Startups and products happens with the birth of an idea. As product managers how do we filter and pick the right idea? An idea which your organization needs to evolve, survive and move forward with? What I want to do today is talk about the process which has greatly helped me in figuring and thrashing out the right product ideas. Before we dive in let’s look at what have we as a community of product management professionals been doing.
Conventionally speaking it is the strategic thinking which create ideas. The industry cements them with business cases and business models that take shape and form in executive suites and steering committees. However, the problem with this top-down approach is that the ideas remain confined to the people who first conceived those ideas. My hypothesis is that for an organization to grow any product ideas that they come up with needs to be owned by the entire organization.
From strategic thinking perspective, it is the NPV of an idea that determines its worth and the pitch deck which justifies its existence. Strategic thinking requires dissemination of this information in town hall meetings in which flash numbers and mesmerize our audience with a PowerPoint presentation. But does it make those numbers and PowerPoint trajectories owned by those audiences. I’ve seen this time and again and in my experience they do not.
There are some major examples that we can look back at in history. Nokia with its feature phone and Kodak with its photographic reel. Both of these organizations went down the rabbit hole thinking that the future is in the products that their successful managers conceived in board rooms and isolated corporate offices. In no way am I saying that Eureka does not happen but those cases are far and few in between.
As product managers we are responsible for creating the future and that is a high burden. If creating the future is what we then we must create possible scenarios of the future, this can only be done by getting an external perspective. An external perspective which only happens by going into the field, talking to the people who will be the prospect customers, trying to understand their personas, their life habits and that too not just in present but figuring those out for the next 10 years. No amount of spreadsheet can capture this. The new reality that you’re about to create must be created by the people who were living it. It cannot be the result of an extrapolated field in a spreadsheet.
Part of the problem is our legacy education system which has been teaching us the mastery of Excel and PowerPoint. It has placed us on a pedestal higher than that of people whom we are trying to build the products for. The industry has designated us as specialist. It has made us believe that we understand our customers more than they understands themselves.
While anybody in the organization can come up with an idea I strongly that it is our customers who understand their business much better than we do. Involving them right from the start can bring in an external perspective while we as product managers can brainstorm formalize and give shape to the idea in this product or product feature discovery process.
At times, managers confuse this with reading quantitative market surveys. What I’m saying is that the core team has to go out and do this themselves and then use that information to create a prototype or an MVP, review feedback and iterate again.
Analytical decision-makers require proof. And it is here where I have started to differ with them. They want to see numbers, in contrast, the approach that I am talking about is wholly experimental. We only iterate our way to something better.
This approach is called the design thinking approach.
The NPV and the pitch deck does provide value and cannot be sidelined. However, the birth of an idea for us product managers has to be a communal process.