How to capture & canonize phenomena in your organization
Understanding the connection between research and prioritization
More often than not, organizations lack an understanding of how mixed methods research could and should impact how they determine what the priorities should be for product development. In the process of crafting a product or feature, most organizations view research as a supplemental activity. They fail to see that "research" is the process by which products and features should be created.
For whatever reason, organizations behave paralytically and cautiously around research activities. I believe many organizations behave this way because research carries weighty academic connotations. They expect that by doing any kind of research, or by introducing more rigor into their product development process, that they, in turn, will be over-leveraged by double-blind studies, placebos, and other characteristics familiar to a laboratory. This is simply not the case. Organizations can move nimbly and still integrate valuable activities that will move them out of expensive iterative conjectures, and into the practice of building theories.
One of the first ways to start introducing these activities is to ensure that key phenomena that occur in the business and marketplace are captured.
How to recognize phenomena in an organization
A phenomenon is an event that can be observed, but normally has a cause that is unclear or difficult to explain. Too many organizations stumble upon phenomenon in their businesses and immediately start reacting to what is observed. It would be wiser for organizations to recognize a phenomenon for what it is, accept that they have no causal understanding and that they are equipped with little more than assumptions about how to truly respond to them. Many well-intentioned practitioners would say I'm proposing inaction. What I'm really proposing is precise, accurate, and efficient action. By understanding the context and surrounding causality of a phenomenon, organizations are enabled to create solutions that are extremely appropriate, timely, and aware of the circumstances and unmet needs of their customers.
You will most commonly see and observe the phenomenon in the review and measurement of existing efforts and their corresponding impact. This could be during the review of a product's engagement, an analysis of a product's ROI, customer feedback, or even inbound misperceptions that your customer service team fields. They're everywhere in a business, but you need to accept a few basic truths before you start seeing them. You need to accept that you do not have all of the answers. You need to accept that you make assumptions that are dangerously expensive to your organization every single day, regardless of how many glass walls your office has. You need to accept that quantity and numeric models will not directly explain causality. When you find yourself in that frame of mind, you become more curious than zealous. You'll start recognizing interesting things happening around you, that are imperative to learn about and understand.
Organizations that are able to see phenomenon tend to investigate them, and it's rare not to see transformative outcomes in these situations.
Airbnb experienced this first hand early on as a young startup. As they were responding to some high initial demand and traction for their service, they made the decision in 2009 to expand to New York City. Unfortunately, the hosts in New York were not seeing the same amount of growth that many of the initial markets were seeing. The founders decided to book Airbnb's with 24 different hosts in New York to try and understand what the issue was first hand. As they did so, they quickly realized that _most_ of the hosts were terrible at creating a quality listing— with poor photography being at the top of the list. Co-founder Joe Gebbia said:
The photos were really bad. People were using camera phones and taking Craigslist-quality pictures. Surprise! No one was booking because you couldn't see what you were paying for.
None of the hosts had means or access to the type of camera equipment needed to take high-quality photos. They responded by personally photographing as many of the host's homes in New York City as they possibly could which resulted in an immediate 3X increase in bookings. That push for higher quality photos has become a freelance network of 2000+ photographers that Airbnb contracts with every single day to help their hosts create amazing listings.
Joe and Brian recognized a phenomenon around the number of listings in New York compared to the rest of the market. They deliberately sought to understand the phenomenon's causation, hypothesized that quality images would increase bookings, and saw massive growth in that market. And the most beautiful part is that they heuristically built a theory around the effectiveness and impact of photography on their business. This theory could be applied to all of their proceeding markets. It was an invaluable activity that has fueled their unique and unparalleled growth.
Capturing & canonizing phenomena
Capturing phenomenon becomes a disciplined approach to how an organization views their current and future priorities. If you build a funnel for these types of observed and unexplained events to be captured and understood, you'll change the culture of how your products are built across the entire organization. Phenomena occur in sales demos, event booths, customer interviews, support tickets, etc. They do not exist within a product development vacuum. You need to find a way that every employee in your business feels responsible and accountable to capture and champion these observed phenomena.
I would suggest you think about this effort in two ways:
- How will we create an environment and place for our employees to regularly surface their observations?
- How will we ensure we canonize what was observed without biasing future development efforts with assumptions?
Creating an environment to surface phenomena
I'm not too keen on fabricating new meetings, but this is one area I highly suggest giving time to. Formalize a reoccurring and open meeting where any employee can bring their observed phenomenon, and present it to the rest of the attendees. This is particularly effective with teams that don't have a direct impact on the development of new products but are still privy to valuable phenomena. A digital marketing manager may not make any decisions on what will be built, but they're observing behavior that should inform those that do. You'll start to see team members that are abstracted from the development of new offerings be less concerned with the product that you don't currently have, and be engaged with what questions you're going to answer next.
his meeting needs to be conducted in such a way that it stays focused on observations rather than proposed solutions. If you're not careful and effective in facilitating this meeting, it will be tempting for team members to inundate this meeting with feature requests. For the first few months, consider asking employees to submit what they would like to bring to this meeting beforehand so you can screen and refine before risking the purpose of the meeting. That being said a large part of ensuring that this is done well is attributed to how you are canonizing phenomenon.
You need to find a way that your organization will be able to articulate and define the phenomenon that they see, without jumping to conclusions. Consider creating a template that has specific questions that encourage mindful awareness of what they observed and correlative details. You could ask the following:
- "Describe what you observed"
- "Can you tell us a little bit about what led up to this?"
- "What questions popped into your head because of this?"
- "Do you think this can be observed and measured again?"
- "What do you think we need to learn about next?"
These types of questions force the observer to stay focused on the observed phenomenon instead of trying to form conjectures. You'll gradually build a descriptive repository of highly valuable, but unanswered questions. They can be updated, managed, and merged as you move forward. Eventually, it will come time for these phenomena to change the priorities of what you research and eventually build. The exciting part is that if you've made it this far, generally your conversations begin to transition away from what guess you're going to try next to what questions should be answered today. If done right, capturing phenomenon will become the bedrock and impetus for measurably positive outcomes in your business.
We plan to cover next how you can systemically prioritize these phenomena, and what variables to consider when doing so. Until next time we would love to hear about what challenges you are facing in capturing you phenomenon, strategies that have helped along the way, and processes that have helped enable your organization to do so.