The ABCD framework for dealing with tensions in product management and innovation
As product innovators, we encounter many tensions. To name just a few of these, perhaps meeting this quarter’s objective or creating the breakthrough of the future, perhaps the team building we want to do or having more personal flexibility, or what about process improvement or just getting the job done that is in front of us right now. Research has found that such tensions reflect underlying paradoxes, and they might actually be something that can help us in the end. How can we be more effective in dealing with these tensions or even using them to our benefit?
Our guest, who has been researching this for over 20 years, is Dr. Marianne Lewis. She is the dean and professor of management of the Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati. She is a thought leader in organizational paradoxes and among the world’s top 1% most cited researchers in her field.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[4:59] What is “both/and” thinking?
“Either/or” thinking tends to be our default. We experience tension or a dilemma, weigh the pros and cons, make a decision, and move on. That’s the default because it makes us feel like we have control, clarity, and consistency in our decision-making. “Either/or” thinking is a potentially detrimental approach because it’s limited to a binary, not considering other possibilities. Often in innovation, I see the false dilemma, “Are we focused on today’s products or are we focused on bold, new innovation?” If we only do one or the other, we soon hit a real challenge, because those two behaviors feed each other.
“Both/and” thinking is about seeing tensions as opportunities for learning, creativity, and growth rather than paralyzing moments when you must make a call. Instead of thinking about tradeoffs, think about a paradox. I picture the yin yang. One side is the bread-and-butter current products, and one side is the bold, new innovations. The current products fund radical R&D, and new innovations become our core products. See current and new products as two parts of a bigger hole and as a persistent tension.
[9:33] How have you seen organizations deal with the tension between tactical work and strategic work?
We studied product design firms in Silicon Valley, which were incredibly financially successful. You might assume all their work is radical product development, but they pay their bills by doing version 2.0 of a phone or a mouse. We found the tension between three different levels—strategy, team, and individual. At the strategy level, these firms were really good at thinking about their project portfolio and making sure they always had a mix of incremental projects that pay the bills and projects that were potential award-winning showcase projects. They didn’t need many showcase projects, and when they didn’t have enough they would start their own. At the individual designer level, they would rotate designers among different projects. If they kept designers on incremental projects, the designers would feel they weren’t actually doing design, but if they kept designers on only the showcase projects, the designers would think about it 24/7 and get burned out. After some time on a showcase project, a designer needed to be on an incremental project to hone their skills and rebuild their confidence. These firms fostered the identity of practical artist in their designers. They helped people feel good about both types of projects.
As another example, the chief digital officer of Fifth Third Bank told me, “If I’m not careful, urgency will always, always, always push out creativity and innovation.” I asked her what she does about that, and she said she needs people hitting the targets, and at the same time she needs to compartmentalize. Some companies compartmentalize using micro-sabbaticals—taking a day or two in a month for a new project—while others do job rotation.
Resolving the paradox between tactical and strategic work means carving out time or creating different spaces. That could mean different teams, or it could mean an innovation center that’s physically a different building. The point is to make it intentional. If not, the urgency will push out the bold.
[15:46] How do we put “both/and” thinking into practice?
We think about is as a system of tools. We use the ABCD framework:
How do we change the question we’re asking? A psychology expert at Stanford said, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is the way we think about the problem.” As soon as we frame our problem as a question, we have constraints. When you say, “Do I focus on my current products or do I focus on what’s big and new?” you’ve dichotomized it rather than asking, “How could we accommodate the new and the old?” There are lots of ways you could ask that questions. Your assumptions are going to limit the way you think. You must question your assumptions and reframe your question.
Separating and connecting means recognizing that the cons of one approach are the pros of another and vice versa. Respect both sides of opposing options. Find ways to connect them. For example, LEGO almost went into bankruptcy because they had gone on an innovation, product-development binge. They had lost all of their cost controls and quality controls. They realized they had to put some guardrails up while keeping their bold, innovative approach. They built some guardrails and decided to innovate within boundaries. By doing that, they became more creative. They decided to use fewer specialty bricks, and designers become more innovative under constraints.
This is about emotions and finding comfort in the discomfort. People don’t typically like that feeling of tension. How do you sit with discomfort and work through it. Paul Polman, when he was turning around Unilever, said, “When you bring me a problem and you tell me, ‘Here’s our solution,’ I’m going to tell you, ‘Go bring me back another and make sure it’s almost the opposite.'” He said that tensions provide creative friction, and he wanted as much creative friction on the table as possible. By doing that, he was trying to build comfort into Unilever, helping people be comfortable with the feeling of tension, because it’s necessary to have good, creative, cost-efficient, scalable, and recognized products.
Organizations and leaders who are really good at managing tensions see this as a journey. They know they’re going to keep adjusting the boundaries with the understanding that they are going to keep experimenting. The opportunity that comes out of tensions is learning. We have to recognize we’re walking a tightrope. A tightrope walker has a clear view of where they’re going, but they’re making these micro-shifts all along the way. You should move forward but also make micro-shifts because some days you have to have your quarterly earnings reported, and some days you’re going to aim for the stars and make a big splash because you have the opportunity, but the guardrails help you not lean so far you fall off the tightrope. Which foot you lean on is going to depend quite a bit on the situations you’re currently facing.
[27:24] Can you provide an example of using the ABCD framework?
When Paul Polman took over Unilever (personal product company), the company was failing. He posed a question most of the leaders wouldn’t have put as the primary question. He decided the question was, “How can we increase our profitability through social responsibility?” He felt one of the key challenges in the fast-moving consumer product group was sustainability and environmental impact. While some people felt there was a tension between social responsibility and fiscal responsibility, Polman changed this view. For each innovation question, he wanted his team to list, on one side of a sheet of paper, how they would grow market share, increase revenue, and decrease costs. On the other side of the sheet, they should list how they would reduce water, pollution, transportation costs, and packaging and involve the local community. He was separating by building two sides of a ledger and connecting those sides around something he called the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. The mission was to make a more sustainable world starting with people’s lives. They touched 2 billion consumers a day, and their goal was in 10 years to double their profits and halve their environmental footprint. People thought Polman was crazy, but he achieved his goal in 10 years and set a model for multi-national corporations.
Action Guide: Put the information Marianne shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is the way we think about the problem.”
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