The "NADA" Evolution
of Product Discovery

Scaling Product Discovery and closing the gaps in adopting Discovery practices doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t just read about “best practices” and decide that your entire org now starts operating this way. And different companies and teams have their own starting points from which they evolve.

Rather, a company must take a considered approach to bettering their Product Discovery status quo. In an ideal situation, this happens based on a pull in productive directions –– a pull that is informed by the everyday struggles and wins of product teams.

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Last Updated: Sep. 18, 2023

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As you are improving, one key question you will face is how your company can evolve Product Discovery together. In my work, I see companies attempting to scale Product Discovery every day, and their evolution often falls into one of four stages. I call this the NADA evolution: Neglected, Alibi, Dogmatic and Adapted. Understanding the NADA evolution can help you evaluate your practices and create a game plan for improvement.

The NADA Evolution Model of Adopting Product Discovery Practices

The NADA Evolution Model of Adopting Product Discovery Practices

N, as in NEGLECTED Product Discovery

Although Product Discovery is a critical, ongoing process, many companies don’t give it carefully considered attention, leaving discovery as an ad-hoc, Neglected and “organic” process. This means that teams may still be delivering some of the outcomes of Product Discovery –– like making an somewhat-informed decision on what to prioritize building –– without doing all the necessary work that actually drives good insights. So teams don’t make strategic decisions and ultimately don’t move the needle for key metrics.

Characteristics of this state:

  • HiPPo-driven decision-making leads to 12-month feature roadmaps.
  • “We know best what users need“-attitude when thinking about options to build something or uncovering customer insights.
  • Ship-and-forget handling of projects.
  • No measuring of product success against user or business goals.

Clear signs you have to move on:

More and more “ideas” have failed to move relevant user or business goals (especially months after being shipped). Instead, these initiatives simply boosted egos when something was delivered exactly as specified by management. Teams question why so much of their effort goes into “building the thing right” instead of “building the right thing,” and start to assume a lack of vision.

When Bottom-up Discovery Motions go off-track because of lacking tangible Connection to Business Priorities (Made visible through Reverse-Impact Mapping)

When Bottom-up Discovery Motions go off-track because of lacking tangible Connection to Business Priorities (Made visible via Reverse-Impact Mapping)

Getting out of the Neglected stage will mean you have to start systematizing your approach to discovery and start to build real processes to follow.

A, as in ALIBI Product Discovery

It’s unlikely that any company will go from Neglected straight to Adapted Product Discovery. Instead, as different teams and leaders try to implement better practices, they will lack a unified plan for better Discovery. This may come from a dearth of team knowledge, an absence of cohesion or simply a scarcity of resources to invest in creating and scaling processes in-house. 

When that happens, people may rely too much on surface-level insight and outsourcing decisions. Rather than take ownership of the process and results, they find an Alibi to back up their Product Discovery choices –– deferring to the CEO or outside research, for example –– instead of embracing a deeper level of Discovery.

Characteristics of this state:

  • A research “phase” is introduced to the roadmap, in which everyone’s opinion on “Should we build this?” is sourced.
  • User interactions are outsourced to external vendors without qa-ing the quality of their methodology. (Focus groups, anyone?)
  • Separate Discovery teams are set up to run all kinds of ideation sessions and design sprints to hand over specified ideas to delivery teams.

Clear signs you have to move on: 

The value of this Discovery work is questioned due to the lack of actionable insight available to product teams and its black-box nature (“What is this team/agency doing, exactly?”). In addition, the overhead of handovers and external vendor orchestration requires a dedicated role. 

Consequences and Tensions of Discovery and Delivery Team Handovers

The Consequences and Tensions of Discovery and Delivery Team Handovers

Getting out of the Alibi state means upskilling your teams so important decisions and oversight happens internally. It also means creating a better workflow for Product Discovery that aligns internal teams so Discovery is better integrated in all the areas it affects.

D, as in DOGMATIC Product Discovery

As your teams become more comfortable with deliberate Product Discovery and gain knowledge of best practices, they may jump into a rigid, Dogmatic adherence to different “rules” of discovery. This represents a significant step forward because it means teams are actively thinking about and incorporating systematized Product Discovery, but it comes with downsides.

Characteristics of this state:

  • Teams religiously adopt arbitrary cadences (number of interviews, number of a/b tests) without questioning the validity of their context.
  • Teams tend to document every tip, guide or how-to on the market to maximize their usage of any and all pre-existing frameworks, canvases, and templates.
  • Organizations chase the one, carefully-designed process that can be rolled out and monitored across all teams.

Clear signs you have to move on:

Teams feel like the process and act of Discovery get in their way of creating value. Completing a Discovery task gets more priority than the quality of insights generated and decisions made, and the seemingly irrational volume of work causes questions.

Prioritizing Adapted Actions over Dogmatic Defaults to focus on Decisions, instead of just Motions

Prioritizing Adapted Actions over Dogmatic Defaults to focus
on Decisions, instead of just Motions

Getting out of the Dogmatic state requires turning knowledge into practical wisdom: Knowledge is understanding different frameworks, tactics or metrics that your team can use. Wisdom is understanding which of these you need to modify for your team at a given time. This may mean slowing down or paring back in some places and adding new parts of the process in others in order to maximize outcomes and minimize busywork.

A, as in ADAPTED Product Discovery

Successfully taking steps to get over the hurdles in the Neglected, Alibi and Dogmatic states will lead you towards a more Adapted state of Product Discovery practices. This state is a marriage of the best of established practices and custom workflows, in which teams are able to navigate Product Discovery largely without running into the common roadblocks or setbacks above.

Characteristics of this state:

  • Teams get educated, encouraged, and staffed to mix and match techniques and methodologies on their terms.
  • Communities of practice and the “Golden Path”-like guidance are the glue across teams.
  • Leadership focuses on providing strategic context and infrastructure to let teams do whatever is needed to reduce uncertainty.

While you can always improve Product Discovery, if you are in the Adapted state, your teams have a good base to work from. This should be an empowering and effective way of approaching Discovery that takes the best from conventional practices with custom processes for the specific needs of your team and product.

Evolving Discovery Practices is rarely linear

And keep in mind that these states can overlap, different teams may be in slightly different states, and that there is often not a clear progression from one state to the next. Rather, the NADA evolution represents, like all Discovery practices, a continual evaluation and response to all that is happening in and around your Product decisions.

There are, of course, more attributes evolving with each stage: Things like leadership culture, company-level prioritization patterns, and handling of budgets (funding initiatives vs. funding accountable teams). These should develop in tandem with better Product Discovery practices and wider-spread and more consistent Product Discovery adoption.

I don’t demonize or judge teams or companies at each stage. Your status quo is what it is, and each step can be a great starting point for developing better practices instead of chasing best practices or thinking your development will follow a linear path. The characteristics are often simple facts. The question is if an organization can make conscious decisions to improve or is stuck in a stage due to unconscious behaviors –– and my experience shows that deliberate improvement is possible for any company that commits to it.

This piece is part of my “Scaling Product Discovery” series. Navigate to the next piece by clicking the arrow just above on your right, or go to the series introduction here

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