Teresa Torres

Product discovery & re-imagining organizational change

Teresa Torres is a rising star in product management, and the author of the popular “Product Talk” blog. She’s got an eclectic background in cognitive science, UX design, startup management and organizational change – which gives her a unique perspective on product discovery. Teresa shares her deep & hard-won product wisdom – and her inspiring perspective on the long game of product management. Learn how one talented product manager is forging a new path & shaking up the organizational change management game.

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Teresa’s Blog: Product Talk

Connect: LinkedIn @ttorres

Episode Transcript

[Amy Jo Kim] Welcome, Teresa, to the Getting2Alpha podcast.

[Teresa Torres] Thanks, I’m excited to be here.

I’m thrilled that you’re here, it’s a very full circle moment for me. For those who don’t know you, give us a whirlwind tour of your background. How did you get started in design and tech and how did you decide what to pursue along the way?

That’s a great question. It really dates back to my undergraduate days. Actually, I entered college as a chemistry major, but that only lasted about 3 weeks. I ended up pivoting and focusing on a cognitive science program. It was really serendipitous, I didn’t know what cognitive science was and I just fell in love with every aspect of it. It introduced me to human-computer interaction at a really early stage of my career and that’s something that, I think being human centered is still grossly undervalued and critically important to building good products. I’m really fortunate to have been introduced to that really early on. I also, because it was a cognitive science program, I also got an opportunity to explore education and learning and I was really interested in developing educational software at that time. I never actually went down that path, but that education and learning background, I use quite a bit today, because I work as a coach teaching product teams.

I started my full time employee experience as an interaction designer and as a front end developer. I worked in a couple early stage startups, just doing whatever was needed. I think in my second company, I moved into product management formally, about halfway through that role, but it wasn’t really a conscious choice. I don’t think I knew what product management was at the time. Basically, what happened was I was always really curious and I just wanted to contribute wherever I saw gaps and a lot of the things that product managers do, I thought were what you do when you’re human centered, so I just started doing them. Looking for what are opportunities that we can solve, so I found myself in product management.

What I liked about that, was it allowed me to really see the business from a lot of different angles and not just from the user perspective. How are our products viable, not just usable? Again, all of that just became really critical throughout my entire career, it’s what led … I was a startup CEO at one point, I’ve been a product executive at another company and the last few years I made this shift into, I would now work as a product discovery coach. A lot of what led to that was me just realizing that what I loved doing was investing in people and teaching. I think, at my core, I’m a teacher and a coach. If there’s anywhere in business that needs some investment in, I would say it’s product management and how we build good products.

Awesome. You work with cross functional teams in your current role and you basically change the way that they work, right?

Yeah, I think that’s the simplest way to put it.

How did you evolve your approach to doing this, which is what really big corporations call change management, but you’re doing it in this very agile and flexible way. How did you evolve your approach? How did your previous experiences prepare you for that?

One thing that I left out, when I was kind of talking about my career path is, in 2011 I decided to go back to school while working full time and I got a Masters in Learning and Organizational Change. Really what drove that is I had been a startup CEO during the economic downturn. I took over that company basically at a point of crisis, we were running out of money, we had a high burn rate, we had spent all of our venture capital, we had been a fast growth, hot trendy company, but our customers were companies looking to hire and universities that we built an online community platform for universities to engage their alumni. During the 2008 economic downturn, what we saw was companies stopped hiring, so they didn’t want our recruiting products, and universities either saw their endowments shrink or their state budgets get cut.

While all universities say they want to engage their alumni, during a tough market, it quickly becomes a nice to have and not a must have. We saw our revenue drop 30% in a three month time period. We basically realized we needed to change what we were doing and quickly. What was fascinating to me was, even a small startup where all of our employees had made a decision to work at this risky company, even when our market conditions were so extreme that if we didn’t change we were going to go out of business, people still resisted the change. They didn’t want to give up on what we were doing, the new unknown was terrifying.

I found as a leader, one of the hardest things was how do I bring my team along with me through this change. My product background and my design background didn’t really equip me for that and so I decided to go back to school and learn more about learning and organizational change. It’s had a really big impact on how I’ve gotten to where I am in my coaching business. Like you said, there’s this whole field around change management.

Actually, if you just think of that term, there’s sort of a problem with it. We have this belief that we can manage change, but the reality is we all change on our own terms, on our own time. My program actually uses the term “organizational change” because it kind of acknowledges that we can’t always manage change. If we look at the statistics of most change management projects, the vast majority of them fail. It’s a lot like the vast majority of products fail, we’re just not very good at it. I don’t take this big top-down organizational change, like change management approach. Instead I like to start with a small team and to look at this team behaves one way today and our goal is for them to behave a different way by the time we’re done working together. Rather than me imposing my way of working on them, I co-create with them. My goal is to work with them to understand the organizational context and what’s going to work in their environment to get them behaving the way that they want to be behaving.

How does that relate to product discovery?

The work that I do at teams is product discovery. The irony is that I teach teams how to do product discovery and I do it by doing product discovery. That’s a little bit meta, but we can break it down. For a product team, they’re trying to discover what are the opportunities. They have some desired outcome, we want to increase engagement and they’re trying to discover what are the opportunities in this space to increase engagement. They might go out and they might interview customers, they might observe customers using their app, they might do some traffic analysis and they’re looking for where are their opportunities. Then they’re basically making a decision about which opportunities are most compelling and they’re generating solutions and testing solutions to see if they deliver on those opportunities.

As a coach, when I work with a team, I’m doing the exact same thing. What I’m trying to discover is where are their opportunities to change the way this team works? Sometimes, I have some ideas in the back of my head of what our desired outcome is which is continuous discovery. I’m looking for where are their opportunities to get more access to customers? Where is there more opportunities to make it continuous and not project like? Where are there opportunities to add a little more structure to the way they think about discovery? Where are there more opportunities to experiment? Then I’m co-creating with my team, so we’re constantly prototyping ways for them to work.

This idea of a prototype when we’re not talking about a product can be really confusing. It’s anything from we’ll try, can you interview one person a week? For some teams, that’s easy to do, for other teams, just trying to do that uncovers all these organizational barriers. Maybe the sales team doesn’t want them talking to customers. Maybe they’ve never done an interview before and we have to work on interviewing skills. There’s all sorts of things that come up that I could never anticipate ahead of time. Which is why I really view it as a co-creation activity.

Got it. That’s really interesting. When you’re working with teams and you’re working across different landscapes, different size companies, what is one of the most common mistakes that you see people make in the earliest stages of testing their idea? They’ve got an idea, they’re setting out to test it, what mistakes do you see people make that you help them learn to overcome?

I think the biggest one and this is especially true with earlier stage startups or founder led startups, but I see it just as frequently at large companies, is we fall in love with our ideas. The challenge with that, we think the value is in the idea. The challenge with that, if we learn through discovery that the idea’s not going to work, it’s really hard for us to see the truth. We look for reasons why the data might be wrong. We spin our wheels a little bit. Instead of falling in love with our ideas, really what we want to do is we want to fall in love with an opportunity, or even better, we want to fall in love with an audience that we want to serve.

Rather than falling in love with this idea of a Facebook news feed, if we were working at Facebook, maybe instead we want to fall in love with this idea of how are we going to connect people around the world? There’s an opportunity to connect people around the world. Or maybe even better than that, would be, let’s get to the people behind it. Why is it important that people connect with each other? Let’s fall in love with that opportunity and with that desired outcome rather than the specific idea. We’re going to learn along the way that our idea’s not perfect, we want to have the freedom to evolve and adapt our idea while still serving the customer that’s motivating us day to day.

That’s awesome, lets talk about your writing. You write a well-known blog called Product Talk. What was the thing that prompted you to start sharing your knowledge in this form and applying what you just talked about to your writing. How do you decide what to focus on, what to include and what to leave out?

To be honest, when I started Product Talk, I wasn’t thinking about an audience at all. I started Product Talk to figure out what I thought about product management. It had nothing to do with readers. That’s obviously changed over the years and I can talk about that a little bit. Basically what happened was I started my graduate program in the spring of 2011 and I started Product Talk in the fall of 2011. What happened in those intermediate months was I took two to three quarters of classes where I was required every week to write a blog in my graduate community about what I was learning. What I found was that writing was such a powerful reflective practice, that I wanted to bring it to my profession. It just started as the way of I wanted to become a better product manager, I wanted to hone my own skills and I saw the power of doing that through writing.

To be honest, some of my early posts are terrible and I was just fumbling my way towards my own thoughts about product management. Maybe a year or two in, I can’t even tell you if anybody read my blog in the first year or two. I didn’t really care, it wasn’t until maybe a year or two in that people started to email me, I started to get some feedback that my writing was helpful to them. I was really fortunate, it just felt good to know that something I was providing had a tremendous amount of value to myself, was also valuable to other people. Of course, it was a good ego hit, so then I started to get a little bit addicted to that and I started researching what do people want to know and how do I answer what they want to know. I took more of this market lens. In some ways it was a distraction because I started writing for people who wanted to be product managers. For a little while I went down this side path and it’s because those are the people who asked the most questions.

If you look at Quora, or you look at LinkedIn Ggroups, the most common question is how do I become a product manager? I wrote a whole bunch of content about that and I even started coaching people who wanted to be product managers, but I realized that’s not what I’m passionate about. Bless everybody who wants to be a product manager, I hope you find your path, but that’s not where my passion is.

My passion is working with people who are product managers, who really want to be an A+ product manager. I really want to serve product leaders who are serious about developing their teams and supporting them in their roles. I think the reason why I identified with that so strongly was I spent most of my full time employee experience either being the only product manager at an early stage startup, where I was 100% responsible for my own professional growth, or I was managing a team and I had to think about how am I going to invest and develop my team. Because those were challenges that I could relate to, it was really easy for me to fall in love with those customers and them as an audience.

About maybe 2 to 3 years ago, I made another choice and I decided that I really wanted to write for senior product managers and for heads of product. My writing significantly changed, I really focused on how do we go deep on product management. I do have an article about how to write good user stories, that’s from my early days, I would never write that article today, because your senior product manager, that’s not the question they’re asking. There’s no head of product that’s thinking my team needs to write better user stories. They’re asking bigger questions, are we going to meet our goals? Are we going to build a product that anybody wants? This is really where I feel like there is not a lot of great writing. That’s changing, we’re now seeing some really good thinkers pushing the envelope there. We have a long way to go, I think is the short of it.

I love that you’re focused and articulate about what you’re passionate about. To me, that’s where you’re superpower is. How would you describe your superpower? You’re now working with teams, you’ve been doing this for a few years, you’re getting traction and changing how they work. What’s your superpower that lets you do this? What are the kind of things that light you up?

I got some feedback from a team that I coached that I think encapsulates it perfectly. One of the teams that I worked with told me that I push my teams really aggressively, but I do it in a really non-judgmental way. I loved that feedback because I do want to push teams aggressively. If we’re going to change, we need to make big bold steps, but if we’re going to push someone to take a big bold step, we have to understand when they can’t take that step and if it’s too big, then we got to slow down and say, okay, how do we make this feasible?

I really think that combination really encouraging people to do more than they ever thought they could do, but understanding when they don’t meet that bar and helping them find the intermediate steps that do allow them to meet that bar, is my superpower. In some ways, I think it’s what makes me a teacher and a coach by nature, and I think it’s also how I live my own life. I always am going after big ideas and I’m honestly, always falling short. I think if I got stuck on judging myself for falling short, I’d be pretty miserable. But by setting that big goal and falling short, I know I got a lot further than I would have if I just took a tiny step.

That’s awesome. Who’s on your radar? Whose work are you paying attention to and being influenced by these days?

That’s a big list. In the world of product discovery, I would first and foremost, and I’ve said this on a number of interviews, I don’t think I can give enough accolades to Marty Cagan at SVPG, Silicon Valley Product Group. His writing, his exposure, his sort of notoriety has done so much for continuing the conversation about what is product discovery. Really moving this idea of how we build a product, all the work we do to deliver and scale a product, is not the only part of product management. There’s this whole other half about are we making good decisions about what to build? Marty Cagan’s been working at that tirelessly for more than a decade, maybe two decades. He’s sort of the who’s who in the world of product management right now and I love watching his work. I think Jeff Patton in the world of product discovery is right there with him. Jeff is a road warrior, he works with so many companies. When you meet him in person it’s so clear how passionate and genuine he is. He doesn’t blog and I really wish he would, because every time I talk to him, he’s full of so many insights. He wrote a really good book called User Story Mapping and he has a few other publications here and there. If anybody ever gets an opportunity to see him speak, I would highly recommend it.

Then I think the lean startup space has brought us a whole bunch of other great thought leaders. Eric Ries, I think the book, The Lean Startup, helped us take a giant step forward in the world of building products. A lot of it is misinterpreted, but for people that really read the original book and take the time to think about the thoughts in it, there’s nothing better. Then Tristan Kromber is a blogger who blogs about lean startup principles. I love everything he writes.

Then, like you, I take a cross functional approach, so I pull from anywhere I can get. There’s a lot of great UX thinkers, I love Cindy Alvarez’s blog, I’ve know Laura Klein forever and I love her writing. It’s great that she’s funny, so she’s also really entertaining. Then actually, I have a handful of people that I would say that are more kind of old school, traditional product managers, but what I love about them is that they have a really good appreciation for the challenges of big companies. I put Rich Marin off in that category. We talk a lot, we don’t always agree because we have very different approaches to product management, but anytime I run into an organization that has a really messy organizational challenge, he’s the first person I call because that’s his superpower. There’s probably 20 other people I could mention, but we only have a little bit of time.

It sounds like he’s a fixer.

Yeah, and I think he just likes the mess. I get frustrated with the mess. I really like to work with a team because I can handle a handful of people. I feel like we’re co-creating and it’s fun, then when we hit roadblocks, I’m just managing a few people to work through them. Bigger organizational challenges when stakeholders aren’t aligned and they’re talking about team read it org designs, how do you organize your product team? I can’t get excited about that, it just seems messy and awful to me. But that’s Rich’s sweet spot and someone has to do it, those challenges matter. I’m not trying to trivialize them, they matter a lot. If you’re team’s structure isn’t good, you’re going to run into all kinds of challenges. It’s good knowing somebody who not only is really good at those challenges, but likes doing it.

What product trends or tech trends are you following? What’s got your attention?

I love this question. In some ways I’m kind of anti-trends. Starting in maybe 2001, we kept saying it was going to be the year of mobile and it took until long after the iPhone for that to really happen. I think we’re seeing the same thing with virtual reality, even augmented reality. I think we think maybe self driving cars, I think we think it’s going to happen faster than it is. Although, maybe self driving cars are an exception. I think the human policy side of that is going to slow it down. I don’t tend to pay too close attention to what are the hot technology trends.

What I do follow and what I love following is sort of the trends in how we work. Again, the lean startup, I think is one of the best trends we’ve seen in the last 20 years in how we build products. I love that it’s spreading like wildfire, I love the community Eric has built around that. What I don’t like is when those trends become dogma. I get emails all the time from people, why don’t you ever write about the jobs-to-be-done framework, or why don’t you ever use the term MVP? I try really hard to write about product management and product discovery specifically, in a way that is methodology agnostic.

What I’ve seen is in some companies, the jobs-to-be-done framework resonates really well and it works. In other companies, they just can’t wrap their head around it, even if it’s the best framework ever, it’s not going to work in that context. I do like to follow those trends, because usually when they become trendy, there’s a sign that something there is working, but I try to balance that without becoming too dogmatic about one or the other. I think the real trend that I love is that we are sharing a lot more about how we work. We’re sharing a lot more about what we’re learning and we’re all getting better because of it.

Right on. I love that. Tell us a little bit about the book you’re writing.

For a long time, I thought I should write a book. Most consultants write books at some point. I’m not very good at shoulds. I need to have a really strong why behind what I’m doing, otherwise I just am not motivated. I haven’t written a book, but 4 or 5 months ago, I started noticing while working with my teams, that they all had the same challenge. I would work with them on product discovery skills. I’d teach them how to interview, I’d teach them how to synthesize what they’re learning from interviews. I teach them how to run good experiments and I always got really good feedback. I could see in the work that they’re doing that they’re learning the skills. The big gap that I saw was, they didn’t know what to do when. They didn’t know, okay, how do we know when we’ve run enough experiments, or how do we know when we’ve considered enough ideas? Or how do we know how to make trade-offs between one opportunity and another opportunity?

The other problem I saw, was, they do all this great research, but then they’d come up with ideas that weren’t connected to the research. It’s like there was this structure that was missing that helped us think about product discovery, that guided our work. I started to just noodle on that problem and I started to play with different structures and I started to test them with my teams.

About 3 months ago, I landed on a structure that’s working extremely well, I use it in every single coaching session. I call it an Opportunity Solution Tree. It’s not rocket science, it’s a really simple visual that helps teams connect the dots between what’s the desired outcome they’re trying to drive, what are the opportunities they’re learning about through their generative research that drives that desired outcome and then how do their solutions, their various feature ideas, their various service ideas, how do those connect to those opportunities? Then for each of your solutions, what experiments do you need to run to build support for that solution?

What this visual does, is all on one canvas, it helps you, it’s really a critical thinking tool, it helps you see your thinking, it helps you connect the dots between your solutions and your opportunities. It helps you evaluate are you working broadly enough that you’re going to drive your desired outcome. It helps you evaluate, have we tested all the risk assumptions behind that idea and it’s ready to go. It helps you with, are you considering enough ideas or are you falling in love with your idea and you’re fixating on one solution. That’s a lot and it’s a lot for one really simple diagram to do. When I saw that happening, I freaked out, because I thought, wow, this needs to be in the world. Then I thought, I need to write a book about this, so that’s what I’m doing and I’m blogging about it along the way. I can’t write fast enough, it’s just pouring out of me, I’m really excited about it.

So that’s at ProductTalk.org.

That’s right.

Awesome, well I’ve read your blog post, I loved it. I think it’s got great wisdom for a lot of people and thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your journey and what you went through and where you’re at now. I think what you’re doing is innovative and really transforming the way that some teams are working, which is a very noble cause. Save time, faster, smarter product work.

Thank you, this has been a lot of fun.