Product thinking: build what your customers need

During a recent innovation workshop with several Senior Vice Presidents from a Fortune 500 company, one of the executives in the room asked, “We have $5 million in funding and we have one try to get it right! How can you guarantee we won’t fail?”

The unease in the room was palpable. None of the company’s prior “innovation initiatives" had ever gone as planned, so why would this situation be any different? You could see the proverbial cogs spinning in everyone's heads, calculating the amount of time remaining before they were consumed by the purging flames of failure. Their anxiety got me thinking, “How can creativity exist when the penalties for failure are so high, and can innovation exist in this culture?”

Innovation by Dilbert

DILBERT © 2012 Scott Adams. Used By permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

In today’s business culture, the term innovation has become a sacred word — a semi-mythical unicorn often sought from hip agencies where people wear a lot of flannel and have untrimmed facial hair. Frankly speaking, we believe that’s a load of crap. Chances are, your company has what it takes within its own four walls, but it may take changing how everyone thinks and behaves.

We’re talking about Product Thinking. And because you’re on our website, it is safe to assume we’re talking about digital products, or technology being part of the enablement for your strategy.

Product versus project

Innovation is not a project. A project is something you do on the weekend, preferably outside, staining your deck, or building a treehouse. One and done. Innovation, rather, is part of an organization’s DNA — long term. When you’re creating any type of software to solve a business need, it's a product. It doesn’t matter if it is used by employees or if it is a high-volume, public website used by your customers — your audience transacts, gets frustrated, makes mistakes, and has needs from your product. As such, businesses should design with their needs first and foremost.

As a product, we probably should take best practices from the venture capital world and fund as if we would fund a startup. “Sounds like a great idea? Here’s fifty grand, show me what you guys can do.” I’ve written about rapid prototyping as a means for validation, but the more important takeaway is that products need ongoing, incremental funding to be successful. Because industries change, customer needs change. Because technology has a shelf life, a multi-year investment strategy that maps to a return versus a one-off, can’t fail, must-get-this-right big bang, is a better approach.

Product thinking: build what your customers need

And because it is a product, let’s not be afraid to let it fail. To minimize risk, however, center your enterprise investment strategy around inexpensive trials of many great ideas and really expensive roadmaps of products that gain traction with user testing and market validation. Curiously, great seed ideas tend to mutate into what the market actually needs over their lifetime. As long as you’re willing to listen, your customers will tell you how to evolve your product to better serve them.

Demystifying innovation

I recently had a good discussion with our Vice President of Business Development on the misconceptions around innovation. What we concluded was that innovation is really artful execution of ideas that already exist within a company. A culture that tolerates failure, embraces change, and empowers employees is needed. A different funding strategy is needed. A unique skill set is needed. Forget the AirBnB’s, Ubers, and all the other innovation examples used in conferences to demonstrate how innovation can “disrupt” the market. Many organizations we work with are already steering the product vision of a multi-billion dollar business that has myriad opportunities to innovate.

The innovative ideas are in the minds of your team, on the front-lines of field service personnel, the bank terminal operators, and the machine engineers. Introduce enterprise mobility and remove the paper trail from the order execution workflow. As a result, work orders completed by the same team increase by 40 percent. Respond to your mobile banking customer needs with frequent feature releases and increase retention by 20 percent. Millions of dollars saved.

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Product-centric funding

Product-centric funding

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