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How product managers can give their products momentum to get across the finish line
Identifying the strategies that accelerate innovation starts with the question: “What do the world’s best innovation teams do differently?” To find the answer, we are talking with Matt Phillips, who interviewed over 100 new product innovation leaders, identifying six key strategies they use to cut through bureaucracy, find winning ideas sooner, and improve their success rate at launch.
Matt is the founder of Phillips & Co., a Chicago-based innovation strategy firm. The company’s team of researchers, strategists, and inventors helps organizations reimagine their future and invent new products, services, and brands. Matt has an interesting educational background, with an MBA in Marketing from The Kellogg School of Management. He also graduated from the Conservatory Program in Improvisation at The Second City in Chicago.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[4:08] After interviewing 100 product and innovation leaders, you identified six key strategies that improve innovation. Can you take us through those?
As a consultant, I’ve seen that the biggest challenge has been projects that grind to a halt or fade away. If you could speed things up, that momentum would get more projects to the finish line.
The six strategies:
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[4:46] Question the question.
A company called A. Y. McDonald, which makes plumbing parts for city waterworks, wanted us to help them invent new products. At the kickoff, we asked what their last breakthrough product was. They told us about a valve that came out in the late sixties. If you run a public water system, the last thing you want is a newfangled product—you want the same reliable product over and over. At our first meeting, we suggested we reframe what A. Y. McDonald had hired us to do. Instead of answering, “What new products can we create?” we could answer the basic question, “How do we make more money?” We worked on answering both questions at the same time. Most of the successes were non-product successes around marketing, distribution, and user experience. Eventually we got to products, but knowing there was an extreme uphill battle, we decided to question the question.
If you’re handed a challenge by the product team, CEO, or customer, first step back and ask, “Is that even the right question to work on?” That accelerates things because often teams spend months or years on a question that many people on the team know isn’t even the right question.
[8:10] Build dream teams.
Walt Mossberg asked Steve Jobs, “How do you turn out such amazing products at Apple?” He said, “Walt, do you know how many committees we have at Apple? Zero.” Apple was organized like a startup. Every product had a team built and dedicated to work on it. After a class I taught at Kellogg, one of the students who had worked at Apple told me an interesting story about the team that ran the software Garage Band, which allows you to record different musical instruments and piece them together into a finished song. The team in charge of Garage Band was four people who happened to play four different instruments, so not only were they great software engineers and leaders, but they were also musicians—a drummer, keyboardist, guitarist, and singer. When one of those four people left Apple, instead of finding a replacement who was just really great at the role they needed filled, they found someone who was great at the role and played the instrument that was missing. There was a synergy in having the four of them not only be software engineers but also be musicians.
Companies that accelerate innovation have thought hard about their teams. They haven’t just cobbled them together. They’ve spent time finding the exact right people.
[12:11] Consistently query customers.
Many organizations rev up for innovation, do a giant market study for six months, go off and work with those insights for the next three years, and never talk to customers again. This sounds insane, but it’s very common.
The company Radio Flyer was in financial straits. They realized they hadn’t done any work around insights or understanding their customer. They were making the metal red wagon, and competitors were coming in with plastic wagons that looked a whole lot like theirs. They went on a listening tour and found out that people had this huge emotional sense of nostalgia for the Radio Flyer wagon and for the Radio Flyer tricycle. What was fascinating about that was that they had never made a tricycle in their history, but people had this huge nostalgia for these non-existent tricycles. Customers had apparently merged their childhood memories. The first thing Radio Flyer did was make a tricycle, and it became a smash. After that they built a constant listening mechanism. They could go back on a regular basis and talk to customers, show them prototypes, and share ideas. This turned into a string of hit products. They eventually made bicycles and e-bikes. They wanted a better battery, so they reached out to Tesla, and Tesla gave them the battery technology and asked Radio Flyer to make a kid-sized Tesla. All these things came from listening to their customers and querying them on a regular basis.
[15:19] Thrive like a beehive.
A beehive has a queen bee (the leader) and a bunch of workers. The workers work efficiently by not only working internally but also leaving the beehive often to get pollen and nectar. This is a metaphor for infusing new insights. You could call it open innovation, but it could be even more casual than that—Google searches, calling the local university professor, calling up the Food Network star who is working on recipes just like that chocolate bar your company is working on. Constantly reach outside the walls of your hive.
A gentleman who had spent years as a film writer in Hollywood told me a story. After 9/11 the CIA faced a big problem: figuring out what the next attack might be. Brilliantly, the CIA left their beehive and went to the most creative place they could think of—Hollywood. Not long after 9/11, they convened a secret meeting with some of the top writers in Hollywood who had worked on terrorism or CIA movies. They asked, “If you had to plan the next one, what would it be?” The writers overwhelmed the CIA with horrible plots, but that allowed the CIA to start to build mechanisms to look for those things and think about how they might play out in the future. It’s a great example of leaving your four walls and looking for feedback.
[18:47] Paint the picture.
My friend Jeff was working for a large financial services company, and they wanted him to help figure out how to make their call center better. They found the time it took to set up a new account was pretty long. If a company of 75 people wanted to set up a program with the financial services company, every single one of their 75 employees had to type in the name of the company and the address again. There was no way to copy that across all the different records. There had been previous attempters to fix this, but the financial services company had a 20-step process to officially start a program to fix it. Throughout the process, it took 25 people to say yes and only one person to say no.
Jeff opened a PowerPoint and mapped out what the final improved process would look like. He took existing screenshots and modified them with crude PowerPoint boxes, showing all the steps in the process. He started taking his PowerPoint around to one or two people at a time and said, “If this were the final product, would this work?” They made suggestions and Jeff made changes then took it out again. He didn’t fill out any paperwork. He never built an official team. He just created the finished product. He painted the picture right away, tweaked that picture, and eventually got the thing built in six months.
[22:13] Cultivate a yes, and culture.
The idea of yes, and is if you’re leading an improv scene, say “Yes, and…” to anything that’s handed to you. If Chad says, “I can’t believe we’re trapped inside of a toaster,” and I say, “What are you talking about? We’re on a podcast right now,” the scene falls apart. But if I say, “No kidding, I should have worn my boots. My feet are on fire,” then the scene moves forward.
Most people have experienced yes, and as a brainstorming tool, but we’ve reframed it as an aspect of culture. If you start every sentence with “No, but…” it’s terrible. Instead, if you start every sentence with “Yes, and…” the conversation flows much more logically. All the little moments when you hear “No, but,” and feel like you’re being rejected or your ideas aren’t worth listening to create a culture where people keep ideas to themselves. In a yes, and culture, everyone can take any idea or crazy question that’s handed to them and immediately accept it as a valid idea and build on top of it.
The Swedish company Eleiko is the leading maker of weightlifting weights, used in the Olympics and World Championships. The company has been around about a hundred years, and they started out making waffle irons. In 1957, one of the plant managers who was a weightlifter told the owner, “The waffle irons are basically like weights. If we put them in a different shape, they can be weightlifting weights.” The CEO of the time said, “That sounds great. Let’s go make some.” That seemed like a natural no, but moment, but today they are the leading maker of weightlifting weights in the world.
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“Before you try to increase your willpower, try to decrease the friction in your environment.” – James Clear
Thank you for taking the journey to product mastery 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.