Insights for product managers from an R&D Engineering Director
How does an R&D Product Line Director lead the development of products and help to mentor product managers? That’s what I wanted to know when I talked with our guest, Shankar Achanta. He has had a number of engineering product roles at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, which designs and manufactures products for the power industry. Shankar shares several tools for getting ideas for new products along with practical tips for how product managers can frame their ideas and gain support from colleagues as well as leaders.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:30] What are your responsibilities as an R&D Engineering Director?
I’m responsible for a large portfolio serving the global energy industry. My role includes vision and strategy for my portfolio projects, as well as executing the strategy by introducing the right products at the right time. I’m also involved in portfolio management. I lead product development teams and product management teams.
[2:51] Where do you see ideas for new products coming from?
Great ideas come from anywhere in the organization—sales, talking to customers, product development, etc. Recently, my team and I experimented with a three-month Innovation Framework. We brought together product managers and product development leaders to solve difficult problems our customers are having. We let them create self-forming teams, with a maximum of five people per team. After we provided the problem domains, we asked the product managers and product development leaders to read the problem domains and ask us questions in the first one to two weeks and then provide a one-page abstract with all the solutions each team came up with. We saw a lot of participation, and many teams came up with the one-page abstracts.
[6:05] How did the product managers and product development managers come to have good insights into the problems that customers encounter?
These insights are key for the Innovation Framework to work. The product managers and product development leaders engage with customers at conferences and in one-on-one meetings and get input from the sales organization. Once we have the ideas from this variety of avenues, we compile a list of problems for a particular segment of customers or enhancements to an existing product line.
[6:52] What’s an example of the Innovation Framework in action?
We had a couple of challenges with our sensors for power lines: They communicate wirelessly, so they need to have a line of sight between the transmitter and receiver, and they need to last for 20+ years. Using the Innovation Framework, one of our engineers solved these problems with a device that repeats the signals and doesn’t need batteries.
Once the teams created their abstracts, we selected a few and allowed the team members to use 20% of their time every week to explore those ideas. We found that they spent additional time on their own to come up with solutions, and one team put together a prototype of the sensor.
[10:37] How do you select which solutions to pursue?
First, we consider how practical the solution is to commercialize. Second, we consider how it fits within the company’s strategy. Third, we consider the effort, technology, and time to create the solution.
[15:19] Do you get customer feedback on the solutions being created?
Once we have the early prototype, we engage with customers who give us feedback about the solutions. We didn’t engage with a large number of customers because the Innovation Framework was limited to three months, but we got early customer feedback on the ideas, and we had upfront research that we’d already done on the problem domain.
[17:06] How can product managers share ideas and draw attention to them?
I ask my product managers to think like scientists. You have a hypothesis that your idea solves Problem A by creating Solution B for the Customer Persona C. Fill in the blanks and write down your hypothesis. Then understand and document your assumptions. Answer questions: Is the problem I identified really a problem? Does my proposed solution solve the problem? Does the customer persona want this problem to be solved? If so, are they willing to pay for it? More importantly, are they willing to switch from their existing solution and pay any switching costs? Once you have the answers to these questions documented, show the strategic fit of your problem statement, which is extremely important to get the stakeholder buy-in from the executive level.
[20:07] How do product managers frame their ideas to show strategic fit so they can draw attention to their ideas and get resources?
We already have a pipeline of existing projects, so when a new idea comes up, we have to choose to either displace or slow down what we’re doing or put the new idea in the backlog. We compare new ideas to the company strategy and to a document that I write every year for my division that explains where we fit into the company strategy. We look for new ideas that are connected to those strategies and will take us forward. We’re not trying to be rigid, but we are very clear about our goal for the portfolio of products we’re responsible for.
For mature product lines with low business risk, we can have bigger budgets and keep the product line going with improvements. For new products, we use a “pay as you go” approach. Feature by feature, we release the product and test the customer base and generate some revenue, then invest little by little.
[24:00] How do you pay as you go when projects need more resources upfront?
There’s definitely a critical mass to a get a project going. When we evaluate ideas, we ask who the pilot customers are. We follow the 80/20 rule—80% of the customers use only 20% of the features. We need to know what the pilot customers need before we just put a lot of features into the first product. We want the minimum valuable product—the minimum product that creates value for the customer.
[26:12] In your organization, what do product managers need to get support for their ideas?
They need a mix of story and data. We’re a very engineering-centric organization, and we look at data, business cases, return on investment, etc., but I’ve been extremely happy to see great ideas come from anywhere and get approved fast. For example, we were building a power controller. We brought in product managers, product developers, engineers, and the developer who was building the product, and we were able to look at the entire system, not just the power controller product we created. We created a new sensor that worked with the power controller and build a rapid prototype in two weeks. We went all the way to our executive team with just the prototype—no PowerPoint presentation—and they approved it and gave support throughout the process until it became a product. Our customers really love the product, and it’s taking off. We had some data, but we went beyond our “box,” looked at the whole solution, and created new value.
Action Guide: Put the information Shankar shared into action now. Click here to download that Action Guide.
- Connect with Shankar on LinkedIn
- Learn about the company Shankar co-founded to help small businesses, Apex Specialist
“Engage early (with your customers) and iterate often (your product or service based on your customer feedback)”. – Shankar Achanta
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.