OKR Leadership: Without Product Discovery Your Teams are Just Guessing

Posted on April 18, 2022.

This is the second post in a series on why and how leadership has to change to support OKR success. You can find the first post here. 

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learning as the path of least resistance

There’s a case study in our second book, Sense & Respond, about a German-language Netflix competitor called Maxdome. When they launched, Maxdome had a head start on Netflix as the 800-pound gorilla had not yet set up shop in the German speaking market. Then-CEO Marvin Lange knew it was only a matter of time before they showed up. Netflix has a one-size-fits-all approach to their (admittedly excellent) user experience. The only way he figured they could compete is by deeply understanding their target audience and creating a product uniquely suited to their cultural tastes and expectations. 

To build customer empathy, Lange incentivized product discovery above all other activities to ensure that everyone – from the C-suite to QA – developed a consistent mental model of who they were serving. He did this in 3 ways:

  • Unlimited customer research budget – If you wanted to talk to customers, Lange ensured that budget was never going to hold you back. Whether it was incentives to bring people in for a quick usability test or fees to pay recruiters, Maxdome employees never had to worry about how much it would cost.
  • Mandatory monthly hours in the call center – The call center was the frontline of customer service, disappointment and sales. Everyone in the company had to spend a small number of hours listening to or taking calls every month so they could hear, first hand, customer frustration, satisfaction and discussions. Nothing drives home the failure of something you built like hearing customer after customer complain about not being able to figure it out.
  • Face to face sales of the service – It’s one thing to sell to a faceless voice on a phone call. It’s another to have to sell the service face to face to someone. This is exactly what Lange asked his executive team to do every holiday season. They’d have to walk through the lovely German Christmas markets and try to sell the streaming service to passers-by, face to face. The goal was to drive home the futility of simply selling features and, instead, understanding what benefits would make the service compelling. 

What Lange understood is that, despite his and his executive team’s decades of experience in media, they were facing unprecedented competition and change in their market. Without a deep understanding of how a German-language streaming service purposefully designed for the German-speaking market might win over global competitors like Netflix, they were doomed. The only way to do that was to provide top-down, unquestioning support for product discovery

Product discovery builds customer empathy

Lange’s mandates should serve as inspiration for today’s leaders as they support their OKR rollouts. Product discovery provides your teams with an active inbound stream of customer insight. It gives them a channel to cheaply test ideas. It can quickly surface themes that form the basis for behaviors your analytics tools are capturing. Most importantly, product discovery builds an evidence-based decision-making process into the way your teams work. Instead of just building the highest paid person’s idea, the teams test it, alongside other ideas. They decide what to invest in and expand based on how well it’s impacting customer behavior. If an idea, regardless of its origin story, isn’t delivering the behavior change (i.e., the key results) the team has committed to, they have the evidence to support a pivot. The faster a team can learn, the less time they will spend on the wrong solutions. This is agile

Your job as a leader is to provide teams with the same unlimited access and support to product discovery as Lange did at Maxdome. Running experiments, speaking with customers, building prototypes, launching a/b tests – all of these activities should follow the path of least resistance. The learnings from these activities should be celebrated – even if they contradict popular opinion. The sooner the organization, top down, can admit it was wrong about something the sooner a culture of “ship, sense & respond” takes hold. 

You can’t hit your OKRs without product discovery

Product discovery is part of The Work. It’s as much a part of your success as writing code or creating that brilliant marketing campaign. Most importantly, without it your OKRs will likely never be achieved. Your teams may have strong opinions about how to achieve their key result goals. The reality is they won’t be 100% wrong. They won’t be 100% right either. The more you equip them to figure out where and how to optimize their work, the easier it will be for them to achieve their objectives and key results. 

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