For better or for worse, 2020 has shown us how important innovation is as a core competency. Most organizations have had to engage in some type of new product innovation—whether that be creating entirely new products or features to meet more urgent customer needs or innovating existing products to be delivered virtually.
Unfortunately, most organizations are finding they don’t have the skills, processes or even the culture to successfully innovate. Here are the top 7 mistakes my team and I see companies making:
We recently released a white paper that explores each mistake and shares how to avoid making them. You can download the full white paper here. Here is a short summary:
Mistake #1: Focusing on Processes Before People
Organizations that fail to develop successful new products typically don’t fail because their leader isn’t a visionary. It’s not that the team isn't creative or smart. It's often because, as humans, we tend to favor the routine, the known, and the comfortable. Innovation takes us outside our comfort zones into uncharted territory. It almost always requires new skills, significant behavior change, and even new organizational structures.
Unfortunately, I see many organizations underinvest in making sure they have the right behaviors and skills to support new product innovation. It starts with the leadership team modeling behaviors, such as embracing experimentation, getting comfortable with hypotheses instead of formal strategies, and encouraging diversity of thought.
For digital product innovation, the leadership team will also need to develop new skills, such as increasing their technical acumen. The organization likely needs to invest in bringing in new skills such as UI/UX design, engineering, analytics, product management, product marketing, and perhaps even a different sales approach.
Mistake #2: Starting Too Big or Too Perfect
Many organizations lose money on new product development and/or get lapped by competitors because they take too long to build and launch a product. Worse, they invest too much in a product with poor market fit. These organizations often use long waterfall development processes with “stage gates” to advance to the next level of investment. It can take many months, if not years, before they start receiving real market feedback on their ideas.
Successful product innovators adopt a more rapid, experimental approach to product development that is deliberately structured as a “build, measure, learn loop” built off of Eric Ries’s Lean Start-up principles. We:
The point is that our products do not have to be perfect to go to market. They should be good. They just don’t have to be done. We release the version that will delight customers enough to try it, then learn from what happens when they put it to work.
Mistake #3: Aligning to Favor Existing Business, Rather Than New Products
Alignment is an incredibly important component of successfully executing a product innovation strategy. A lack of alignment between shareholders on the investment required to build and launch new products is a recipe for failure. Additionally, a lack of alignment between organizational leaders on performance measures to evaluate success will doom products before they can launch.
Many new business ventures or product launches fail because organizations use the same metrics and processes to assess and manage new product launches that they use for their existing products and services. This often means new product launches get killed too early because they generate less revenue, lower profit margins, and use more resources as they go through the launch process and fail to “compete” for focus and funding with existing products and services.
Mistake #4: Developing Products that Don’t Solve an Urgent & Expensive Customer Problem
The number one mistake I see companies make is developing a new product that does not solve an urgent and expensive customer problem. Sometimes it happens when an organization falls in love with new technology and jumps to developing a product that uses the technology. Or an organization gets so focused on leveraging existing intellectual property and they forget to ask if customers really need or want it. Other times our client’s product team thinks they have identified an urgent and expensive customer problem. But it’s really only a frequently cited problem.
In all of these cases, money is wasted developing and launching new products that not enough customers will buy. Product development needs to start with uncovering the urgent and expensive problem customers can turn to us to solve. Upfront market research that captures the voice of the customers will save countless hours developing a non-viable product.
Mistake # 5: Designing and Developing in a Vacuum
Even if we take the time to conduct upfront market research to identify the urgent and expensive problems of attractive customer segments, many organizations still design and develop in isolation. Potential buyers or users don’t see the product until it is beautifully finished. When we design and develop products in a vacuum we risk missing features that the customers want and need to successfully use the product.
The most successful companies take a co-creation approach both to design and to development. Co-creation is simply involving people outside the product team in the development and ideation of a product. This includes ideating with employees outside of the core team, with customers, and with developers during the design phase.
Mistake #6: Fear of Cannibalization Hinders Sales & Marketing
Another hindrance to good product innovation is the tendency to protect what we already have. Many organizations run away from products that they fear might cannibalize revenue from existing products or services.
However, if we don't risk disrupting ourselves, someone else will. The faster pace of change, enabled by technology and the increased access to capital, have substantially increased the number of competitors most companies have, especially, digitally disruptive competitors. When we protect what we have, we run the risk of one of them making those sacred products and services obsolete.
Businesses that are willing to risk cannibalizing at least some of their existing revenue streams are more likely to survive. Many executives get caught up in the fear that more scalable (often less expensive) products will detract from, or worse destroy, their existing business. In truth, new products cannibalizing our existing businesses is the best-case scenario. Sooner or later, our revenue will erode from competitors if we aren’t willing to risk business as usual.
Mistake #7: Stopping at the MVP
“Build, measure, learn loops” are only helpful if we commit to iterating on our product based on what we have learned. This is hard for organizations who have a history of long R&D cycles or that are not used to staffing post-launch teams to learn what the market likes or dislikes so they can make the product better.
The most successful innovators form hypotheses, measure what they are learning against those hypotheses, develop new hypotheses about the next stage of growth, and reserve investment dollars and people to make the product better. A Build, Measure, Learn approach to product innovation is only valuable when we make changes based on what we learn. That means we need to accept that we will have made some mistakes, listen to customers when they point out those mistakes and fix them in our next product iteration.
The Vecteris Product Innovation Pathway
Vecteris uses a new product innovation method that is designed to help organizations avoid the top seven innovation mistakes. It accelerates product innovation efforts, brings more customer-focus and it helps organizations evolve their culture to be more innovation-friendly.
As I mentioned, you can download the full white paper here. We take a much deeper look at each of the mistakes and we also include tactics to avoid them. Or please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk through product innovation challenges you might be facing.
In this incredibly dynamic and rapidly changing environment, innovation is more complicated, but it is also vitally important for our organizations. For example, this year many of us have had to significantly accelerate digital transformation of our services, our products, and our delivery channels. We found that if we don’t continue to innovate, we risk disruption or obsolescence.
Being very deliberate about funding and resourcing is a critical part of successful innovation. This includes deciding how much to invest in incremental vs. transformational innovation and which ideas to fund. As we finalize our 2021 budgets, I want to share the tactics I’ve seen work well in making these decisions. These include:
Here is a little more detail on each:
1. Separate existing product improvement opportunities from new product investment decisions and create different budgets for each
Evaluating innovation investment decisions as part of existing “operational” budgets rarely works because new products almost always lose out to investment in existing products and services. This is because new products have less certainty and are less likely to have meaningful revenue (and even less profit) in the near term.
We recommend creating a separate budget for new product development. The size of the budget typically depends on the amount of digital disruption a company is facing. It’s important to note that research studies have found no relationship between the size of innovation budget and innovation success. What matters is how effectively we spend our budgets. That’s why we also recommend establishing an independent “product innovation board” to review and govern the new product development budget. The group should receive regular updates about new product development and launch progress and make go or no-go decisions on additional investment.
2. Score investment opportunities using a clear set of criteria
The leadership team will need to agree on the criteria to use to evaluate each idea and agree on the definition for each. Typical criteria include metrics such as revenue potential (near-term and longer-term), payback period, and the ability to attract new customers. Whatever metrics we choose, we all have to agree and work from the same definition of each. For example, if one of the metrics is "ability to implement", how is this assessed? Time to implement? Level of change required? Number of new capabilities needed? All of the above?
These prioritization frameworks can be as complicated or as simple as we want. I’ll share two prioritization methods that we’ve seen work well for our clients.
Revenue, Confidence & Effort
For organizations that are just getting started, we recommend a straightforward framework evaluating new product ideas or incremental innovations for existing products. Many organizations that we work with use a simple method looking at Revenue, Confidence and Effort. (This is a variation of the product management RICE method, which looks at Reach, Impact, Confidence, and Effort.)
We calculate a score for each idea and then rank, prioritize, or kill them based on their score.
Bespoke Prioritization Frameworks
We can build more complex scoring models too. For example, we recently coached one company through a new product prioritization exercise and we started with a very long list of potential evaluation criteria. We then narrowed the list down to the most critical and weighted each metric. For example, ability to land new customers was weighted more highly than payback period. We also created a two-step process that first eliminated ideas that didn’t meet a set of must-haves or "litmus tests" such as the market size before scoring ideas.
Criteria can include anything important to our business goals, for example, new customer acquisition, margin improvement, revenue growth, etc. Some organizations give each criterion a weight because some are more important than others. As always, the leadership team needs to be aligned on how the criteria are defined for this to work well.
3. Look at the totality of ideas to ensure there is a strategically balanced mix of “easy wins” and longer-term transformational ideas
After scoring each idea, it’s useful to visualize the portfolio of options to see where the best options are and to see if we have a well-balanced portfolio. Deciding ahead of time how you want to balance your new product investment portfolio across different categories is akin to deciding how to allocate your personal investment portfolio across various asset classes. Less risk-averse? Have more small-cap or emerging market equities. More risk-averse? Allocate more of your portfolio to bonds and dividend-generating large-cap equities.
For example, one organization plotted the ideas on a matrix with complexity along one axis and business value along the other. 2021 revenue impact, a third dimension, was represented by the size of the bubble:
Ideas that have low business value and high complexity are “Deprioritized.” Ones with high value and low complexity are “Easy Wins.” They are immediately pursued, as are the “Strategic Initiatives” with a longer payoff period due to their higher complexity.
The leadership team must agree on what percentage of new product development should be “Easy Wins” ideas and what percentage should be “Strategic Initiatives.”
Another way to think about portfolio allocation is to look across three innovation categories: Endemic, Peripheral, and Leveraged. Endemic ideas are innovations in existing products or services. Peripheral are ones that are adjacent to existing services. Leveraged or Transformational are entirely outside the core business and often require the most time and are the most disruptive.
Again, the leadership team needs to decide what percentage of the new product development budget will be spent on Endemic ideas versus Peripheral versus Leveraged/ Transformational. Recent benchmarking research from KPMG found that the best innovators are spending more of their innovation budgets on transformational innovation than less successful innovators. In fact, the most successful innovators allocate 37% of their portfolio to transformational/leveraged innovation.
4. Revisit the assumptions we’ve used to make these decisions at least quarterly, and re-prioritize as needed
We also want to establish a regular cadence of reviewing the progress of our new product ideas and reallocating resources based on new information. As we learn more about the market, and the product development requirements, our potential and complexity scores will change. We recommend meeting monthly to review the portfolio when you are getting started and quarterly after you have an established portfolio of both existing and new products you are managing.
Ask for Help Even when following the four steps, we might need some outside facilitation and expertise. Vecteris offers an Innovation Portfolio Assessment to help identify and score new product ideas. Our clients find that it helps to have an external facilitator help kill some sacred cows and ensure the team sticks to a disciplined prioritization process.
Please feel free to email me to learn more.
Many times, big problems are solved with small tactics. For example, my phone chargers frequently frey at the connectors. However, a small tactic – covering the connector with the spring from inside of a pen – can prevent the frey. One broken pen saves me hundreds in new charging cords.
I spend a lot of time running Design Sprints for our clients. I’ve found that there are several valuable tricks I use in a Design Sprint that business leaders can use to not only innovate faster but also to quickly build consensus and strengthen teams.
Essentially, a Design Sprint is a structured but very quick way to design a solution to a problem. (If you aren’t familiar with Design Sprints check out my last blog here). The techniques used in a Design Sprint aim to collect feedback from everyone in the room, spark creativity, push the group to make decisions, and build consensus.
These techniques are also effective in everyday business situations. They can:
Here are a few techniques that I recommend trying the next time you need to quickly build consensus among your team members.
4 Design Sprint Techniques to Try in Everyday Business Meetings
Technique 1: Note & Vote
Design Sprints use a “together alone” approach to brainstorming. I love that this gives ideas from quieter people equal weight with the ideas from the more outspoken.
How it works:
Each person writes down as many ideas as they can on sticky notes. No discussion. This should last 5 minutes max. Yes, set a timer.
You can set a guideline that everyone writes at least 3 ideas. If people are enthusiastic and write 10 post-its or more ask them to pick their top 3-5 ideas.
Post them (see my blog here on how to do this in a virtual working environment). Again no discussion.
Everyone received dots to vote for the best ideas. They can vote for their own. They can put all their dots on one or spread them out.
How many dots? Count up the ideas posted and divide by 2, that is the number of total dots. Divide the dots to all the people in the room.
Now rearrange the sticky notes based on votes starting with the most dots at the top. It often looks like a tree.
Congratulations to the team! A decision has been made!
Advanced option 1: If you have one person in the room that is the ultimate decision-maker you can give that person 1-2 additional dots to provide added weight.
Advanced option 2: Alternatively, the ultimate decision-maker can have a different color dot(s). Ask them to wait until voting has taken place. They then choose the final ideas based on the voting of their team.
Technique 2: Effort vs. Impact
You may find yourself in a meeting arguing over many competing ideas. Perhaps even after a Note & Vote, four ideas received an equal rating. Now what?
No problem, Effort vs. Impact to the rescue.
How it works:
Take your top-rated ideas and hold them over the middle of your Impact v. Effort grid.
Start with impact and ask the team, “with this challenge do you think this idea has greater or less impact” and move up and down.
The team answers with only higher or lower--this isn’t an invitation to discuss.
Once the team has agreed on impact, ask the same question of effort.
For the ideas that fall in the:
Technique 3: Crazy Eights
No, I don’t mean the card game. Crazy Eights is a technique for a group to quickly produce as many solutions as possible. It is particularly helpful when a team doesn’t feel particularly creative and needs to warm up a little before getting down to drafting a solution.
How it works:
Give each participant a piece of plain white paper.
Ask them to fold it in half three times to have 8 boxes.
Set a timer for eight minutes.
Everyone receives one minute to sketch one idea before moving on to the next idea. They can sketch eight completely different ideas or two ideas with four iterations each or any other combo they like.The key to Crazy Eights is that these drawings are just for them, not to share.
The Crazy Eights exercise becomes an easy stepping stool and takes a lot of the pressure to perform out of the whole ideation process because we get the chance to test out little ideas without the pressure of sharing with the broader team. With Crazy Eights there is no need to be perfect. There isn’t even the need to have the right solution.
The next step is to build out a full idea, concept or solution which is so much easier with your favorite Crazy Eight ideas.
Technique 4: Timeboxing
So this isn’t an activity like the others on this list but it is still a valuable technique I recommend.
In Design Sprints, everything is timeboxed. When you know you have five minutes to Note and five minutes to Vote, people feel less compelled to discuss. Any conversation that does happen must be simple and straight to the point.
You can use a large timer or if you are working virtually tools like Miro or Mural have timers built-in.
Those are my favorite Design Sprint techniques to make our day-to-day meetings more productive. Do you have other favorite techniques? I would love to hear about them.
If you are interested in exploring a virtual Design Sprint to get your team moving faster and taking action, schedule a free consultation now.
What do Slack, IBM, McKinsey, Stanford, the City of Chicago, and the National Gallery of Art have in common? They all solved urgent and expensive problems using Design Sprints - a unique process for quickly solving our customers’ urgent and expensive problems through ideation, prototyping, and testing.
Design Sprints were developed by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitzwhile working at GV (formerly known as Google Ventures). Together they worked out a way to apply design thinking to help companies build and test a prototype in just five days. The process was refined over the years as it was tested with startups, multinationals, agencies, universities, governments, and even museums.
They solve many common innovation pitfalls, such as:
You get the idea.
When projects drag on (and on) companies miss out on new sales opportunities, risk losing ground to competitors and waste thousands maybe millions of dollars.
How We Adapted Design Sprints for B2B Services Companies
Vecteris is Design Sprint certified through AJ&Smart. If you haven’t heard of them, AJ&Smart has been conducting Design Sprints since 2016 when it first became a real thing. And, more recently, they teamed up with the original Sprint creator and author, Jake Knapp, to teach others on the process. Through our experience delivering Design Sprints to clients, we have seen the significant time and money companies can save in designing and testing new product ideas.
But, we have made some tweaks. We've adapted the Design Sprint process to better meet the unique needs of the B2B services companies we serve who have hard-to-schedule buyers and very distinct buyer and user needs. Here are a few things to keep in mind when conducting a design sprint in the B2B services space.
1. Start with the Buyer AND Users’ most urgent and expensive problems.
No matter what, we always start with the most urgent and expensive problems. In the B2B services space, we have to consider both the needs of the executive-level buyers (for the initial sale) and the users (to ensure long term value of the customer). Often we have plenty of internal knowledge from sales, marketing, and the customer success team to identify both buyer and user needs but if we are looking to launch a completely new product or opening up a new market it is important to conduct some quick customer research in advance.
2. Understand the Whitespace Opportunities
You probably have a good sense of the traditional competitors in your market. But don’t neglect your competitor analysis work, many of our B2B clients are surprised by competition coming from digital-first start-ups that are offering both services alongside a product. We recommend a competitive scan which, combined with buyer and user research, gives companies a solid understanding of what white space opportunities there are before starting a B2B Design Sprint.
3. Prototyping is an essential part of validating your product ideas.
We know taking 5 days for a Design Sprint feels nearly impossible. Our process is 4 working days (across 4 weeks). In the first week of the Design Sprint we are together only 2 days and Vecteris takes responsibility for the prototype creation and concept testing for most of our clients. Because it’s critical that testing happens with both buyers and end-users, we made this change to be sure we could interview executive-level buyers who are hard to schedule. It takes some of the heavy lifting off our clients -- and, of course, gives them back a day.
4. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate.
Rapid iteration is one of our Vecteris Design Principles and that holds for Design Sprints too. We recommend conducting a full Design Sprint across four weeks and including one additional day for the entire Design Sprint and a second round of prototyping and testing. That way clients end with a fully vetted prototype.
Benefits of Design Sprints
Design Sprints offer numerous benefits, most of which are hard to find in a traditional stage-gate product innovation process. First, the use of a multidisciplinary team makes it easier to gain alignment across our organizations, which is crucial for effective change management.
Second, we can make faster go/no-go decisions about product ideas. Our teams get used to moving faster, and we build the rapid "test and learn" muscle that successful innovators need.
Third, Design Sprints de-risk our innovation investments because we waste less time and money pursuing ideas that don’t have good product-market fit. And this is important because we may finish a design sprint with a no-go decision. That is still a good outcome, a great one I might argue because we didn’t waste months of time and money building a product no one will buy.
Last but not least, we have a marketable, tested prototype in only four weeks.
Our B2B Design Sprint is a 4-week process for rapidly solving big challenges, creating new products, or improving existing ones. It compresses months of work into a few days. Delivered either virtually or in-person, the sprint involves 5 to 7 cross-disciplinary participants from your team under the guidance of a Vecteris facilitator. Together, they ideate and test a new idea one day a week for 4 short weeks.
Check out this page on our website if you want to learn more about the Vecteris Design Sprint model.
One of my favorite shelter-in-place binge shows has been LEGO Masters. Teams of LEGO enthusiasts compete to build original creations, and with each passing episode another team is sent home until a LEGO Master team is crowned. The show is fun, the builds are impressive and the show inspired my sons and me to haul out our tubs of LEGO and make our own new creations. It also reminded me of one of my favorite new product development tactics: co-creation.
What is Co-Creation?
In 2003, management gurus C.K. Prahalad and Venkat Ramaswamy first coined the term co-creation to describe the experience when customers and companies work together to innovate. Specifically, they defined co-creation as “the joint creation of value by the company and the customer; allowing the customer to co-construct the service experience to suit their context.”
LEGO has been a pioneer in the use of co-creation. The company enlists the help of customers through the LEGO Ideas portal. It’s an online community where fans and LEGO creators come together to suggest, iterate, and evaluate ideas for new LEGO kits. Some pretty amazing products have come from the ideas portal like Women of NASA, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and, for my fellow binge watchers, the motel from Schitt’s Creek.
The process is simple. Customers can log in to submit an idea for a new kit. Then, the over 875,000 members vote on the kits they want to see come to life. It takes 10,000 votes for the idea to move forward, while that’s no easy feat, LEGO Ideas reduced the time to market for new LEGO kits from two years to 6 months. Of all kits developed on the platform, every single one was a best seller with 90% selling out in their first release.
I love co-creation because it keeps the customer at the center of new product development. The biggest mistake I see companies make when developing new products is not developing a product that solves an urgent and expensive customer problem. Co-creation can help us avoid this mistake.
At Vecteris, when we guide clients through new product development using a co-creation approach, that we learned early in our careers. We use a 'charter advisor' model where we invite select customers and prospects to help articulate the problem to be solved and to develop a solution. Just like with LEGO, the result has been a quicker path to products that solve real problems and delight customers.
There are two flavors of this co-creation model:
Co-Creation Model #1: Co-Fund the Development
In this model, customers agree to help direct and fund the product development in exchange for a beta customer license for the first year and favorable pricing thereafter. They also know the product will be designed with their input and testing, so it’s a safe bet that it will meet their needs.
Co-Creation Model #2: Advise, Then Buy
In this model, customers and prospects are invited to join a select advisory group to advise on product design with the opportunity to purchase a Beta license or to receive a free Beta license and then purchase post Beta.
Recruiting Co-Creation Charter Advisors
Either way we structure the co-creation, the charter advisors receive early access to the product and contribute heavily to its design. And the elements for recruiting co-creators is essentially the same in both models.
First, we start with an invitation-only, exclusive offer to be part of a group of charter advisors to design the product. We start by targeting well-known, industry thought-leaders first. Once they are onboard it is much easier to recruit the rest.
We strive to recruit a mix of existing customers and prospects to help ensure the product is designed to attract new customers. Typically, we need to have at least one pitch or prewire conversation with each invitee to secure their interest in co-creating (it typically takes more than one conversation if we are also asking for an up-front development contribution like model #1 above).
The primary value proposition for being a charter advisor is the ability to help design the product. It’s also the ability to network and benchmark with other advisors, and other optional features such as exclusive access before competitors, access to market analytics or insights generated during the product development process, and discounts after the product is launched.
Once a critical mass of advisors have been recruited - we recommend at least a dozen - we convene the group of charter advisors to discuss design questions. We’ve seen this work well as one, half-day session or across several sessions with a kick-off session to meet each other and plan the first development sprint and then meet two or three more times for sprint demos.
Co-Creation Process Success Factors
Once the advisory group is recruited, there are a few important parts of the co-creation process that ensure success. To prep for your first session, collect and share bios of all members. They will want to know who else is involved. We also need to communicate a clear agenda and attendees in advance to encourage attendance and engagement.
During the session, we want to be sure we accomplish a few key things:
Co-Creation Case Study
We’re working with a client right now, Mesh Intelligence, on co-creating a better, data-driven way to predict and manage risk in the food supply chain. We’ve helped them convene a group of 14 leading supply chain, risk, sourcing and food safety executives drawn from some of the largest and most innovative food companies around the world. We’re about halfway through the process, which so far has been a success.
To ensure that success, we took a few important steps. First, we recruited the right mix of advisors. It wasn’t easy as we were asking busy people to give up their time so we had to clearly communicate the value of being involved. Giving customers (or prospects) the opportunity to meet each other and learn from each other, having a hand in creating a product that solves an important problem, as well as early access and industry exclusivity to the product were most appealing. Last, but not least, we clearly outlined the process and the extent of their commitment (a total of five sessions, four with their peers and one individual) so that we knew what to expect. We’ve been pleased with the level of engagement and our client is getting a lot of usable insights. You can read a little about the progress so far here.
As Photonic founder and CEO, Dr. Tony Atti, puts it “Co-creation is about helping the customer imagine a different future.” One that they get to help create.
We would love to help you explore how co-creation might help you quickly develop new products. Please email me at email@example.com if you want to discuss your product creation goals and how co-creation might work for you.
We recently published a blog about how innovation thrives in uncertainty. Uncertainty introduces constraints which, in turn, force us to get scrappy and inventive. But many of our clients are concerned that it is hard to innovate and collaborate when many teams are still working from home.
Technology has made working remotely much easier. Tools such as Slack, Zoom, Google Drive, etc. improve communication and sharing. Tools for project management, such as Asana, Basecamp, Monday.com, give everyone a view of project status and needs. Tools for real-time visual collaboration, such as Miro and Mural, are effective for helping remote teams generate and build upon ideas in real-time.
For remote innovation, we use three types of tools: realtime whiteboards, collaboration apps and video/audio recording. Each allows our teams to connect and share ideas easily.
Tools such as Miro and Mural act like the whiteboard in your physical meeting space to help visually share ideas.
We use Miro with our clients but both tools are great. Both provide short YouTube videos to help you get started as well as plenty of templates to use. There are many features, which can feel overwhelming at first, but you won’t need most of them. I like that multiple team members can create together as if we were in the same room.
How we use Miro to co-create with clients.
A few months ago, when the world was different, we scheduled an in-person co-creation session for a client that is considering how to help nonprofits improve their earned revenue sales results. With COVID-19 putting a stop to travel and stole the opportunity to work face-to-face, we turned to Miro.
Thirteen people joined our Miro whiteboard to share their challenges, group challenges into categories, and vote on their most pressing challenges. It was fun to see collaboration happening live as sticky notes and dots flew across the screen. And the best part, after some productive discussion, it took only 20 minutes to identify and agree on three top challenges.
For the next session designed to focus on concept ideation, we gave the attendees homework to look for inspiration in other areas of their lives and bring it back to the group. They sent their inspiration to us in advance via email or text so that we could add it to our Miro workspace. We then used that inspiration to co-design new products or services that can solve the top challenges. During the actual session, the teams also drew their designs - in real life with markers on paper. They texted us a picture of their drawings which we also added to Miro for the other team members to see and discuss.
Miro gave us the capacity to interact at very near the same level as we could do in person. It did, however, take a little advance work to nail down the logistical and technical details.
To use new tools effectively, you need to prepare everyone.
We held mini-training sessions to make sure everyone could log on and get comfortable with Miro. We held ours immediately before jumping into the first session. We could have done one-on-one or small group sessions in the weeks leading up to the meeting date. We felt that this group would pick things up fast, and they did. But we kept a Miro cheat sheet in the Miro session (in a nearby “frame” as Miro calls it). Anyone could quickly refer to it if needed.
We also assigned Tool Champions who were there to support anyone who was struggling with Miro during the session. The Tool Champions didn’t need a bunch of extra training on the system to be good champions. Rather, they were people who were generally comfortable with technology and good problem solvers. We could have used a number of other team members, but we decided on champions who weren’t in the trenches so that no one felt torn between contributing and helping.
Use communication tools as a virtual water cooler
While we love structured innovation sessions, like the co-creation example above, we also know innovation develops organically all the time. For example, at the proverbial watercooler conversation when there is space for unstructured or casual conversations between colleagues. We can recreate the watercooler though, even in a virtual environment.
Using communication tools like Slack for team chats is a great way to create a space for banter and chit-chat that can lead to inspiration. At Vecteris, we have a channel for sharing life updates, inspirational quotes, jokes, and other non-project things so we can feel connected to each other. It’s in these conversations where people feel engaged with their team, serendipity can happen and new ideas blossom.
Slack also becomes the place where your team can quickly ask questions, come up with solutions much like you would walking out of a meeting or passing each other in the hallway. Teams can problem solve and connect in a shared virtual much like used to it a shared physical space.
Use recording tools to share learning (especially from customers)
A really good use of tools to support remote innovation came up recently in a peer group meeting. We host regular Product Leadership Peer Groups with product managers across a wide variety of industries to share ideas and talk through pressing issues. One of the product leaders talked about how great it has been meeting with customers on Zoom because lots of people can listen in live or playback the recorded call.
For product teams, hearing customer feedback is key to just about every stage of product innovation from ideation to iteration. Now they get the feedback firsthand, instead of through the reports from people who were in the meeting room. A few other people mentioned that they pass around recordings too because different people have different thoughts on what a customer says. The product manager isn't the one source of truth for customer feedback. It’s also great for motivation because the team gets to see how their work is benefiting the customers, company, etc.
If you aren’t a fan of Zoom, there are lots of recording tools out there like Otter.ai, Loom, and Ringr. Some of which can be used for non-video calls. Because, after all, not everything needs to be done over video. However you decide to record the call, just make sure you get the customer’s permission to do so.
But watch out, tools can also kill innovation.
Encourage employees to take advantage of the flexibility offered by remote working, not just clock time on the computer. That way they can work when they are most productive and creative. And as David Mack of SketchDec puts it, “When surrounded by Slack pings and deadlines on your laptop, it’s easy to be stuck in execution mode. Time spent with the express purpose of creating a list or doodle board of ideas is essential.”
In short, use tools well and wisely. Use them to bring ideas and people together, but don’t forget to give your team a place and the space to think.
There are a number of great resources out there to train staff on innovation if needed. Vecteris offers a Creating a Culture of Innovation Workshop to help leaders change the way they operate, organize, and think so they can create an environment where innovation flourishes. Let us know if you want to learn more.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear more about what you are doing now to encourage innovation remotely. What’s working? And what’s not?
I confess that I laughed when I saw this cartoon on LinkedIn the other day:
Certainly, the current crisis is accelerating digital transformation and innovation in nearly every business sector.
Telehealth is a great example. While there has been an increase in the use of telemedicine over the years, public health officials are pushing hospital systems and personal physicians to rapidly adopt it as part of their standard operating. In fact, the new $2 trillion stimulus package that was signed into law recently included Medicare waivers for telehealth services for the first time ever.
The phrase 'digital transformation' is incredibly broad and, in my opinion, over-used, but it typically includes three parts:
1. Operations: Using technology, and the data generated by digitization, to adapt to labor shifts, improve performance and cut costs. Examples include using new digital tools to facilitate remote work and collaborate with colleagues, manufacturing automation to take the place of labor, and use of Internet of Things (IOT) technology to take the place of in-person inspections.
2. Delivery: Using technology to change how goods and services are delivered to customers. Examples include eCommerce, eLearning, telehealth and virtual conferences. The Girl Boss Rally, for example, typically hosts about 1,300 people in LA each year. In less than 24 hours of announcing that this year's event would be digital, the company recorded 13,000 RSVPs.
3. New products: Using technology (or the data generated by digitization) to create new products and services. For example, we have many clients in the professional services industry who are trying to develop new products that are scalable and have more recurring revenue. Typically these are some type of “As-a-Service” type product such as a customized training company building learning experience platforms that are sold as subscriptions or marketing intelligence companies building self-serve predictive analytics tools.
The good news is that digital transformation and innovation actually can be easier in times of crisis. You can read more about that in another recent blog I wrote, Innovating in a Crisis. The short version is that we are our most creative when faced with constraints and uncertainty, when we have a burning platform to change processes, and when we can kill sacred cows that may be impeding progress.
The bad news is that research suggests most digital transformations and innovations fail to meet expectations because of a lack of strategic alignment, poor coordination and a lack of measurement. Gary Pisano’s article, The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures, summarizes it best: “Creativity can be messy. It needs discipline and management.”
The work we do at Vecteris focuses on helping companies with digital transformation as it relates to revenue - new products and delivery innovations. However, the research suggests that the lessons we have learned also apply to digital transformation for operations.
Here are the key ingredients we have found will help organizations successfully accelerate their digital transformations in today's environment.
1. Identifying the right problem to be solved.
This is the time to go slow in order to go fast. This means taking the time to talk to customers so we can understand their urgent and expensive problems and, most importantly, the root causes of those problems.
A big part of this is understanding the difference between a minor annoyance or a real pain point. For example, in a recent Voice of the Customer engagement for one client, we spoke with many customers who cited ‘feeling lonely’ while on out-of-town work assignments as a problem that our client could potentially fix. However, as we dug deeper, we realized that this problem was not as painful as other problems, such as job assignment uncertainty or better temporary housing options. We recommended focusing our client’s innovation efforts on solving those problems first and think about addressing loneliness later.
The point is not to stay anchored to a particular solution or ‘surface-level’ problem. When we identify the most urgent and expensive underlying customer problem, it opens the door for a real business opportunity.
2. Quickly, but smartly, evaluate whether to build/buy/partner/not pursue
Once we know the urgent and expensive problem to solve, we need to evaluate whether it makes sense for us to build the solution, or if we should find an outside partner to help or if we should abandon the idea altogether.
This decision point is especially critical if we’re already behind in digital transformation compared to our traditional competitors or if we have a number of new digital pure plays in our market.
We need to understand:
If the answer is no to any of these, we shouldn’t start building. We either find a partner or shelve the idea.
Our teams need to be laser-focused right now and if we skip the business case evaluation phase we risk diluting focus on efforts with a low ROI. Even worse, we could set ourselves up for failure because we will be under-resourced.
Pick a few immediate digital transformation priorities and say no to everything else.
3. Designing smart 'test and learn' experiments.
Successful digital transformations embrace the use of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The MVP is a version of your product (or your product idea) with the right balance of features to satisfy early customers and provide learning back to the development team about how the product needs to be enhanced or changed. An MVP is not a smaller, cheaper version of your final product. It allows you to test your product in real life with real people in order to validate the product’s core value. MVP tests are designed to answer technical questions about the product, prove or disprove hypotheses, and gain a feel for the viability of the product in the market.
There are many good MVP examples out there (you can find some in another Vecteris blog). One that works well in a virtual world is 'sell-then-build'. It is aptly named. First, you sell the product concept. Then, you build the actual product. We like sell-then-build approaches that use a “landing page,” directing potential customers through advertising and email marketing. That landing page is a marketing tool that allows for testing the product against market expectations and demand.
This is the idea behind Kickstarter, which we’re all likely familiar with by now. It’s a platform for sell-then-build products for creative types. The designs range from world-changing to downright wacky. For example, one woman raised over $1400, three times her goal, to create 100 little birds out of wire and felt. Who knew that there was a market for wire and felt birds? This woman does, and she learned it without first spending a dime on wire or felt.
The point of an MVP, test-and-learn approach is to create a version of our product that lets us:
4. Developing digitally fluent employees.
Digital fluency is a combination of understanding and appropriately using technology. In the simplest example, digital fluency is knowing when to use a chat program, email, or Zoom to best communicate with a remote colleague.
But to accelerate our digital transformations, we also need to make sure we have the right talent. In my experience, this almost always requires new blood. Even if we are under a hiring freeze, it is important to understand that creating a successful digital transformation and leading innovation takes specialized capabilities. Recent McKinsey interviews with digital transformation leaders found a common theme about talent: “a single digital star can lift your organization higher than a team of the next-best workers.” You may need to make a hiring freeze exception and take advantage of the great talent out there right now.
Likewise, hiring for 'learning agility' is important for long-term success. Technology is evolving quickly, so we need employees who are comfortable with self-directed learning and acquiring the skills they need to stay relevant.
5. Practicing good technology hygiene on data compatibility, technical consistency, and cybersecurity.
We should not overlook the need for security in all aspects of our digital transformations. Look at what happened to Zoom with the rise of Zoombombing and the discovery that Zoom for iOS was secretly sending user data to Facebook.
Cybersecurity has to be a top priority or we risk losing our customer’s trust. For example, according to a 2017 study, 65 percent of online shoppers who have had their personal information stolen will never return to the site where it was compromised.
Good technology hygiene doesn’t end with security. It also includes data compatibility and technology consistency. A great place to start is to make sure that your organization has developed an enterprise architecture. Enterprise architecture is commonly defined as the "process by which organizations standardize and organize IT infrastructure to support business goals." Typically, if I work with an organization that has competing applications (e.g., multiple CRMs or multiple team collaboration tools), systems that do not talk each other, and no framework for making decisions about new technology, it is a sign they do not have an enterprise architecture. The lack of an enterprise architecture is not only expensive but also highly inefficient and likely inflexible.
6. Shifting the culture and our mindsets.
A recent McKinsey study of leading innovators and digital transformers found failure to be a key to success. It’s essential to “make failure a virtue and core to your culture.” I love to remind my clients of the famous quote by Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn:
“If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.”This quote is so important because the best way to see if a product idea is a good idea is to see if the market will buy or use it. This means adopting a test and learn methodology, as discussed in point three above, as well as becoming comfortable releasing products before they are 100% finished.
Take online education leader, Khan Academy. At Khan, the team prioritizes getting their online courses launched on their site, over getting the most perfect version of the courses out there. Their target market, namely students, are craving knowledge. So, Khan delivers a good course (that is still well-built on the tech side), but with lots of room for improvement. Then, they listen to what their users tell them about their experience with the course. That way their next iteration delivers what the users actually want and need.
This not only requires a shift in culture but we've also found that leaders need to shift their mindset. We like to call this the fearless innovator mindset.
Getting comfortable with failure is a good example of being fearless. It’s related to one of the four most important things I’ve learned about what it takes to be a fearless innovator, letting go of perfectionism. Other practices that can help us adopt a fearless innovator mindset are:
I was speaking with a CEO a few weeks ago who said his team was struggling with new product innovation. I mistakenly assumed that the team had too many ideas, could not prioritize and focus, and, therefore, were diluting their efforts. Lack of focus is a problem I’m seeing with a lot of clients right now.
But that was not his problem.
His problem is a lack of good new product ideas. He knows the organization needs to innovate and diversify revenue but the only ideas they have are operational improvements.
He thinks the current uncertainty and customer behavior changes are making it hard to develop new ideas. But he also thinks his team just “isn’t creative.”
The good news is that creativity is not a fixed quality that we are born with. It can be taught even to the most analytical thinkers among us, myself included. And the research supports this. For example, a study published in the Creativity Research Journal (yes, such a journal exists!) showed that eight months after a group of employees were trained in just four creative thinking techniques, they increased their rate of new idea generation by 55 percent.
Tina Seelig’s groundbreaking book, inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity, explains that anyone can increase creativity, just like they can increase musical or athletic ability through training and practice. Seelig also argues that creative idea generation starts with a fresh look at a problem. “Mastering the ability to reframe problems is an important tool for increasing your imagination because it unlocks a vast array of solutions,” says Seelig. And I agree.
What I have found, is that the best place to start when it comes to reframing the problem is first collecting customer voice.
Identifying Customer Problems
At Vecteris, we typically use a modified design sprint process to help companies design new products. When we walk clients through the idea generation phase, we start by cataloging customer problems with the goal of identifying which ones are urgent and expensive.
That takes some important pre-work: listening to customers through interviews, surveys, and advisory boards. Asking about their pain points, frustrations, and annoyances. Listening to them describe their current processes, what they’ve tried in the past, what has worked well, and what they wish they had.
We can also listen to what they are saying without being prompted. Social listening is a great way to do this because it allows us to analyze the conversations and trends happening about our company and industry as a whole. We can use those insights to better understand the problems our customers are facing, not just the ones they told us about when we asked.
Customer interviews, surveys, and social listening can also help us find out which problem is most important and which problem is the most costly. Then, we can rank the customer problems based on their urgency and expense.
In addition to identifying pain points, we also need to understand how customers are trying to solve their pain points. This could range from inefficient workarounds to nothing at all. A quick competitor analysis can help us identify existing product ideas that we could improve upon. Although I always recommend following our customers’ needs, before following our competitors’ actions, there is research that says fast-followers are more successful than new-to-world innovators.
It’s also a good idea to talk to companies in adjacent spaces to hear what they are doing or considering. And not just the obvious competitors. Talk to start-ups and smaller vendors who tend to be better adept at innovation. In that vein, we should keep an eye on emerging start-ups in our sectors using tools such as CB Insights and plugging into local accelerators and innovation hubs.
Enlist Our Employees
Last but not least, enlist our employees. Yes, even if they “aren’t creative.”
We can tap into their knowledge about our customers and our competitors. Even if they are not naturally gifted at recognizing patterns or visioning, they can describe customer needs and the other players in the market. Plus, it’s a good way to let employees know that you actually want their input - which they may be holding back. A recent SHRM poll found that 38 percent of employees lacked initiative because they felt leaders weren’t open to hearing ideas or dismissed them too quickly.
If you are really struggling, I have found that with a little bit of outside facilitation to teach ideation and concept-creation skills, creative ideas can surface. Even organizations facing a creativity drought can develop a robust list of new product ideas to test. Try SCAMPER, for example. It’s an acronym for seven different types of reframing questions to ask about a product or process that we are trying to improve:
I also encourage the organizations I work with to create a volunteer team of more junior employees to be champions for innovation, creativity and applications of new technology. For example, we recently helped a client create a grassroots “Team Innovation” to:
It’s important to include employees from all areas of the company. Innovation tends to flourish in cross-functional teams because they have more diversity of perspective and can act more rapidly to develop and test product ideas (for more on how to create a culture of innovation, check out this blog).
Following this process should generate new ideas, even in the face of uncertainty. Try them out and let me know what you discover. If you are already overflowing with ideas, I’d love to hear more about your process for generating them. Please share!
Many of our clients have been asking us for advice on how to stay competitive in this rapidly changing world. Customer behavior is changing rapidly and, if they are financially healthy, your competitors are likely innovating to adapt to these changes. Other competitors may be struggling and could become acquisition targets for you to bring on new assets or new customers or both. How do we stay on top of all this?
Enter: Lean competitive analysis
Just like lean startup or lean product methods, lean competitive analysis is designed to help you quickly monitor and analyze competitor actions. It is not the type of competitive analysis you would do if you were refreshing a three-year strategic plan, nor is it what we see a lot of companies doing right now, which is no competitor analysis.
I’m still surprised how many companies run down the innovation path without a quick hygiene check on the competitive landscape. A CEO gets excited about a new idea or your sales team comes to you promising that people will buy. Boom! You are off and running, only to watch the product flounder in the market after months of long days and heartache.
What is ‘typical’ competitive analysis?
Typical competitive analysis is about developing a rich understanding of who is doing what in your market space. It answers questions such as:
In lean competitor analysis, we narrow this question list based on your end goal. What are you trying to learn? Or in Vecteris terms, where are you on the Innovation Pathway?
Where are you on the Innovation Pathway?
Are you in the discover and scope stage before building a new product? If so, focus on competitors serving your target market. This means traditional competitors as well as brand new ones who are serving the same customers and addressing the same problems but with completely different solutions. A lot of ‘digital-only’ companies may emerge on your competitor scan.
Ask are they efficiently solving your customers' most unique and expensive problems? Where is the "white space" — real customer problems that aren't being addressed by your competitors?
For example, recently, a client in the healthcare industry engaged our support for the first phase of the Innovation Pathway (Discover & Scope). Their executive team was considering a large investment in a new product and wanted us to do a deep dive on new digital-only entrants, not their typical competitors. They needed to understand how well these new entrants were solving the same customer problem and how much was start-up hype. Our competitive analysis gave the board the confidence to take the next step to build a Minimum Viable Product.
In the Launch phase, we focus competitor analysis on pricing, positioning, packaging, and promotion (our version of the 4Ps). For another client in this phase of the Innovation Pathway we used competitive analysis to create a sales enablement toolkit including a pitch deck that clearly differentiated them from competitors and a sales “cheat sheet” on how to differentiate their offering versus specific competitors. These tools gave the sales team greater confidence in the product.
How to do lean competitive analysis well
The first step is to identify all the players. You may know some of the traditional competitor names. Resources like CB Insights, Owler, and Capterra (for tech products) can help you identify others. Advisors, investors, and a few customer interviews are also great sources for competitive information. Start with an exhaustive list of everyone in the space, but then do a quick competitive scan to cut the list down to just a handful of the companies that seem to compete with you the most.
Next, take a deep dive into the shortlist. Secondary sources are suitable for a first dive into the tangible and intangible assets, capabilities, níche, and current market positions. You can check advertising, sales brochures, news coverage (mainstream and business press), annual reports, trade associations, or one of the many business databases with paid walls (such as Hoovers). Social media and company websites also reveal a lot about brand identity and marketing strategies. You can go so far as to sign up for competitors’ newsletters or subscribe to their blog.
Once the data is collected, you have to analyze it and compare it to your own. There are many ways this can be done. You could conduct a SWOT Analysis to evaluate their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Whatever your approach, be sure to run your own business or idea through the same method you used to assess your competitors (i.e., take an objective look at your structure, sales, and marketing efforts, etc., using the same metrics).
We recommend that you continue to monitor your competitors through the rest of your journey through the Innovation Pathway. Refresh the analysis quarterly. Consider tracking metrics that speak to:
What strategies have you used for lean competitive analysis? What worked well to get you the information you needed? If you have questions about how to structure your next competitive analysis, don't hesitate to reach out.
Digital transformation is coming at lightning speed. Previously in-person services are being offered virtually. New digital products are coming to the market quickly. The way we do business is forever changing.
For example, our video platforms and remote work tools have been a beacon of light while working remotely during the coronavirus. They've offered us a chance to see familiar faces, whether those are casual social interactions or facilitated business conversations. These virtual moments keep our days feeling unique and less isolating.
While accelerating the digital transformation of products and services, it is important to remember that our sales strategy may need to change. Even if we have identified a great consumer need and developed a great product or solution to meet that need, we won't be successful if we haven’t taught our sales teams how to sell a new digital product.
No matter how fast we are moving, there are some tried and true tactics for preparing sales teams to pivot, adapt to a new product, and deliver results:
Make sure they know what they are selling. That sounds ridiculously obvious. But, when we quickly develop and launch a new product it’s easy to forget to slow down long enough to explain it to other people. Introducing the sales team to the new product and sales process is important to building trust among the sales team, and for giving them the knowledge they need to sell it.
Salespeople need to understand the “why” of this product. What problem is it solving? What is the true market for it? They must feel good about who will buy the product and how much the customer will pay for it.
And, let’s not forget that the sales team is closest to the voice of the customer and will often have opinions about the success of the product before making their first pitch.
Ask for their feedback along the way. The pace of development might be lightning-fast, but the sooner we engage the sales team, the better. It’s a way to get valuable insights into marketability and likely customer reactions, but it will also make them feel more invested in the product and more equipped to sell it.
Spend time and money on marketing collateral. We are typically thinking of the client when we develop marketing collateral and often forget that marketing collateral also gives our sales team the confidence that we’ve invested in all levels of the product launch. So, don’t skip this step no matter how quickly the product is moving.
Build a selling toolbox. In addition to the marketing collateral, we also need to give our salespeople an arsenal of tools to make their job easy. This includes things like a 30-second elevator pitch, a sales deck, a checklist, and anything else that someone learning about the new product needs to know or that you want them to know.
Incentivize, incentivize, incentivize. Last but not least, this isn’t the time to make our sales teams feel financially insecure. It is important to make sure the sales compensation model matches the new product type to get the sales team focused on where you need them.
Just like everything else when it comes to products, iterate! Evaluate the product, marketing tools, sales pitch, etc. with the team. What’s working? What needs to be revised? What additional research is needed? Keep the conversations flowing to and from the sales team.
We’d love to hear what you are doing to engage your sales team. Or if you are in sales, what’s working in your organization as it digitally transforms? To help, Vecteris is offering a limited number of free coaching sessions for leaders to advise on your product launch plan and how to set up your sales team for success. Reach out if you are interested in learning more.
The innovation I see right now truly is awe-inspiring. For example, distilleries making hand sanitizer, software companies reconfiguring software to help hospitals track and manage COVID-19 cases, massive in-person conferences going virtual, and restaurants turning into community kitchens to serve the needy. For all of the anxiety caused by the current health crisis, there is also a lot of creativity and innovation for doing good and keeping businesses afloat.
It’s interesting how a crisis – characterized by uncertainty and constraints – sparks so much innovation. When times are good, we often forget the proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention”. We mistakenly believe that more resources (time, money, talent) will help us innovate. But my current newsfeed, my client work, and the research all show that innovation can flourish in times like these.
For example, a meta-analysis published at the end of 2019 found that constraints help, rather than hinder, innovation. Oguz Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg reviewed 145 empirical studies on the effects of constraints on creativity and innovation and found that individuals, teams, and organizations alike benefit from a healthy dose of constraints. In other words, the limits of time, money, and available materials that many of us are dealing with in the wake of COVID-19 should help us be more innovative.
As I’ve watched clients completely re-work their product roadmaps during the last three weeks, here are a few things I’ve observed about how to innovate well in a crisis:
1. Adjust Our Mindset
Innovating in a crisis requires shifting our mindset so we are not held back by fear. It is natural to have fear when there is massive uncertainty, revenue declines, and volatility. But fear is where innovation dies.
The good news is that there are specific behaviors that help us face, and move through, our fears. What I’ve observed, and personally experienced, is that we are better able to overcome our natural fears about the unknown when we do these four things:
2. Talk Directly to Customers
Innovation starts with identifying an urgent and expensive customer problem. There are many tools we can typically use to identify customer needs (surveys, focus groups, etc.). But our best tool right now is to directly talk to customers and end-users.
Speaking directly with customers is the fastest way to understand the challenges they are facing and what they need to address those challenges. People want to hear human voices now, too. I especially caution against email surveys, landing page or email testing right now because things are so chaotic that it might get lost in the noise. Instead, let’s use this time to talk to customers while also building connections.
3. Follow Your Process, Quickly
Just because we are in crisis does not mean we throw out good product innovation hygiene. We still need to validate the consumer need, test, and learn. We just massively fast cycle the process. Two-week sprints become one-week sprints (or less). The Director of the FDA recently spoke at a press conference where he said, “Innovation that normally takes years is being pushed to a month.” That doesn’t mean they are throwing due diligence out the door. They are just accelerating that diligence.
4. Build Flexibly
Once we start building a new product, the architecture should be as flexible as possible because things are shifting rapidly. For example, use a more modular architecture, place a premium on flexibility when making design decisions, and delay hard-coded decisions until products are tested.
I’d love to hear how your organizations are innovating despite having constraints and uncertainty– share some inspiration, please!
Some call it a Minimum Viable Product or MVP. Others call it a “Minimum Desirable Product” (MDP) or even “Simple, Complete and Lovable” product (SCLP). Whatever vernacular you choose, launching your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is about more than just getting to market. The MVP is a version of your product (or your product idea) with the right balance of features to satisfy early customers and provide learning. An MVP is not a smaller, cheaper version of your final product. It allows you to test your product in real life with real people in order to validate the product’s core value. MVP tests are designed to answer technical questions about the product, prove or disprove hypotheses, and get a real feel for the viability of the product in the market.
An MVP can help you avoid costly mistakes. Take Smith & Wesson's mountain bike flop in 2002. When you think of Smith & Wesson, images of bikes aren't likely to pop into your head, unless you are a police officer. Smith & Wesson has been making mountain bikes for police officers for decades. Given the success there, they decided to release a mountain bike for the general public. But the general public wasn't having it. The bikes were priced too high and diverged too far from what people expected to see from the Smith & Wesson brand. Good MVP testing would have either killed the project early or helped the company find a way into the consumer biking market that people would accept.
We draw from three proven methods to test our client’s MVPs (or MDP or SCLP, or whatever you want to call them).
Sell-then-build is aptly named. First, you sell the product concept. Then, you build the actual product. We like sell-then-build approaches that use a “landing page,” directing potential customers through advertising and email marketing. That landing page is a marketing tool that allows for testing the product against market expectations and demand.
This is the idea behind Kickstarter, which we’re all likely familiar with by now. It’s a platform for sell-then-build products for creative types. The designs range from world-changing to downright wacky. One woman raised over $1400, three times her goal, to create 100 little birds out of wire and felt. Who knew that there was a market for wire and felt birds? This woman does, and she learned it without first spending a dime on wire or felt.
You don’t need to use an official sell-then-build platform, like Kickstarter, to test your MVP. A landing page on your company website will do. The landing page needs to explain the product’s features and the problem it will solve for customers. Depending on the product, the landing page can get people to pay in advance or be added to a waitlist that ensures they are among the products first buyers.
To be clear, this isn't an email grab. You want to gather feedback from page visitors and measure genuine demand for the product. This usually comes in the form of people signing up for your waitlist or giving you money in advance. You can also collect feedback from a short survey about their interest in the product and the features they'd like to see. [Read more about Getting More Juice out of the Your Voice of the Customer Interviews]
Wizard of Oz Prototyping
Toto was the real hero of the Wizard of Oz when he pulled back the curtain to reveal that the giant talking wizard head was just a sweet old man appearing all-powerful. The wizard wasn't trying to pull off a nefarious deception. His intentions were good; he just didn't have the skills yet to be good at his job. Wizard of Oz prototyping is similar in that it gives the impression that a product idea is an existing product when in actuality, it's under development. There is work being done in the background, but customers don't know it’s happening.
Wizard of Oz prototyping isn’t nefarious deception either; it’s a simulation of what the real product could look like and do. It's merely a way to avoid building expensive systems or platforms until you know there is a real demand for a product or solution. And since testing is performed manually, you can quickly modify the product to rapidly test many hypotheses in search of the most effective product.
Zappos was started using Wizard of Oz prototyping. Nick Swinmurn came up with the idea of selling shoes online when he struggled to find a pair of boots he wanted. He was at a shoe store in the mall when the idea struck him. In an interview with Fortune, Nick says he approached the store and said, "I’ll take some pictures, put your shoes online, and if people buy them, I’ll buy them from you at full price.” So, that’s what he did. He set up an online store. When people ordered shoes, he’d go to the store, buy the shoes and ship them to the customer. He was the man behind the curtain until he no longer needed to be. Now, you can hop onto Zappos.com to have any shoe you might ever want sent to your house in two days.
The Concierge Test is similar to Wizard of Oz prototyping in that the work is still being done, but, in this case, your customers know it’s happening. Concierge testing lets you try out your product idea by first providing it to a small group in beta form.
A commonly shared example of good concierge testing is the sister-team behind Rent the Runway. If you aren't familiar, Rent the Runway is an online platform enabling people to borrow designer clothing and jewelry at a fraction of the cost. The sisters behind the now $100 million company started with two beta tests. The first test offered college students a chance to come in and try on clothes to rent and return. It was a success. So, they moved to the second test which allowed women to see the clothes, without the ability to try them on. Women still rented and returned the clothes. With two successful betas under their belts, the sisters knew they had an idea that was ready for scale.
This is a very high touch form of testing, as you manually work out what the product will be, and how customers engage with it. While it is intensive, concierge testing gives rich insight into your customers’ needs and desires because you are right there with them. Eventually, you can scale up the product and remove some, or all, of the human touch.
Regardless of the testing method you choose, the goal is to see how real customers engage authentically. Testing allows you to pivot your initial idea quickly and easily, if you learn that customers need or want something different, don’t let your product be the next Smith & Wesson Bike.
Have you used one of these MVP approaches or something else entirely? We would love to hear about it. Contact us.
Not sure about what MVP approach is best for your company? We can help.
I traveled to DC for business earlier this week. Not wanting to take irresponsible risks with COVID-19 (or the flu), I took hand sanitizer and a bag of Clorox wipes. I want to be responsible and try to stay healthy.
But as an entrepreneur, a mom, and a business advisor, I know I need to do more than just keep myself healthy. I need to lead my team, offer advice to clients and make sure my family is safe.
I've been asking business leaders whose opinions I value what they are doing to lead in this time of uncertainty. I am by no means an expert in crisis management, but I wanted to share the best advice I've received and how I am applying it:
1) Get comfortable with the facts
When the future is uncertain, start by understanding the facts. And please make sure your facts come from reputable sources.
The next step is to outline the best-, medium-, and worst-case scenarios in your big areas of uncertainty. So, for our businesses, this means running scenarios for revenue and cash dips, supply chain disruptions, and long periods of remote working. If you don’t know where to start, check out this McKinsey report published on Monday for inspiration. It outlines best-, medium-, and worst-case scenarios for big companies and also has actionable advice for each.
The team at Vecteris is fully distributed (i.e., remote), so my business scenarios have focused on revenue and cash flow. For each scenario, I wrote down the actions we could take to stay strong. Yes, things are continuing to evolve, but the act of imagining the worst-possible scenario and writing down how we might respond was incredibly comforting. I also suggest thinking through best-, medium-, and worst-case scenarios on how might the kids staying home for weeks or months impact you? What happens if travel restrictions continue? How could you manage each scenario?
The point is not to deny the facts or their seriousness. Scenario planning is both coming to terms with the facts and, more likely than not, discovering that the scenarios can be managed. Every situation, even the worst case, can be figured out, and a plan can be put in place. Or, in the words of Marie Forleo, “Everything is figure outable.”
2) Reframe the situation
In each of the scenarios (best-, medium- and even worse-case), there is always an abundance of opportunity. It could be everything from using the dip in the market to invest (I just noticed one friend fishing for small M&A targets on LinkedIn - seriously), to the opportunity to tackle long-delayed projects at home.
It is also an excellent time to shed things in your life or business that are not working. For some companies, that could be pruning the product portfolio, accelerating investment in new products or making overdue organizational changes.
It is also a great time to build new capabilities. Personally, that could be taking online courses or starting to tackle that pile of books you want to read. From a business standpoint, what could my team do with free time if business slows? I get excited thinking about having the time to create a new workshop offering, create new content, strengthen our prospect list, and the list of ideas goes on.
Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…
It’s about learning to dance in the rain. – Anonymous
3) Be of Service
Being of service to others almost always helps me forget my own concerns. For example, how can I be of better service to my customers? The McKinsey report I referenced earlier has good advice about “getting closer to your customers” to find out what help customers need during this time of uncertainty rather than taking wild guesses.
Even better, be of service to those who are truly suffering. How can we help hourly workers or people who work in travel and hospitality? Or Uber and Lyft drivers? What about the homeless? Or the elderly? Some people will struggle with the community-wide isolation - what can we do to help them?
Consider dropping off needed supplies at a local homeless shelter (call first and ask what they need). Phone an elderly neighbor or relative to find out what they need. Be extra generous with tips. This is a drop in the bucket, I know, but it will help you contextualize your own situation.
With all the media coverage and social media frenzy, it's easy to start to panic and feel overwhelmed by the potential fallout. But there are things you can do to keep yourself, your family, and your business safe. I know I am feeling more prepared and ready for whatever the next few weeks or months have in store.
I would love to know what information sources you are finding useful and the steps you are taking. Please share!
“What’s the biggest new product development mistake you see companies make?” a client recently asked me.
I immediately said, “Creating something that does not solve an urgent and expensive customer problem.”
It’s true. Sometimes it happens when we fall in love with a new technology, jump to developing a product that leverages the technology and then end up creating a “solution in search of a problem.”
Other times, we might develop a new product to copy a competitor without pausing to ask if the competitor is successfully meeting an urgent and expensive customer problem.
Or, maybe, our product team thinks they have identified an urgent and expensive customer problem. But it’s really only a frequently cited problem. Or it is a symptom, not the root cause, of the problem.
In all of these cases, we waste money developing and launching new products that customers won't buy.
Here are a few tips for avoiding this mistake.
1. Appreciate the difference between frequently cited problems and expensive and urgent problems.
Clayton Christensen’s advice to design products that solve customers’ “jobs-to-be-done” is frequently cited among product innovation professionals. He suggests looking for “…poorly performed ‘jobs’ in customers’ lives-and then design[ing] products, experiences, and processes around those jobs.”
However, we think finding a “job-to-be-done” is not enough. We encourage our clients to find an urgent and expensive job-to-be-done to solve. We need to understand the difference between a minor annoyance or a real pain point. The difference between something that will "improve people's moods but not their lives.”
For example, we recently conducted Voice of the Customer interviews for a client. Many of the customers we spoke with cited feeling lonely while on out-of-town work assignments as a problem they faced. However, as we dug deeper, we realized that this problem was not as painful as other problems, such as job assignment uncertainty or better temporary housing options. We recommended focusing innovation efforts on solving those problems first and think about addressing loneliness later.
Cindy Alvarez, author of Lean Customer Development, has some great tips for asking the right questions in customer interviews that can help us understand how urgent and expensive a customer problem is. Here is some of her advice that I love:
Keep in mind that urgent and expensive problems are frustrating enough that people do more than complain about them. They are prepared to do something about the issue, such as paying for a service or switching providers.
2. Don’t confuse the current solution with the problem.
Consider this oft-cited example from Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt: A potential customer needs a hole in their wall to hang a painting. The current solution to that problem is a drill. We might be tempted to create a better drill. But, if we take a step back to reconsider the problem, which is: “I need a hole in my wall,” we could design an entirely new way to create better holes in walls. As Levitt said, put it, "People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!"
Mobility, getting from point A to point B, is similar. When cars were invented, people stopped buying horses and buggies. It no longer mattered how fast the horse or how good the buggy, people wanted cars instead. The customer problem was mobility, not slow horses. Car companies are facing a similar market distribution felt by the horse and buggy companies. The urgent and expensive problem that cars solve is getting from point A to point B. Enter Uber and Lyft, who innovatively solve that problem.
One way to do this is to understand the root cause of the problem. To uncover the root cause, we like the five whys method. It was developed by Japanese inventor and industrialist, Sakichi Toyoda, to provide a better understanding of any problem and uncover its solution. It’s a simple process that involves asking the question “why” enough times that you get past symptoms of a problem to the root cause.
The point is not to stay anchored to a particular solution or ‘surface-level’ problem. When we identify the underlying customer problem, it opens the door for game-changing innovation.
3. Design real-life tests for your hypotheses, don't just ask questions.
Once we’ve found a problem that seems worth solving, we need to be sure. That means developing a hypothesis and testing it. A testable hypothesis should state the problem and what we expect our solution will do. For example:
To test the hypotheses thoroughly, we need to go beyond just asking customers and run live tests. This is important because:
There are a range of techniques for market testing that are fast and thorough, such as selling a product before it exists (think: Kickstarter), or building and launching your MVP (a.k.a. send a product with as few features as possible to market). Each of these approaches allows us to see whether customers will buy your product and test different feature sets of the product that entice them to or deter them from buying.
At Vecteris, we specialize in helping B2B companies successfully design and manage innovations. Our Innovations Insights service ensures your new products address urgent and expensive customer problems. Using techniques adapted from the Design Sprint process, our service includes:
Please contact me to walk you through our different Innovation Insights offerings!
I am sure you would agree, technology has changed drastically since most of us were in school, probably, even, since most of us took the jobs we are in today. Yet, despite how true this may be, the data says we aren't doing enough to help ourselves, our employees, and our organizations adapt to these changes.
According to a recent survey by Gartner, 70% of employees report that they don’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs. And 52% believe they need upskilling as a result of digitalization.
We can’t afford to let our knowledge and skills stagnate. Top performing companies know this. A survey by IBM found that 84% of employees in the best performing organizations receive the training they need, compared to just 16% in the worst-performing organizations.
Classroom-based, instructor-led training, while still valuable, cannot keep pace with today’s technology-driven training needs. Science has deepened our understanding of how people learn—and we how can leverage technology to do it.
Learning Product Services
Vecteris has launched our Learning Product Services to help our clients in the learning & development space develop the products they first came to us to create the product strategy for. Here’s a brief overview of the kind of learning product services we are recommending to our clients today.
Mobile & Social eLearning
We are tethered to our smartphones for socialization, business, and entertainment. Why not use it for education? Mobile learning solutions put learning into the hands of learners, allowing them to access the content at any time and in any place. It fulfills our expectations for on-demand services. Learning providers can offer their users “just-in-time and just-for-me” training. Think LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, or Smartly (the mobile MBA), who all provide off-the-shelf eLearning courses. Similarly, our mobile and social eLearning solutions give you the power to customize content and curriculum to meet the unmet needs of your learners.
Microlearning is also an eLearning solution, but it’s taken in tiny chunks (typically, less than 5 minutes long). If you come from a more traditional learning background that required 15-week long semesters and $400 in textbooks, you might be inclined to dismiss microlearning as the lazy way out or consider it sub-par in some way. But, a 2015 study out of Germany shows that learners who received smaller bits of content took less time to answer test questions while still performing better. Bottom line: microlearning is less time-consuming and less expensive than regular eLearning. It is also more engaging and results in higher information retention.
Instructor/Virtual Instructor-led Training
As much as eLearning has to offer, some things are better learned with a guide. That’s why we also help organizations create rich, customized content that reflects their brand within a structured curriculum. Content can be delivered in person or virtually.
Virtual instructor-led training can involve scheduled courses on video conference platforms like Zoom, or through online classrooms with pre-recorded content and discussion board. This type of training allows the instructor and learner to engage from anywhere in the world.
We are excited about this work. We’ve bought on a team of seasoned instructional design and learning product development experts who have opened up a whole world of learning opportunities.
Professional training no longer requires taking people away from work thanks to an innovative new approach — workflow-enabled learning. At the most basic level, workflow-enabled learning is a training strategy that empowers your team by incorporating “learning” into their daily “workflow” with convenient and intuitive online tools that help them address job challenges in real-time. The result is greatly expedited task completion. Tracy Cyr VP of Learning at Ariel and our CEO Eisha Tierney Armstrong's were recently featured in Training Industry Magazine. Learn about how their experience with workflow-enabled learning empowering teams to increase productivity. http://bit.ly/37g26Ds
So, how’s your organization meeting the training needs of your employees or customer-base? To help our client’s kick-off 2020 strong, we are offering a limited number of “Learn to Learn” Coaching Sessions. If you are interested in talking to one of our experts on how you can use learning to support your product development send me a quick note.
Such a small, powerful, and, sometimes, frightening word. It's a word most of us hate to hear and that we don't say enough. “No," however, can be our sanity and productivity savior in our personal and professional lives when used well.
In our businesses, “No” can free up resources to pursue longer-term growth. Requests for product customization (a.k.a. one-off-work), for example, is a significant resource drain for product development teams. In fact, reducing custom development requests is the largest challenge for companies that are migrating from customized solutions to more standardized products.
Customization is often promised by well-meaning sales or account management teams that don’t fully understand a more scalable product strategy. However, if your development team is spending all of its time on custom requests, it will never have the time to make your scalable products successful.
“Simplicity boils down to two steps:
Identify the essential. Eliminate the rest.”
– Leo Babauta, Zen Habits
That leaves a lot of CEOs asking: “What can I do to reduce the amount of customized work my product development team is doing?”
I’d argue that the smartest strategy would be to correctly identify customer needs before developing new products (read our COO’s blog about how to do this), and then deliver on what gives 80% of your customers, 80% of what they need. But even when we’ve identified the product features that meet the largest customer need, we still might find ourselves with customization requests, again, typically coming from well-meaning staff who do not embrace the new scalable product strategy.
One of our clients has solved the problem of customized development requests, and they did so in less than nine months. Here’s their story.
Case Study: Reducing Customization
After decades of success selling services that were often heavily customized, our client decided they needed to build more scalable, technology-based products to effectively compete in a changing market. They did not have new investment dollars to fund building more scalable products, so they diverted their existing product development teams away from customized work toward building the more scalable products.
The shift started, first, with the CEO and the Head of Sales, announcing the strategy change at the annual sales kick-off. Knowing that they could not flip a switch and completely stop custom work for clients, they also created a way for the sales and account management team to request an exception on behalf of a client. This came in the form of a “help desk ticket” that was first reviewed by the product team and ultimately decided upon by the Head of Sales and the CEO, if necessary.
When completing this customized work request ticket, the submitter had to outline a super simple business case:
Once our client started implementing this process, many requests that may have been fulfilled before were automatically dismissed because of a lack of a positive ROI. It’s a lot easier to assess the value of a customization when it is spelled out in front of you in black and white.
The big help, especially for sales team engagement, was that it wasn’t the product development team saying, "no,” rather it was the leadership team, including the Head of Sales, saying “no.”
Additionally, the executive team and sales leadership could turn to the salesperson and say, “go look for something more profitable.” Even if the immediate request was denied, the door was open for a viable solution.
Our client started with a goal of no more than 25% of total product development teams’ effort being spent on client custom projects. In January of this year, they were at about 40%. In the last three months, the average was about 15-20%. That is a 50% decline!
Saying "no" to clients isn't always easy, which is why putting a process together to build the case for "no" is essential. We like our client's strategy to reduce customization because it allows for thoughtful consideration of the impact on the company's scalability and revenue goals.
What other strategies have you tried to reduce custom development requests? And how successful would you say they were? What do you think of this approach?
Many of the organizations we work with are founded by visionary leaders—people who can identify important customer problems and have the creative spark to deliver a successful solution to those problems.
Visionaries can communicate their great ideas and get people excited about them. While demonstrating exceptional resilience and adaptability as market needs change, new ideas seem to magically strike! It is exciting to work for a visionary as they can bring out the best in those around them by encouraging creativity and abstract thinking. And they have a knack for inspiring others to action.
But, at some point, these unique and special abilities can start holding companies back and, even, push loyal employees away. An excellent example of a visionary leader, or perhaps a caricature, is Elon Musk. As one of his former employees said about Tesla, "it was incredible," and "I’d never work there again."[i]
I am not going to speculate as to what it’s like to work for Mr. Musk. I can share, however, what I have heard from clients are the downsides from those who work for visionaries. Scope creep and turn-on-a-dime redirection, as the leader hops from idea to idea, is a common theme. They also talk about how visionaries get bored with the details and ignore the steps it takes to bring their ideas to fruition. Some around them start to feel defeated and exhausted.
Working with a visionary doesn't have to be a Jekyll and Hyde experience. If you’re someone who craves routine and order, and the constant barrage of ideas gives you a headache, you can still have a fantastic experience with a few simple tricks.
How to Work with a Visionary
1. Share their passion, enthusiasm, and drive
First and foremost, you have to want to be on this wild ride. The energy pushed out by your visionary leader will either drain you or invigorate you. For it to do the latter, you have to believe in the vision and be committed to delivering on it by providing the structure that is missing, which brings me to tips two and three.
2. Get clear on the criteria for moving forward
As discussed earlier, visionaries are the idea people, or more pointedly, they are often the LOTS of ideas people. While each one of their ideas could be a breakthrough innovation, rapidly moving from one idea to the next is not always practical or profitable. It’s important to have clear criteria on when to move forward with an idea and when to ignore it. To do so, you need to define how to prioritize the work, and then stick to it!
At Vecteris, we use a simple prioritization tool with clients that measures new product ideas in four areas:
With a simple calculation, we prioritize the ideas and have buy-in on what is most important. And we don't waver from the results. We trust the process to keep us focused on what's best for our business, so we don't get side-tracked, bogged down, or de-energized.
3. Give actionable plans with specific steps, job responsibilities, and deliverables
People with big vision often see the goal, but the steps to get there are glazed over. They can get bored with or lost in the process. The end goal won't matter, though, if no one takes the project to completion.
Our leadership team has built an action planning process upon which we can all rely. [ii] During our weekly executive team meeting we:
We do this quickly, using the standard green, yellow, red designation. Any problems get moved to the “issue solving” section of our agenda so we can brainstorm and decide upon a solution.
Throughout the week, our CEO and any other team members add new ideas, suggestions, or problems to our weekly executive team meeting agenda. At that meeting, we take the time to discuss, prioritize, and plan as needed.
This approach has brought about a couple of great results: first, our broader team doesn't get distracted by un-vetted ideas or frustrated by continually changing plans. Second, the executive team has the accountability needed to make sure we get the most important projects done without distraction.
Last but, definitely, not least is not so much a trick or strategy as it's a reminder:
4. Be comfortable being honest
In any healthy relationship, be it personal or professional, honesty is vital. Your organization should have a culture of psychological safety so that you feel comfortable being honest, saying no, and questioning an idea without confrontation. According to Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School researcher and award-winning author, psychological safety “is the belief that the environment is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”[iii]
We’ve worked hard as an executive team to build this safety with each other and with our team. We know each other, and each of our team members well. Some relationships started before Vecteris, but many did not. But we've purposefully built trust that is rooted in understanding.
Without this strength of relationship and psychological safety, we'd become, or we'd surround ourselves with, ‘yes, men' and ‘yes, women' who wouldn't be capable of helping us reach our goals.
Working with a visionary can either be the most rewarding or most damaging experience (or both, as that Tesla employee found). If you are working for one now, try these tips to make the most of the experience.
If you would like a copy of our prioritization tool and/or the executive meeting agenda we to keep us on track just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy to share!
When my partners and I launched Vecteris a year ago, our primary purpose was to create a place where we love to work. We wanted to create an environment that inspires innovation, fosters collaboration, and welcomes diverse working styles and talents.
To build the culture we want, we’ve spent a lot of time this first year defining our core values and making a commitment to live them.
Five recurring themes emerged: fearless, generous, creative, committed and inclusive. The most important value for us to embrace this first year has been fearless.
Our mission is to help organizations successfully innovate. And, to successfully innovate, the leaders that we work with have to overcome their own fears of failure and change.
Also, each of the co-founders overcame fear to start Vecteris. Personally, I left a rewarding job and a secure paycheck that provided stability for my family. I had to learn new skills associated with the day-to-day operations of running a consulting business, stretching me out of my comfort zone. I started tapping my network to land our first few clients, which could have put those relationships, and my professional reputation, at risk if we failed. The list of fears I have faced this past year is very, very long.
The problem is that fear is a natural, fundamental human emotion. It is easy to say "face your fears." The hard part is learning the behaviors that help us face, and move through, our fears.
Yet, here we are, celebrating a year of facing fears:
Through my client work, my research and my personal experience, I’ve learned that the behaviors that help us successfully face our fears are different than what one might typically think.
When you picture a leader who is “fearless” what do you envision? Perhaps someone decisive, with a clear plan, hard-charging, competitive, risk-taking?
What I’ve observed, and personally experienced, is that we are better able to overcome our natural fears about the unknown when we do these four things:
Listen, Especially to Our Intuition
The most fearless clients I’ve worked with are fantastic listeners. Not only do they listen to their customers and employees, they listen to their inner voice. Often times referred to as “gut instinct” or “founder’s intuition”, these leaders have an inner voice encouraging them to take the unknown path and these leaders are following that inner voice, not ignoring it.
I’ve had a regular yoga practice for ten years and a regular meditation practice for two years. Both have helped me tap into my inner voice by quieting the chatter of my mind. Hearing, and following, my inner voice has helped me clarify my purpose, see opportunity, and ease my fears about venturing into the unknown. I firmly believe that without my practice of yoga and meditation, I never would have launched Vecteris because my fears would have been louder than the inner voice telling me to follow this path.
And the research supports this. Tibetan monks, who have mastered meditation, were found by neuroscientists to have abnormally high levels of gamma brainwaves, which are associated with our ability to synthesize disparate bits of data, solve problems, heighten perception, and boost consciousness.[i]The study found that meditation can actually rewire the brain to make better connections and generate ideas.
Other research confirms that some kind of meditative practice, such as yoga, prayer, running, even taking a nice long bath, aids the brain’s process of idea incubation which means these breaks are a key ingredient to productivity and creativity.[ii]
Ask for Help
I’ve found that fear is best overcome when we ask for help. I’ve observed that my clients who are best able to guide their organizations through fear of the unknown will often state an intention to innovate without also communicating a concrete plan to achieve their vision. Instead, they ask others to help them figure out how to make the impossible possible.
I recently had a conversation with one of my CEO clients about how best to help the senior leadership team embrace a new product innovation idea. This CEO was frustrated that the team seemed resistant to the changes the innovation would require and was wondering how to proceed. We discussed two options:
The CEO chose the first approach – having the team own the plan – and, although it took longer, it ultimately ended in a more ambitious (and successful) product.
My personal leadership journey is similar to this CEO’s. For me, asking for help meant giving up the idea that I needed to have all of the answers. As a classic ‘smarty-pants’ overachiever this has not been easy.
I’ve had to resist the urge to leap in with all of my ideas at every opportunity. I had to go back to listening (see above!) and opening my mind to others’ ideas. I’ve also had to get much more comfortable leaning into debate or discomfort and staying there. Gary Pisano wrote a great article for HBR that covers this topic. In it, he explains why healthy collaboration and comfort in debate is essential to innovation. “If people are afraid to criticize, openly challenge superiors’ views, debate the ideas of others, and raise counter-perspectives, innovation can be crushed.”[iii]
Let Go of Perfectionism
It is easier to face our fears of failure when we accept that what we do does not have to be perfect.
Getting comfortable with ‘good enough’ has been a game changer for some of my clients who are trying to innovate. Brené Brown nailed it in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, when she said,
“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame.It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, i t’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”[iv]
For me, this has meant launching our website, publishing blogs, and even delivering work to clients without endless rounds of editing and agonizing over typos or imperfect graphics. I certainly do not want to deliver a crappy product (and we do have a few editing rounds!) but I try to model for my clients and my team that, especially when we are talking about digital innovation, we need to rapidly iterate, rather than taking months of research and development to perfect. Again, as a classic type-A, this has been a hard lesson for me to internalize.
I consciously started a regular habit of writing thank you cards and keeping a gratitude journal in 2017, around the same time I started meditating. Both the thank you notes and the journal have helped to shift my mindset to one where I see opportunity, rather than scarcity. It keeps me positively focused. I believe that mindset shift has helped me have more courage to try new things, take risks and tackle my fears.
My successful clients do something similar. They have a very strong understanding of their assets and their strengths, and they focus on building on those strengths. When generating new product ideas based on a SWOT analysis, for example, they focus on their strengths and opportunities, rather than their weaknesses and threats. This helps them talk to their teams in terms of opportunity, rather than dwelling on the obstacles.
Recent research from Gallup shows that strengths-based workplaces are more productive, too: [v] “Organizations whose mission, values and processes are based on their strengths have:
Coming from a place of strength and gratitude helps to remind ourselves, our team, and our clients of the most important fearless act of all: believing that we are powerful beyond measure. Marianne Williamson' s wisdom below is still my favorite “face my fears” touchstone:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? . . . as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
-Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love
Understanding our customers—or more specifically their urgent and expensive problems—is the key to developing a successful product. I’ve seen too many companies waste time developing a new product that no customer wants or needs. This often happens when a CEO develops a product because they have fallen in love with an idea or a technology or are trying to out-do a competitor and they don’t want to take the time to talk to any customers about what real-life problems they are solving.
To understand those real-life problems, we need to talk to our customers directly. Feedback from a sales force is not a replacement for our own customer conversations.
Interviews can be time-consuming and a bit of a headache, if we’re being completely honest. But there is no other approach that can yield rich data with the deepest insights. And if you do them well, you don’t need to do that many.
I’ve talked to a lot of customers over the years. Here are 5 useful tips I’ve learned for doing this well – with a minimal amount of pain for you and the customer.
1. Be Clear on What You Need to Learn
We need to be sure the conversation stays on task. We can easily let open-ended questions spiral out of control or run off in a million tangents.
Then build your interview guide around those hypotheses. Your goal will be to prove or disprove each hypothesis. Review after each interview to see what you have learned and what you have left to learn. This keeps conversations headed in the right direction, to get the answers we need, without being overly prescriptive about where the conversation goes.
2. Start with the Basics
Remember, the #1 goal is to understand your customers’ most urgent and expensive problems. Use two or three broad and open-ended questions in the beginning of every customer conversation about their experience. Not only does this warm-up the conversation, it gives you the opportunity to explore the big picture. You are looking to learn:
Really explore the most pressing problems customers are facing from their point of view. Broad and open-ended questions open the door for the customer to express themselves without biasing the results (a real risk to be aware of).
3. Talk to a Representative Sample
We don’t have time to talk to everyone. So, this is where our customer personas come in. Well-developed customer personas will help us make sure we talk to the right mix of sample customers to capture a diverse mix of voices.
Keep in mind the product you plan to create – is it intended to bring in new clients? Make sure you have prospects in the mix. Could the product be received differently by very mature vs less mature customers? Will there be differences between the end-user and actual buyers?
This may sound like a daunting number of interviews, but it is really about quality over quantity. If you plan ahead to have a good mix of participants, you should be able to get the data you need from 10-12 interviews.
4. Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
This should be your mantra in all thing’s product. Pull up your notes after every interview to highlight what you have learned. Return to those questions we discussed earlier. What is the most expensive, urgent problem people are facing? Can we solve that problem? Are we creating enough value for customers to jump on board? Have you proven or disproven your hypotheses? Do you need to re-work your assumptions?
Now, ask yourself, what do you need to change in the next conversation to continue learning? Should you tweak an opening question? Should you make changes to your product vision? Can you add more specificity to your sample packaging or pricing? Don’t go more than 2-3 interviews without adjusting your interview guide.
5. Be Customer-centric
Finally, it’s imperative that we remember that we are dealing with people. People with packed schedules, to-do lists a mile long, and, basically, a million other things they could be doing instead of answering our questions. Keep the entire process focused on the customer. Work around their schedules. Thank them for giving up their time and sharing their insights.
You’ll also need to make them comfortable sharing – even when they have something to say that we might not want to hear. Be prepared for your customer to crush your vision entirely.
“Disarm “politeness” training: people are trained not to call your baby ugly. You need to make them feel safe to do this. My approach was to explain that I needed their honesty, so I didn’t build something nobody wanted to use, which seemed to resonate with folks.” –Giff Constable Chief Product Officer at Meetup
Last but not least, we need to listen more than we talk. It’s human nature to fill the gaps that make us feel awkward. We can use prompting cues like “tell me more” or “interesting, can we expand on that?” The goal is to get the customer talking again.
As we have already noted, people are busy and sometimes hard to schedule but don’t let that stop you. With hundreds of interviews under my belt, I can honestly say that 99% of people really enjoy being part of the product development process and appreciate that we value their opinions and care about their problems.
Don’t forget our team at Vecteris has decades of experience working with companies as they quickly bring products to market. Our team is highly skilled at conducting the research companies' need and providing actionable recommendations to move quickly on product ideas. Don't hesitate to reach out to see how we can help.
Product innovation and management are key capabilities for developing successful scalable, digital products. But if you're new to product innovation and management, building the processes and competencies you need to be successful can be overwhelming. For example, should you start by improving your voice of the customer skills or Agile project management skills or product usage analytics skills or all of the above?
My recent executive conversations have a common theme - speed. Specifically, they all want their teams to move faster.
For example, one client acknowledged they were still trying to figure out how to better prioritize so they could focus on executing at a pace they’ve never moved at before. They need to release products faster so they can learn from the market faster, but the team’s focus and sense of urgency is not where it needs to be.
To move faster, we need to adopt more flexible operating structures but we also need to change our standards of what ‘done’ looks like.
Earlier in my career, after returning from one of my maternity leaves, I was told that my role had expanded to that of “Product Manager.”
As a “Practice Leader,” I had strong customer voice and product development skills, but now my job was expanding to include product marketing, KPI management (including revenue targets), and long-term product strategy. I loved the expanded scope; however, although I had an MBA, I never received any formal Product Management training.
I was given an article about Product Management to read and I had to figure the role out on the fly. I made it work, but it wasn’t easy. I took a very boot-strap approach: I tacked a copy of Ben Horowtiz's Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager  to my bulletin board, and read it every morning. And I took a leap of faith.
The companies I work with are usually B2B, knowledge-based companies (such as professional services firms) that are trying to develop new technology-enabled products—something outside their core product set. To do so requires them to think differently about how they work and how they create value for their customers.
It requires innovation.
I’ve come to learn that innovation can be tricky, and it takes hard work. It's not because the leaders are not visionary, or the team isn't creative or smart. Nor is it because the company culture is stagnating or stifling. It's because, as humans, we tend to favor the routine, the known, the comfortable. Innovation often takes us outside our comfort zones and it certainly almost always requires behavior change. So, rather than suggesting genuinely new ideas, we suggest ideas that we have seen work elsewhere. Or we turn to gimmicks that we think will make us more innovative. For example, “The right business process tool will help – let’s ditch Asana and start using Notion!” Or, even worse, we imagine that adopting open floor plans and bringing in a ping-pong table is what we need to get our teams to think more creatively.
In my experience, and the research supports this, making our companies more innovative requires 1) organizing for innovation, 2) upskilling our people, 3) adopting a disciplined process, and 4) establishing clear and aligned priorities. Here's what I’ve learned about how each of these elements can build an organization where ideas flourish and new revenue growth is possible.
“If I give this new product to my current sales team to sell, it might eat away my existing business.”
We hear this a lot.
So many executives get caught up in the fear that new products will detract, or worse destroy, their existing business. It is a legitimate concern. Total or partial cannibalization can occur when a new product moves customers away from current service offerings or product lines.
That’s why we spend a lot of time helping companies to scope, position, and launch new product innovations in a way that does not mistakenly cannibalize existing revenue streams.
We call our approach the 3 Cs of Cannibalization.
On the last day of February, Cincinnatian’s overcame freezing temperatures, grid locked traffic, and gusts of wind, hail, and snow, to attend a Women in Product Cincinnati event hosted by 84.51°, in downtown Cincinnati.
While the weather was cold, the discussions inside certainly weren’t. Moderated by Danielle Koval, we were fortunate to gain advice, wisdom, and more from Jennifer Bailey, a Director of PM at 84.51°, Lydia Henshaw, Head of Product at Alchemy, and Mike Varona, Lead Consultant of Thought Works.
Here are few of the biggest takeaways shared with PMs of at all levels that evening.