areas of the tree are worth focusing on, but it also syncs those decisions automatically with a Now/Next/Later roadmap.

Pro Tip 2: Also when using Vistaly, archive branches to keep the tree clean and focused without loosing your data and tree structure.

The Indecisive Mapper

The indecisive mapper starts with a large lagging business outcome, which is not bad in and of itself (sometimes, you don't know what you don't know). The indecisiveness comes into play when too much time has passed without niching down and focusing on a more specific outcome. Sometimes, it takes time to learn what will influence a lagging metric. Failing to narrow focus will result in the same problems The Wandering Mapper will face (going too broad with a lack of focus).

The Fix

Timebox the decision. Estimate how long it will take to go wide and learn enough to build conviction. Then, evaluate and decide. We've written on this pattern and have been calling it Backfilling Learning Goals.

Backfilling Outcomes

Failing to narrow the scope and keeping the outcome too broad will push prioritization decisions down the road and result in more work.

  • More work prioritizing longer lists of opportunities.
  • More work conducting discovery on areas of the business that shouldn't be a priority.

The Assumptive Mapper

The assumptive mapper adds opportunities to the tree based on their experience rather than real customer needs and pain points. Sometimes, they're right, and often they're off. It never ceases to amaze me how often hearing from customers alters my understanding of the opportunity space.

Assumptive Mappers also miss out on one massive benefit. They end up misgauging how much an opportunity matters. How many times have you confirmed a suspicion and validated the existence of an opportunity, only to find that customers don’t care if it's addressed?!

The fix

Talk to customers. Use experience and intuition to guide the questions, but check the ego at the door. Let discovery guide the mapping of the tree. If something is truly important, customers will surface the insights to justify it. Finding truth > Being right.

The Overtaxed Mapper

The Overtaxed Mapper is managing too many outcomes. This is someone managing discovery activities for multiple outcomes at the same time. This doesn't mean they are a product leader supporting multiple trios/teams, but they are actively involved in discovery for multiple outcomes.

This mapper has multiple anchors to focus their efforts but is spread too thin to have a meaningful impact.

The fix

Once again, it is difficult to influence depending on the culture.

Option 1: Visualizing inefficiency. How do you make the case that you can do more by focusing on less? Take a look at this post on the cost of context switching and learning taxes.

Option 2: Invest where it matters. Another thing you can try is to map only the most important outcome. Yes, this implies there is a priority. It's better to do one thing well than many things so-so.

Option 3: KPI Trees to create focus Earlier in this post, we touched on KPI Trees. A great tree will help pinpoint the areas that matter and can often be used to remind teams of what's at stake and why focus is so important. When the day-to-day work is connected back to why it matters, it's easier to keep everyone accountable and focused on what's at stake.

Pro Tip When using Vistaly to map OSTs and KPI Trees, use Story Mode to show how Opportunities and Solutions ladder up to the outcomes and KPIs they drive in one concise view – saving time recommunicating exactly how work influences the bigger picture.

Part Two – In the trenches (Real World Interview)

If you got value from the first part of this series, we know you'll get value out of this next one. In Part Two, we interview Dr. Else van der Berg (product management, discovery & validation enthusiast) on tactics she uses within her trios to keep noise down and signal high.

Want to discuss? Get in touch!

We'd love to hear from you. Are you working with multiple teams managing discovery in OSTs? We're building to bridge the gap between strategy, discovery, and delivery ––visually. With direct support for working in OSTs, take control of your discovery process and gain new insights into your teams' decisions.

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Matt O'Connell
Matt O'Connell