To Innovate…Check Your Ego, Question Your Assumptions

You sit in a three-day product strategy session.  The walls are covered in sticky notes.  You’ve listened to hours of presentations.  There are hundreds of ideas.  There is excitement in the room.  The group is onto something big.  We are going to build the next big innovation that will make our company stand out from the competitors.

You have engineers waiting for the requirements document. You have the Executive Committee waiting for the strategy and business case.  There is energy and excitement you have not felt in months.  The hundreds of hours of research and customers interviews have given you the confidence to guide the room to the product strategy.  Is this enough?

AOL thought it was enough.  Blackberry thought it was enough.   Blockbuster thought it was enough.  Circuit City thought it was enough. The reality is, confidence and research are not enough.  

Confidence is the way your brain builds a story so it makes sense.  It takes the data you have, and it puts it together to form a story.  If there is missing data, your brain will fill in the missing data. In this case, the story is what to build to meet customer needs. You need to be constantly checking your story to ensure it’s still accurate.  The missing data that filled in your story..is this data accurate?  Is your initial research still valid? Does the story make sense?

How can we build products that are innovative, grow market share, and meet customer needs strategically and tactically?  We need to balance our customer research and our confidence with questions.

Continuously Revisit Assumptions

Throughout the entire product lifecycle, including product discovery, you make assumptions. These assumptions are based on customer needs, buyer and user personas, technical limitations, and market assumptions.  You need to revisit these assumptions on an ongoing basis  Can you validate these assumptions?  How do you know these assumptions are accurate?  If they were accurate X months ago, are they still accurate?  Continue to work with customers and do your research to validate and adjust your assumptions.

For example, a client of mine made a product assumption two years ago on what not to build.  In fact, this assumption is no longer valid.  Unfortunately, without this capability, my client has a large number of very unhappy customers.  The customer was part of the very early research and then was not spoken too until the software was released.  You need to always be revisiting what you are building, the story you are telling, the assumptions you are making with your customers.

Think Big, Start Small, Go Fast

A mentor of mine has this hanging on her wall, and it’s a perfect description of product discovery.  The months of research and confidence are ideal for putting together the strategy and themes.  But regarding the product details, bite off small chunks at a time.  Continuously work with customers to ensure what you are building meets their needs.  I don’t mean showing them a screen and asking if they like it.  I mean sitting down with them, at their location, and having them use the system. Learn by what they do, how they use it versus just what they say.  If things have changed for them, this will be caught early on. The key is to learn and learn again.

Ensure Your Ego Does Not Get in the Way

How many times have I heard product managers say…” we know what is best for customers.”  There is an inherent risk with saying this.  Product managers are not building products for themselves.  We are not the customer.  We are not the user.  How can we, as product managers, be an expert in the client challenges?  By letting our egos get in the way, we run the risk of getting it wrong by making poor assumptions.

Always Question Your Stories

As a type A product manager, you want to appear confident to leaders, to engineers. However, reality is that we might be wrong.  Be prepared to be wrong.  Always ask yourself and your team questions about the stories you have produced and if they still make sense.  Don’t just ask questions at the end.  Question at every stage, at every sprint, at every demo.  Even if the vision is correct, the way you are deploying the vision may be wrong.  If you start to see signs that there may be some doubt, pause and revisit the story.  You would rather revisit the story early on than spend millions building a product that does not meet the market need.

Let’s do a reality check:

  • Customers are evolving.  Their needs of today are probably not their needs of tomorrow.
  • If a customer does not know what their needs of tomorrow will be, how could you possibly build a product to meet those needs.

What is the best way to minimize the risk of getting it wrong, it’s through prototyping and experimentation even during product discovery.  More to come on this in future blogs.