Improving and Scaling your company’s Product Discovery practices with Sarah Reeves from The Stepstone Group

While scaling Product Discovery can look different in each individual company, seeing what others have done to improve their efforts provides a valuable window into different methods that may be adapted to your unique setup. It can also help you anticipate common mistakes that your teams may also run into as you scale.

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Last Updated: Sep. 18, 2023

Improving your company’s Product Discovery practices with Sarah Reeves from The Stepstone Group Article Header Illustration

Explore the "Scaling Product Discovery" Series

I have the pleasure of working with Sarah Reeves, a Senior Product Ops Manager at The Stepstone Group to improve their product practices for Discovery and OKRs. While not everything that The Stepstone Group has done needs to be copied exactly, Sarah’s learnings provide critical retrospective. Together, we rehashed the progress her company has made and discussed four of the fundamental principles we found that should be followed when scaling product discovery practices. 

1. Treat the Adoption of Product Discovery like a Product

Starting small, measuring progress, and iterating accordingly are principles most product teams apply to shipping solutions. One of Sarah’s biggest takeaways was to take these principles beyond the product and use them to shape the way teams work.  

“Do an MVP for certain areas to find and prove value quickly,” she recommends. That will give you “evidence to show the benefit of working this way.” 

In practice, that means: Define a clear MVP for how you want to change things, test it with a small group of the organization, and measure progress to prove the value of your initiative. This will make it easier to scale upskilling efforts that have worked.

Learn - Measure - Build Approach for Discovery Adoption MVP

Taking a Learn - Measure - Build Approach for Product Discovery Adoption

2. Democratizing Learning Increases Engagement with New Practices

The Stepstone Group saw a strong intrinsic pull from some people around improving their Product Discovery practices, but that didn’t mean the whole company dove in. While those early adopters were eager to engage in training or coaching to improve, if you want to change how an entire organization works, new practices must cross the chasm to engage less enthusiastic team members. 

As Sarah says, “Democratize the process. Make sure that everyone knows that this is something available to them and can see the value of it.” 

For Stepstone, that meant offering space for knowledge-building and skill-sharing even for those who were focusing on other areas. They instituted Community of Practice sessions where people who had ‘done it’ could share their experiences and encourage others to try new techniques or approaches for understanding problems/testing solutions.

Crossing the Chasm of Product Discovery Adoption (2023)

Crossing the Chasm of Product Discovery Adoption through Democratized Learning and Communities of Practice

Sarah and another member of the Product Ops team “created a timetable of topics that people would be interested in, or things we knew that were coming up and people might want to talk about.” Then, they encouraged product managers to share what they did. 

“It might have just been a five minute chat to start with,” Sarah said, “and then we'd have a longer discussion, where people in different areas might say, I don't understand how that would work for me, can anyone help me to apply that?”

In this way, Sarah’s team was able to engage people who may not have taken to new Product Discovery tactics right away, and to continue momentum for those that had. Everyone learned from each other and could see how to apply their new knowledge to their projects immediately.

Another less formal avenue for The Stepstone Group was an internal  Discovery blog. This was a space where Sarah encouraged people to jot down their ideas and learnings without needing to present a perfect and polished story.

“I asked product managers to share any discovery that they've done, good or bad, to highlight that you have to start somewhere.”

And rather than focus on only the wins, Sarah’s company encouraged product managers and teams to  share the reality that scaling Product Discovery isn’t all smooth sailing.

 “We focused on specific topics, for example continuous interviewing and how you might approach it, with a team’s recent example of what their challenges or successes were.”

This meant that everyone involved in Discovery had the opportunity –– and encouragement –– to share what they were seeing and learning, not just those who were the most gung-ho or having the most early boosts.

3. Increase the Visibility of Discovery Efforts for Cross-Functional Success

Shifting from a feature-first approach to more actual Discovery work impacts more than just the product teams of a company. It also affects sales, marketing, and customer support teams. For The Stepstone Group, that meant transparentizing more of its testing efforts.

“Make sure that you're communicating really clearly to your stakeholders the value of what you're doing, your approach, and why you're doing that.”

They did this by creating dashboards that highlighted current and upcoming experiments to reduce the perception of Discovery being a black box. This meant that different stakeholders could have a better understanding of what was happening and could prepare their teams accordingly.

4. Balance Adapting High-level Guidance with Tailored Practical Applications

When new ways of working are introduced, teams often crave specific step-by-step instructions for how to do things. This works when trying to cook someone else’s recipe to the ingredient, but it can get in your way when Product Teams must find the approach that works for their specific context. 

Sarah and the Product Ops team experimented with many ways to get people the information they needed. First, they tried a high-level Mural to illustrate potential processes, which felt too theoretical, and left people wanting more details. This led to a more in-depth playbook, which covered a lot of ground but was too detailed. 

So the team returned to more high-level guidance in the form of the original Mural, and a more lightweight version of the playbook. They incorporated feedback from each approach to strike the right balance between the vision and high-level reasoning and the practical knowledge that people need to incorporate learnings into their day-to-day.

Centrally Provided Discovery Practices and Guidance lead to Individual Application by Product Teams

How Centrally Provided Discovery Practices and Guidance lead to Individual Application by Product Teams (see also Spotify's Golden Path Approach)

To ensure common ground and consistency of approach, Sarah and the Product Ops team also asked me to train over 100 members of the Stepstone product teams on Adaptable Discovery practices.  

This included the Product Manager, UXer and Lead Dev from each Scrum team –– the “Product Trio” –– so as to improve communication, collaboration and speed of execution within the teams.  

But Sarah and the team knew that a further helping hand would benefit teams eager to kick off their discovery work. Their prior experience  balancing guidance with practical application led us to agree to complement the training with a series of coaching sessions for those teams.  In these sessions I helped the product trios to apply the appropriate discovery techniques to the context in which they were working.  

By taking an adaptable, pragmatic approach, the teams found success in accelerating the speed at which they developed an understanding of user needs and delivered the right solutions. 

In turn, the teams were much more confident in building discovery into their day-to-day ways of working and demonstrating the value it delivers.  

Which leads to the next point…

Scaling Product Discovery Isn’t Just a Series of Processes, It’s a Culture Shift

What Sarah Reeves and The Stepstone Group’s experience shows is that working on Product Discovery adoption is about more than just giving teams a series of processes to repeat and then expecting things to improve. Not only do you need to upskill employees across teams as well as evaluate and improve your Discovery practices, you need to build an organizational culture that prioritizes the type of work that leads to better Product Discovery.

For The Stepstone Group, this meant not just investing in formal training, but building more informal knowledge networks. Not just teaching so-called best practices, but finding a balance between supplying more general strategic guidance and generating adaptable Discovery methods that teams could adopt with meaning.

Scaling Product Discovery beyond Training at The StepStone Group

Scaling Product Discovery beyond Training at The StepStone Group

These shifts are more than operational, and it’s no surprise. Because Product Discovery is a practice that shapes the way your company operates, and because that process is never finished, a culture shift is necessary to make changes stick. A more robust and supportive company mentality is also what’s needed to drive wider-spread adoption. Improving your Product Discovery requires deep work, but the results can be critical for your company and empowering for your employees.

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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