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Innovation requires a lot more than just talking to customers

I recently participated in a discussion on a Yahoo! developer group list on the question of who owns innovation.  There was consensus that creative ideas can come from anywhere and everyone is responsible for contributing to innovative outcomes.  There also needs to be an owner, and for me, that owner should be the product manager.  But, innovation does not happen just by telling the product team to be innovative.  It is a discipline with its own techniques and skills that can and need to be learned.

This discussion got me thinking because although I stated that product management should own the innovation process including the idea pipeline and innovation portfolio, I wondered how many companies take the time to teach their product managers how to be innovation leaders, equipping them with the skills necessary to facilitate the creative process in their teams and deliver innovative products and services.  In practice, the majority of product management work focuses around existing products and incremental improvement.  This makes it hard to get into the mindset of nurturing a breakthrough product that delivers substantially more value than the alternatives.   Further, there is little discussion within product management about the mechanics of innovation.   In fact, almost all my knowledge of innovation has come from adjacent fields to product management such as market research, strategy, psychology, product development, and design.

One practice that has been widely accepted in our product management discipline is to get out of the building and talk to customers. This is a great technique and one in which we often need to be reminded. But this method to identify new opportunities, which was a ground breaking idea in the early ‘90’s when many product managers spent all their time in the office, is widely adopted and practiced.  If you want to gain an edge on your competition, you need to go further, to gain more insight and tap the creative potential of your team.

I’ll be sharing more about innovation in future posts, but if your team is struggling to develop innovative solutions that are superior to the competition, give us a call.

4 Responses to Innovation requires a lot more than just talking to customers

  1. Brian Lawley Aug 10, 2010 at 10:29 am #

    One of the best techniques that I have seen for innovation is to have the company set up an advanced technology engineering group (ATG) and then have one or more product managers work with them. We did this at Apple years ago and it worked well.

    Oftentimes when talking with the ATG engineers they would show us what they were working on and our knowledge from visiting customers would spawn a new product idea.

    The challenge with this is then having a way to productize those ideas quickly and get them to market. For example, some of the most useful Human Interface ideas didn’t show up until MacOSX ten years later. There would have been great value in shipping them earlier.

  2. Christine Crandell Aug 11, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    This dynamic – that everyone contributes to innovation but Product Managers own it – is what makes a systematic approach to internal collaboration so crucial to the innovation process. Informally collecting ideas from throughout the organization and deciding yourself – as a product manager – which ideas are best leads to bias and often allows the PM’s bosses to have the greatest influence even when their ideas aren’t as good. Product managers need a neutral and data-based way to foster the discipline of innovation within their own company that properly weights the feedback from all parties, customers included, to improve the consistency of marketable innovation. When ideas are collected, but aren’t incorporated and evaluated throughout the innovation cycle, success of the product becomes increasingly a matter of chance.

    - Christine Crandell, Accept Corporation
    http://www.accept360.com

  3. Tamer Rafla Sep 17, 2010 at 10:06 am #

    I firmly agree with the fact that Product Management should spearhead the innovation process and be the driving force behind facilitating the establishment of the idea pipeline. Product Managers should be seen as “market sensors” and go beyond the organizational barriers to seek their customers’ inputs and feedback. This activity should be at the forefront of every effective management process. Unfortunately, this is not the case for software product management. How can best practices from different industries be applied to devise a sustainable product management process?

    Manufacturing companies are starting to adopt this way of thinking through the TQM (Total Quality Management) and engaged into an extroverted management approach by bringing in their customers into their value chain. Actually, the quality management philosophy is comparable to the product management world through the “market sensing” of the Seven Pillars which consists in identifying market inputs and aggregating them into problems.

  4. Jen Berkley Jackson Jan 23, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    Great post! Love your suggestion that talking to the customers can help inspire great innovation based on a deep understanding of what is really going on vs. what your company THINKS is going on with your products/services.

    Sounds like the perfect one, two punch!

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