How Product Managers Can Innovate & Not Lose Their Shirts

by drjim on October 3, 2011

Product Innovation Is Like Building A Pyramid

Product Innovation Is Like Building A Pyramid

What’s your plan for making your product a success going forward? Hoping some magic fairy shows up and makes your competition go away overnight? Well good luck with that! I suspect that your management is probably pressing you and your product team to do some of that “innovation” stuff. Got any ideas on how to make it happen?

The Two Flavors Of Innovation

We all think that we know what innovation is, but do we really? We view innovation as being the process by which successful products get invented like the iPhone, the Kindle, etc. However, those product teams have access to some sort of magic pixy dust that the rest of us can’t touch. How are we supposed to use innovation to make our products better?

Really smart people, like Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, have taken a close look at this innovation thing and they’ve discovered that not all innovation is created the same.

What they’ve found is that there are actually two different types of innovation. The first is what we’re all familiar with: the blockbuster breakthrough thought. This is the kind of thinking that produced the iPad. Not bad – if only product managers could have these types of thoughts every day!

Thankfully there is another type of innovation. This is the incremental change type of innovation. It’s a much smaller type of breakthrough, but we have a lot more of them and they turn out to be just as important.

For you see, the blockbuster breakthroughs are built on top of a whole bunch of incremental breakthroughs. In fact, the researchers have discovered that you really can’t have a blockbuster breakthrough if you don’t have a bunch of incremental breakthroughs in order to support the blockbuster.

How To Innovate With Your Product

I can almost hear you saying, “oh great, so now not only do I have to have blockbuster innovations, but now I also have a bunch of incremental innovations…” Well, yes and no.

Instead of getting all tied up in knots about what you do or don’t have to do in order to innovate with your product, it might be simpler to implement a framework for allowing innovation to happen.

One way to do this is to look at innovations as they relate to your product as being organized in a pyramid fashion. At the base of the pyramid are all of the little ideas that are always popping up about how the product can be improved. These can come from anywhere: internally or from customers.

The ideas that are “no-brainers” need to be implemented right away. The ones that will require some time and investment, but which look promising should be thought of as moving to the next layer of the innovation pyramid.

At this level, investments are made, changes happen, and innovation starts to become apparent in different parts of the product if you look at it hard enough. Nothing revolutionary, but the product does keep getting better.

The final stage of the pyramid is the top. This is where the big ideas get kicked up to. These ideas require the product manager and the firm to make a big bet on where the world is headed. If your senior management agrees, these ideas are the ones that will create the breakthrough innovations for your product that everyone will be talking about.

What All Of This Means For You

Since you are responsible for the success of your product, you need to make sure that both you and your team keep innovating and making the product better and better. That means that you’re going to have to find ways to make innovation happen.

It turns out that there are more than one type of innovation. There are the big innovations that get all of the press and then there are the incremental innovations that are needed to allow the big innovations happen.

Product managers need to implement a framework that allows innovative ideas to be collected into a pyramid of innovation that will allow good ideas to be implemented no matter if they are small, medium, or breakthrough in size.

Innovation is a core requirement for every product – every product has a half-life and you need to be adding value to it in order to ensure its success. Use this deeper understanding of innovation to show your management and the market that your product is the most innovative.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Should a product manager be responsible for picking what innovative features to implement or should it be someone else?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

I find myself telling the product managers that I’m working with that they need to understand that one of a product manager’s most important jobs is to give good direction to their sales teams: who will buy your product. You may think that you know the answer, but like the product managers for 5-Hour Energy Shots you might be wrong…

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