Product Managers & Innovation

Thanks everyone for the great conversation in the most recent #prodmgmttalk chat session!  This week, Roger Cauvin inspired us to think about product managers as innovators – or enablers of innovation.  Each week, I find myself thinking about at least one of the #prodmgmttalk questions long after the hour is over.  This week’s thought – organizations prevent product managers from innovating.

Innovation and Product Management

What a great topic.  I’ve never met a product manager with a goal of solving valuable problems who didn’t aspire to creating innovative products.  Maybe you’re out there – say howdy if you are.  Roger’s topics, Cindy and Adrienne’s moderation, and the great community that is forming around the weekly #prodmgmttalk chats created a great hour of thought provoking discussion (brainmates’ summary;  full transcript).

Before diving into how organizations prevent product managers from innovating, I want to frame the discussion around a particular definition of innovation.

While there were several different definitions of innovation proposed during the session, I’m partial to one that I articulated during an  Accept 360 webinar last year on Innovation and Transparency (videoslides).

From the presentation on Innovation and Transparency:

Innovation = Valuable Invention

Putting it visually:

For a product manager – the focus is on discovering the value.

Roger has a great perspective on this product-management-centric view of innovation:

True innovation comes from understanding the problem in solution-neutral terms. So Product Management first attempts to understand the problem thoroughly & communicate it to designers. By framing the problem clearly, Product Management enables designers to unleash their creativity & skills. Peter Drucker speaks of “purposeful”, systematic innovation. Product Management is a big part of systematising innovation.

Roger Cauvin via Brainmates

However, innovation is not just about solving valuable problems (that’s just good product management) – and does not have to start “market first.”  Innovation can also come from discovering applications of novel technology – invention.

A researcher discovers an adhesive that is not strong enough for tape – but can be used over and over – and we have sticky-notes.  Another scientist accidentally leaves a chemical mixture in a beaker overnight and tada! – bullet-proof glass.  This is the view of innovation that seems most pervasive in the collective consciousness – someone invents some awesome thing and then finds a good use for it.

You can have a sequence that works either way – discovering market applications for a new technology, or inventing solutions that address market problems.  Innovation is what you get when you do both.

Another fun example to think about – the light bulb.  Did Mr. Edison start with a market problem (candles are not a good solution to “see stuff at night”) and end up with a light bulb?  Or did he start with an invention (distributable electricity as a service), and try and “invent” a market use?  I never met the guy :), but my hunch is the latter.

The problem is that product managers aren’t inventors looking for market opportunities.  We don’t create hammers and run around looking for nails (or things to hang up).  We engage our market, discover that bare walls are a problem (and people are willing to pay to solve it); then we work with our teams to find ways to hang pictures.

Common Organizational Approach to Innovation

I’ve worked both for and with several companies – large and small – that take this inside-out approach to developing innovative products.  Google is famously known for their “twenty percent time” – which gave us GMail and Google News.  Microsoft now has a policy where employees get to keep the intellectual property (and a share of the revenue) from their side projects.  Inventor-inspired (or developer-driven) projects are more likely to create something novel, and less likely to create something valuable.

As a related anecdotal data point – what percentage of start-ups actually succeed in the market?  I bet there are hundreds or thousands of failed start-ups for every winner.  Most small businesses close their doors in less than five years.  However, that stat includes all businesses, as this great discussion on Quora highlights.  Still – even those statistics reflect business failures, not product failures.  Most businesses have a failed product or two (or two hundred) in their past.  Even Facebook’s first “product” failed, before Mr. Zuckerberg created The Facebook.

Back to organizations.

In the crazy stream of conversation, the following caught my eye:

Whether Product Managers are innovators or innovation enablers depends on the organisation & size of your group. Additionally some orgs have a Product Planning role which precedes Product Managers, moving them to an innovation enabler role.

Rich Velazquez via Brainmates

Yup. Seen that a lot. Don’t care for it.  I think it is dysfunctional to decide what products to create / problems to solve without product management.

That neuters your product managers – making them order takers – and they lose the ability to birth innovative products, left to only participate as midwives in the process.

Bill Bliss wrote an article with great visuals describing the product planning process, (check it out) where he shows how the flow from “vision and mission” breaks down before it gets to products.  He highlights that responsibility shifts from one group to another, and that the process typically breaks during that translation of goals into products (he says ‘projects’).  He references a great article from the Silicon Valley Product Group on establishing a product council that assures product management participation (among other things) in that key “decide where to invest” step.

When product managers don’t participate in the planning process, we don’t have strategic relevance, and we aren’t innovators – we’re order takers.

Call to Action

If you’re in an order taker role with a product manager title, your goal should be to inject yourself into the decision making process.  The specific steps you need to take depend on your specific circumstances.  The skills you need are the ones you already have – story-telling, inspiration, leadership-without-authority, stakeholder management, executive communication.

OK.  So – go do it.

ps: If you weren’t here (at Tyner Blain) in 2006, go read these Top Ten Tips for Preventing Innovation.  Another tip would now be “prevent product managers from deciding where to innovate.”

24 thoughts on “Product Managers & Innovation

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  5. Nice article, Scott, and thanks for the shout-out. I’m glad you liked it.

    I never really thought about relating innovation to invention and value in this way but it makes a lot of sense — I’m going to remember that and use it!

    BTW, regarding the terms product vs. project… The taxonomy I’m using is that a product is made up of separate features, and every time you create a new feature or enhance an existing one, it’s in the form of a project, which in turn is made of of dev tasks (or user stories for Agile shops).

    I’ll see if there’s a way to make that more clear in that post and going forward.

    1. Thanks, Bill!

      Yeah, I figured we were on the same page. I think of ‘product’ as what we need to create, and ‘project’ as what we need to do to get the product created. Both are fun and challenging, and require very different skills and activities!

      Oh, and welcome to Tyner Blain. Again – great article, thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Andrej!

      For Inside-Out, we’re talking about starting with a tool, and looking for something to build. By (tired) analogy – we have a hammer, who needs a nail hammered?.

      More practically, think in terms of capabilities that you have – ideally, your core competencies. For example, Facebook has a built-in “tell my friends what I’m doing” capability (or “know what my friends are doing” if you look at the other side of the coin). Have a brainstorming session about things people might do with that capability. Don’t worry about vetting the problems initially (for value, or who has them, or if they are real, or nuances) – just identify a bunch of things you might be able to do. Some ideas: Casual games send updates, encouraging other people to join the game; Phone-tree “peer to peers” messaging (like “school is delayed today because of the snowpocalypse”); Any type of product fan-casting (a word-of-mouth vector for getting fans of your product to tell their friends about how much they like it); Collaborative book writing (friends give feedback or edits or contribute to the writing).

      When I was working as an electromechanical design engineer, each time our research department came up with a new technological discovery or invention, I would mentally go through my list of problems I was trying to solve, and see if I could apply that new-but-un-purposed capability to solving any of my problems. That analogy may work for some teams. Imagine your database wizards said “we can now respond to searches in 10ns for 1M concurrent queries” – how would you apply that to your website? You might implement some user interactions that leverage search (behind the scenes) to make some static parts of your site dynamic. Or you might eliminate some manual steps in one of your business processes – instead of “tagging” stuff to match a particular index so that it can be found quickly, now you just provide a more discerning query.

      Does that help?

      For the record, I am biased towards encouraging people to discover valuable problems (outside-in) as the impetus to invent. I think great engineers are always inventing anyway, and just have a low “hit rate” in terms of having their creations aligned with valuable problems their employers are willing to solve.

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