Innovators

Product innovation in practice

Donald Farmer Principal at TreeHive Strategy; Former VP of Innovation at Qlik

Innovation. It’s a buzzword used enthusiastically and unsparingly in the business world—a quick search on the topic yields 1.4 billion Google results, 4.6 million job titles on LinkedIn, and countless articles on Medium.

But too rarely is innovation broken down, challenged, and held to account.

In my work at TreeHive Strategies, a digital consultancy that helps businesses strengthen and expand their products with a culture of analytics, I’ve helped dozens of clients get to a place of real innovation with practical impact. 

When applied thoughtfully, innovation can be truly transformative for businesses and products.

Defining innovation

To get to the root of how innovation can serve us in business and products, we first need to define it. Here’s the one I use in my work:

Innovation is fresh work that emerges from radical answers to the basic questions of our craft.

Too often, conversations about innovation are restricted to well-worn topics like blockchain, AI, and UX. All are no doubt exciting, but it’s important to remember that innovation can emerge from anywhere and anyone, at any time—in teams ranging from accounting, to documentation and even facilities.

Think of your ‘craft’ as simply your work at hand. And wherever we work, we can be original.

Secondly, it’s impossible to talk about innovation without giving equal consideration to the topic of failure. The two go hand-in-hand. 

Creating an environment of openness around failure enables teams and individuals to move on from their ideas without being discouraged by stalled projects. This tolerance for failure does not equate to unlimited endurance—rather, it includes being honest, but never judgemental, when identifying projects that move forward and projects that are pruned. 

One of my clients, RevGen Partners in Denver, Colorado, typically sees seven concept projects trimmed down to two practical implementations; but the five projects which do not move forward still offer useful insights and learning for the teams involved, and the organization as a whole.

Steps for innovation

1. Define the basic story of your problem space as you see it today

Start with the basic elements of any good story: ‘what’ (is your product), ‘who’ (is it for), ‘how’ (much does it cost), ‘when,’ ‘where’, and ‘why’ (is it used)—and allow these answers to define the conditions of your problem space today.

Take electric vehicles, for instance. Remember the clunky, boxy designs on the market before Elon Musk was inspired to create something different? Here’s what the tale of his problem space might’ve looked like at the time:

  • Who were they for: a few environmentally conscious consumers
  • Why did they buy them: to lessen their environmental impact, presumably
  • How did they buy them: possibly through a dealer, but often as self-assembly kits
  • How much: Well, they certainly looked cheap

Keep in mind—for teams beginning an innovation journey, it’s important to focus on a specific area rather than casting too wide of a net. 

Start by choosing a single business domain and subject area in which to channel your focus. While things like customer relations or product packaging are far too broad to take on, customer retention or overall product design could prove enlightening.

2. Play with radicalizing answers to the basic questions

Now that you’ve defined the problem space you’re working in, the next step is to explore its outer edges.

To get to a place of real innovation, I take clients through an exercise of re-visiting the basic questions above with a new, radicalized lens. The goal here is to take ideas to their extremes and see what happens there.

Say you’re in the SaaS business: What would your product look like if it cost users $30K a month? At the other extreme, what would it look like if it was free? How should it perform for users in either scenario? Thinking through such a radical pricing model could spark conversations about design, sales, and support that might never arise if you’d restricted the discussion to pricing models near the market average only.

Back when I served as the VP of Innovation and Design at Qlik, an enterprise BI and data analytics tool, we asked the question: who builds BI dashboards? The radical answer that led to a strategic shift towards self-serve analysis? Everyone should be able to build a dashboard.

During this step in the innovation process, you might entertain an “edgy” answer and then step back to a place that’s a little closer to the mainstream. But you’ll arrive there with a new—more original—perspective from which fresh ideas can emerge.

3. Test your hypotheses to know whether you’ve been successful

Now, it’s time to take your concept for a spin in the real world. Your job here is not to sell your users on the innovative idea you landed upon, but to see if it’s viable without leading them to that conclusion. 

Take care to establish metrics that help you gauge whether you’ve been successful in your execution.

At Qlik, this exercise led us to move towards tracking how many users were creating dashboards—rather than consuming dashboards—in order to understand the success of our self-serve features.

And remember—failure is part of the process, too.

If you’re not failing once in a while in your work, it’s a good sign that your boundaries are due to be pushed further.

4. Prove your innovation by doing the work to make it real

Innovative ideas alone are not a stand-in for innovation in practice. In order for it to really take hold as part of the product iteration process, teams must prove their innovation by doing the work to make it real, give it life, prove it.

No matter how sensational or cool an idea might be in the moment, if it doesn’t make it from dream to reality, it remains just that: an idea.

Making innovation work for you

You’re shipping innovative products and features, and you’ve been validated by positive user feedback and growth. 

But how can you really know if innovation is happening in your organization (at every level)? And, what other problem spaces could lead to innovative breakthroughs in your product, and business as a whole?

For innovation to matter, businesses must be intentional in creating the space for it to happen. They must also consider what it means for the organization so that those who control investment can understand the progress, the pitfalls, and the potential.

Consider how ideas are being generated today, and how much space and time there is for innovation across the organization. In my work, I’ve seen businesses stay accountable to their targets with dedicated innovation teams comprising diverse, cross-functional team members. 

(A small but significant side note: if Innovation Councils are structured too hierarchically, things can get lost and ideas are only heard by the loudest people. Instead, take inspiration from the design world’s “charrettes” and host collaborative sessions with interested parties. 

Below are some questions to help you determine whether innovation is happening in your organization:

  • Do you have an innovation budget?
  • Do you have a channel for new ideas to be assessed? 
  • Do you have a channel for external ideas from customers or partners?
  • Within these channels, how many new ideas were contributed? How many are pruned (cut-off) early? How many succeeded?
  • How much time is spent on innovation projects?
  • Are you filing IP for your ideas?

As we’ve seen, innovation has its tough moments. It takes real work and original thought to create a new space, and not merely a stepping stone. 

But above all, the process of innovation should be enjoyable. It’s this kind of creative play that we too often lose sight of when we sit down to do business.

So, in the name of innovation: have some fun, think fresh thoughts, and build new, dazzling, delightful products.

About Donald Farmer

Donald Farmer is globally recognized as a visionary product leader, sought after speaker, patent holder and author who has built and executed BI and AI strategy for industry leaders Microsoft and Qlik, and numerous startups and mid-stage companies. His advisory practice, TreeHive Strategy, provides workshops, strategy planning, and mentoring for software vendors and enterprises looking to strengthen and expand their business and products with a practical culture of analytics.

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