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Principles product managers can use to guide creativity and innovation
The name of this podcast is changing to Product Mastery Now, to better reflect our purpose of helping product managers becoming product masters, gaining practical knowledge, influence and confidence so you’ll create products customers love.
In this episode we discuss the obsessions of everyday innovators, as that is the language our guest uses to describe mindsets and actions that make us better innovators. You already know why this is important—because better innovators and product managers are more likely to create products customers love.
Our guest knows a lot about this as he is the founder and CEO of five tech companies and a frequent keynote speaker. Interestingly, he started his career as a jazz guitarist. His name is Josh Linkner.
Summary of some concepts discussed for product managers
[1:59] What was it like to transition from a professional jazz guitarist to a founder of five tech companies?
Surprisingly, there are many similarities between jazz and business. Both are about improvising and course-correcting when you inevitably screw up; they’re both messy, fluid, and creative. Jazz requires skills like passing the baton of leadership, taking responsible risks, and tinkering. Both jazz and innovation are about collaboration and co-creation.
[5:48] From your book, what are the “obsessions of everyday innovators”?
In my research for the book, interviewing amazing creators of all types, I found several common mindsets or obsessions of innovators. We can all apply these principles toward the outcomes that matter most to us, whether in business, our families, or our communities.
Let’s dive into some of the obsessions of everyday innovators.
[7:06] Fall in love with the problem.
Fall in love with the problem more than a specific solution. Be willing to adapt, and study the problem from all different angles so you can solve it in the best possible way.
[8:38] Don’t forget the dinner mint.
Find a way to add delight with no more than 5% extra creative juice. Think about when you go to a nice restaurant and they give you a special treat compliments of the chef. That small surprise totally transforms your experience. When you’re creating a product, add a little extra something to take it to a whole different level.
For example, a restaurant in New York City called Eleven Madison Park has a team of employees called Dream Weavers whose job is to add extra delight. A family with young children was visiting, and a server overheard that it was their first time to see snow. The Dream Weavers arranged for the family to be escorted out to a limousine, presented with brand new sleds, and whisked off to Central Park for an evening of sledding. It might sound crazy, but that family will never forget that night. Eleven Madison Park follows the 95/5 Doctrine; they spend 95% of their resources, time, money, and energy being super efficient and disciplined so they can spend 5% of their time “foolishly,” but it’s not really foolish at all because providing those extra special “dinner mints” is part of their strategy and a key driver of their incredible success in a crowded space.
[13:27] Start before you’re ready.
Too often, opportunities are out there, but we wait too long. When we wait for certainty, we can lose the opportunity altogether. Don’t wait for a bulletproof game plane. Just get going. It will be messy, and your first iterations will be sloppy and ineffective, but you’re going to learn quickly and course-correct. Suppose you and I both have an idea, and you test it for six months in the lab until it’s perfect, while I get going today. My first version is going to stink, but I have six months to catch up, pivot, adapt, learn, and grow. By the time you take your first shot, I’m way ahead of you. Meanwhile, the opportunity might shift and you might miss it altogether. It’s better to start quick and sloppy than to wait for perfection.
[17:17] Open a test kitchen.
Embrace rapid experimentation. Some people think innovation is about creating a once-in-a-lifetime perfect idea, but that’s not how it works. It’s much more effective, efficient, and less costly to use constant rapid experimentation. Shake Shack, a restaurant in New York City, has an innovation kitchen underneath one of their stores where they test new recipes, get feedback from their customers, and experiment with shaving time off their processes. They constantly experiment not only with their product but also with their processes, marketing and technology.
Even if you don’t have a physical test kitchen or innovation lab, you can still be testing. The test kitchen principle is about a mindset of constant experimentation.
There are a couple of ways to test: First, is the farmer’s market model—you look around at all your options and start experimenting, just like you might pick up some ingredients at the farmers’ market and then decide what to make for dinner. The other model is like a cooking show where the contestants have to use a bunch of weird ingredients. Sometimes you don’t have all the resources you would like, but constraints fuel innovation.
[21:01] Use every drop of toothpaste.
Be effective with the resources you have rather than bemoaning the ones you lack. When I was studying music in college, a professor made me take one, two, or three strings off my guitar. Surprisingly, when I could no longer rely on the patterns I knew, I was forced to problem solve and my creativity skyrocketed. We think we need more resources to be innovative, but the opposite is often true—constraints can be a catalyst for creativity.
[22:32] Reach for weird.
We tend to reach for the tried and true when we’re making decisions, but I challenge you to reach for “Option X,” the bizarre, unexpected approach that an make all the difference in the world.
For example, a village in Iceland was experiencing a high incidence of motorcycle accidents involving pedestrians. The obvious solutions were to install more traffic lights, have more police officers on duty, or issue more fines. Instead, they reached for weird and painted the crosswalks with an optical illusion that looked like slabs of concrete floating in the air. This reduced traffic incidents dramatically at very low cost.
Another example solved the problem of which bananas to buy. If you buy yellow bananas, they’ll be brown and mushy in a few days, but if you buy green bananas you’ll have to wait a week for a perfect banana. A company in Korea reached for weird and sells their bananas in packages of seven, each at a different ripeness; as the bananas continue to ripen, you get a perfect banana each day of the week. They sell the same bananas, but their approach allows them to sell more bananas at a higher price.
As another example, the children’s hospital at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to create a better experience for their patients, so they had their window washers dress up as superheroes. Kids look forward to seeing them and it takes their attention away from the medical care.
[26:44] Fall seven times, stand eight.
It’s unfortunate that most of us have been taught that failure is fatal. It’s important that we celebrate and understand the role failure plays in the creative, innovative process. You can’t have innovation unless you’re willing to have some failures, and if you don’t have failures, you’re not pushing the boundaries enough. The principle of fall seven times, stand eight is not just dogged persistence—it’s about understanding that you will hit obstacles and learning from them so you can adapt and go forward.
There’s a museum in Sweden called the Museum of Failure that celebrates failure, displaying products like meat-flavored water for pets and a urinal disguised as a golf club. When we hear about products like these, we have compassion for their inventors and think, “Good for them for trying.” Why don’t we give ourselves the same compassion and permission to screw up? Let’s fall seven times, learn, grow, adapt, and stand up.
Action Guide: Put the information Josh shared into action now. Click here to download the Action Guide.
- Check out Josh’s book at BigLittleBreakthroughs.com
- Learn about Josh’s work and get free resources at JoshLinkner.com
- Connect with Josh on LinkedIn or Twitter
“If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” – General Eric Shinseki
“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.” – John Cage
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.