Create change as a storyteller of the future – for product managers
Today we are talking about how organizations can better support innovators and improve their innovation capability, taking a systems perspective. The work product managers and leaders do is the life blood of organizations, creating innovations that drive revenue and contribute to a sustainable organization. To help us do this even better, we have an expert guest, Dan McClure.
He is a systems strategist and agile product manager who helps organizations envision and create high impact innovations. He has over 30 years of hands-on experience shaping systems-level initiatives that combine business and technology.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[3:5] You’re an innovation strategist and architect. What do you mean by that?
I strategize about a solution in an interconnected system. Instead of improving just one piece of the current system, I think about reinventing the entire system. For example, instead of improving a taxi service by putting charge card capabilities in the cabs, innovation strategists reimagined the entire industry and created Uber and Lyft, changing not just one piece but all the pieces. An innovation strategist sees a big, complex problem and makes all the changes necessary to imagine an entirely new way of working.
[6:40] Why do so many organizations struggle to create impactful innovation that matters?
The challenge is usually not getting innovation done but making the innovation big enough to matter strategically and over the long-term for the company. It’s difficult to get the entire organization to embrace a big, complex change. Innovators need to imagine how to create big change that works.
[9:05] What needs to change in the product leader role to support systems innovation?
A lot of people think that product work means identifying a user, selecting a user need, and delighting the customer by creating an effective product that satisfies the need. This model helps you focus on what you’re trying to do and whom you’re trying to do it for, but imagine a more complex real-life situation: You’re planning a holiday party for all your extended family. You have to satisfy every family member, and there’s no single user. You have to design that party not to delight one person but to provide value to satisfy the needs of everyone. We call this “everyone needs to get a pony.” There has to be a solution in which trade-offs are recognized and balanced and all the pieces come together so everyone walks away satisfied.
In the business world, similar challenges occur. Imagine you need to integrate a new technology into a hospital’s operation. You need to create value for the administrators, doctors, nurses, vendors, and trainers. The system solution is not about delighting one person. It’s about seeing how all the pieces fit together and how we make a whole, functioning solution that is complete, sustainable, and scalable.
People are an integral part of these types of systems, and these types of problems are complex and messy. Systems thinkers have called these “wicked problems,” which sound impossible to solve, but the systems tools are also incredibly powerful, and that’s exciting.
[14:40] What kind of work does a leader do to help an organization be successful in system innovation?
We call this role of system innovation leader a choreographer. Choreographers see the whole problem, not just one stakeholder or function but the entire interconnected web of challenges and opportunities.
Next, they imagine a future system that’s better than the existing system. In the past, many innovators would see the whole problem and start chipping away at individual pieces. That doesn’t necessarily lead to a future system that’s better. A choreographer imagines an entirely different system where all the pieces fit together in a new way.
Choreographers are centipede-shaped—they have many legs in lots of different areas of specialty that often don’t relate to one another. Because they can see across many domains, they can work with many different types of users. They tend to be boundary-breakers and are often seen as rebels within traditional companies.
Finally, choreographers are great storytellers. They help people imagine a new future.
[18:57] Is the choreographer role usually filled by an individual or a team?
Choreographers often come in pairs. One is a visionary who imagines the future, and the other is more practical and shows how to get to the future.
[21:42] Some product managers see that their industry is headed toward disruption; they’re concerned with what the future might bring; and they have some ideas about what to do. What should they do to get their organization to pay attention to the problem?
First, find your natural allies—people who resonate with the story and bring the skills and capabilities you need. Find a choreographer or realize you can be that person yourself. Choreographers tell stories. Rabble rousers march into their boss’s office, say the world is coming to an end, and march out. That doesn’t move people forward. System innovators show the problem and how ugly it is and then present a vision of how things could be. They imagine the future and that becomes the path forward.
[26:06] How do we deal with organizational resistance to change?
The “frozen middle” refers to middle management who is very dedicated to preserving the systems of the status quo. You’re not going to persuade someone whose job is defending the status quo to embrace the level of change you want. You may need to work around those people instead of making them supporters of the change. Don’t try to change everything across the entire organization all at once. Instead, look for a vertical slice—a senior executive, some middle managers, and people on the ground who all want to take the adventure of creating a new slice of the system. Execute a portion of the total vision, moving you in the right direction and answering key questions like, Is there really a market? Will this really work? How will these people collaborate? This method positions you to make adaptive choices that move you toward the future.
Action Guide: Put the information Dan shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Learn more about system innovation at InnovationEcosystem.com
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and presumably will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in the hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die.” - Daniel Burnham, 19th century innovation architect
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.