Addressing your team’s discovery gaps to build valuable, viable solutions

In our previous article, we used Teresa Torres’s “Opportunity Solution Tree” to understand the "why" behind a solution in progress. As we uncovered insights, outcomes, and assumptions, we likely found gaps in our tree. 

Misalignment or uncertainty about customer insights exposes the team to risk. They may waste time and effort on solutions customers don’t want or need. They risk shipping a feature that is difficult to use, leading to abandonment or complaints. In extreme cases, the solution may negatively impact the customer or the business. Tech and product debt pile up as the organization struggles to make a fix. Customer needs continue to go unmet. 

Doing things “right” is about more than process

If we were dogmatic about discovery, we’d slam on the brakes to get all our ducks in a row before building our solution. Breaking momentum like this erodes trust. Instead, we mitigate risks while maintaining momentum. To be the partners our team needs, we need to know when to circle back for more information and when to proceed with calculated risks.

This article will cover common discovery gaps and the strategic interventions to set the team up for success.

Assessing discovery gaps

We use a two-by-two grid to understand when a gap requires action and what action to take. 

In the upper left is a red box that says when uncertainty is high and there's high risk or low reversability, we want to push for thorough assumption and opportunity testing. In the upper right, a yellow box highlights that the opportunity is well understood, but risk is high, so we'll want to test assumptions to mitigate risk and increase impact. On the bottom left, a blue box shows uncertainty is high but risk is low so we can be lightweight about our assumption testing and focus on increasing our impact. In the bottom right, a green box shows we understand the opportunity well and the risk is low, so we can observe and support our team.

Our Y-axis is how well we understand the opportunity. 

Our tree exercise should have shown us how well the team understands the customer's needs. We should also know how confident we can be that the customer insights are accurate. If there is uncertainty here, we'll need to understand why. Did the team talk to customers? Did they take different insights away from customer conversations? Are they misaligned on outcomes? 

On the X-axis are the risk level and the change's reversibility level. 

Each organization has a different tolerance for risk. Some types of risks may be a higher priority for your team. Compliance issues or the cost to build and operate a solution might be a priority for some teams. For others, it may be avoiding harm to the customer or the company's reputation. Talk with the team to understand their tolerance and priorities. The higher the risk, the more confident we'll want to be and the more thorough we'll be with our testing. 

Building and removing features takes time. If undoing our changes is expensive, we want to be confident in our solution, even if the risk is low. If reversing a change is easy, we have more flexibility. Teams can make reversing changes easier by using feature flags or A/B testing tools. These tools allow us to hide a feature in production quickly. If teams face pressure to move to the next feature and cannot iterate on work once it's released, consider the reversibility low.


When to take action

The opportunity isn’t well understood, and the risk of failure is high.
Push for thorough assumption and opportunity testing.

This images shows a red box that pairs uncertain opportunity, high risk, and hard to reverse with a bullet list. The bullets include validating opportunity during testing, testing assumptions thoroughly to mitigate risk, set expectations for additional iterations, and define metrics for success.

Mitigating risk when uncertainty exists may seem obvious, yet many teams dash ahead. Some teams may not have the experience to know they are risking failure. Others may know they are speculating about customer needs or that failure will be costly. These teams tend to be “Feature Teams.” Organizations measure feature teams by their outputs rather than their outcomes.  

In our high-risk, high-uncertainty scenario, we will use assumption testing with real customers to:  

  • Validate our understanding of customer needs by testing our assumptions about viability
  • Mitigate risk by identifying and testing against our other riskiest assumptions

To make the case for testing, we'll need to focus on reducing the highest level of risk. We must set expectations that several iterations and tests may be necessary. When risk is high, we can’t launch our first idea untested and unedited. With each iteration, we will communicate how the solution has improved. Our goal is to be thorough enough to increase our chances of success without losing momentum.

One note: Many teams are only familiar with usability testing. These teams may struggle with testing for desirability, viability, feasibility, and ethical implications. In this scenario, we must help them align on broader learning goals to test effectively. 


The opportunity is clear, but the risk of failure is high or unknown.
To mitigate risk, thoroughly test assumptions.

A yellow box pairs the words "Well-understood opportunity, High Risk, and Hard to Reverse" with three action bullets: Test assumptions thoroughly to mitigate risk. Set expectations for additional iteration and testing, and define metrics for success

If the level of risk is high but the opportunity is well understood, we don't need as much rigor in validating it. We may focus our testing on our assumptions to reduce risk and strengthen our solutions.


The risks are low, but we’re unclear on the opportunity or the outcome.
Encourage lightweight assumption testing.

A blue box pairs the words "Uncertain Opportunity, Low Risk, and Easy to Reverse" with two action bullets: Lightweight assumption testing to increase impact and define metrics for success.

In this scenario, there is a lack of clarity around the customer need or the business outcome. Thankfully, the risk of making a mistake is low. We leverage lightweight assumption testing to strengthen the solution’s viability and desirability. We don't need to be as thorough as in the high-risk scenarios. Testing here increases the likelihood that our solution will make a valuable impact. 


When to observe and move forward

A green box pairs "Well-understood Opportunity, Low Risk, and Easy to Reverse" with two action bullets: Define metrics for success and observe and move forward.

Here, the opportunity is well understood, the risks manageable, and changes are easily reversed. Our solution will likely be valuable and viable in this scenario so we can move forward more confidently. Ideally, we will have an agreed-upon metric for success so we will know if our solution is valuable. We don’t need to push the team for more clarification before delivery.


When to take a step back

This grey box was not in our 2x2 chart. It pairs "Unable to align on a solution and unable to mitigate risks" with 5 action bullets: Proceed with caution, Confirm alignment around the outcome, Validate the opportunity with a customer, Propose alternate solutions, if necessary, and Set expectations for additional iteration and testing.

This scenario is outside of our two-by-two grid. Here, our team is struggling to agree on a solution or has been unable to identify or mitigate risks. The team has too many unknowns and too little alignment to move forward, so we take a step back. We start by confirming alignment around the outcome. This may be a brief conversation, or we may need to facilitate a more in-depth working session. From there, we must validate the opportunity with a real customer before continuing. We want to be sure we understand the customer's needs. We need evidence to inform our decisions. We may need to develop an alternative solution to test solutions against each other. 

Reintroducing outcome and opportunity discovery will feel like we are delaying delivery. Take care when proposing this. If needed, enlist the help of another teammate or leader.


Preparing for the next opportunity 

The Opportunity Solution tree can help us facilitate alignment as new work begins. Start the conversation with stakeholders about our business outcome. Collaborate on ways to learn from real customers about their needs, goals, and pains. Once the team has a clear why, move on to solutions and assumption testing. Introducing this cadence will help reduce risk and lead to more successful outcomes. It will also help your team get the next new member up to speed.


What is your team doing to bridge their discovery gaps? 

Is your team aware of the gaps in their understanding of customer needs? Do they plan to test and address their assumptions before investing in delivery? If the answer is no, we can help. 

We offer resources and coaching to help you level up your team’s discovery practice. 

Check out some of our past articles: 

Need a strategy to address your team’s unique challenges? Contact us. Together, we can explore how to help your team close the gaps and reduce risk.



Continue the conversation.

Lab Zero is a San Francisco-based product team helping startups and Fortune 100 companies build flexible, modern, and secure solutions.