Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


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Capturing ideas

Ideas are the seeds from which all greatness grows. Every book and every company started from the spark of an idea. Ideas come on their own time and in their own way. Those who understand this principle find a sure path to success.

The key to benefiting from ideas is to capture them. You need to write them down in a place where you can review them and use them when the time is right. In his audio book “Capturing Million Dollar Ideas,” Richard Paul Evans recommends keeping and “idea journal” with you at all times so you can capture ideas as they come. This is important because you can never control or predict when ideas will come. He further discusses five things to know about your ideas:

  1. Your life if the sum of your ideas.
  2. Ideas are like butterflies, they come at any time and they appear unannounced, flittering through your mind as if to find capture. Creating a place to capture the ideas seems to attract them, and in greater number. “A discovery is an accident meeting a prepared mind.”
  3. Ideas, no matter how brilliant, have a very short shelf life.
  4. You may not understand how big an idea is until later; some ideas need to age like cheese and wine to come to value. In come cases, you need to grow before you realize just how big a concept is.
  5. Ideas beget other ideas.

Remember, ideas come on their own time. When ideas come to you, write them down.


The Product Management Perspective: Ideas are the fuel for great products. The difficulty for many product managers is capturing ideas and filtering the potentially great ones from the not so good. That topic deserves its own post (or perhaps its own book). The key point here is that you, as the PM, capture the ideas that come to you regardless of the source. The more ideas you capture the more likely you are to get the perfect new product or feature. Many times ideas will seem silly or absolutely unobtainable; write them down anyway. Over time circumstances change, technology improves and opportunities appear that you do not expect. The more ideas you have captured the better prepared you will be to develop your ideas into the next great product.


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Fixing the conversion-poor company

Conversion-poor companies, as defined in The Innovation Value Chain, most often generate good ideas but they do not screen or develop the ideas properly. Great ideas often die in the budget process due to fear of the unknown. Managers hesitate to take risks and instead emphasize the incremental and certain, not the novel. The inability to convert ideas into products/services can create a risk-averse and bureaucratic process that slows or stops execution.

Companies that lack the ability to move ideas forward to the next level should focus on two innovation practices: multichannel funding and safe havens. Creating multiple channels for funding will help companies avoid the situation where a good manager doesn’t like a particular new idea or doesn’t consider it good enough to use his or her resources to fun it. Other business units can use their funds to open up different options–from discretionary seed money up to full-scale venture funds.

Safe havens provide a way to shield new ideas and potential businesses from the short-term thinking and budget constraints that occupy many organizations that focus on short-term gains. Safe havens can be critical to the conversion of good ideas into profitable products and services.

For more information on this topic, see Leadership and innovation and Identifying the weak link in product innovation.

The Product Management Perspective: Much of the ‘meat’ of converting ideas into products comes in the form of features and requirements, the building blocks of products. The extent to which product managers understand and articulate ideas effectively will determine, to a large degree, the success of their companies. Major ideas are often driven at the highest levels of the company; however, success comes as a result of implementing the correct steps along the way.


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Fixing the idea-poor company

Idea-poor companies, as defined in The Innovation Value Chain, struggle to cultivate new ideas. Their cultures do not promote developing sound ideas internally and they do not bring in enough good ideas from external sources. The results usually lead to sub-par products and financial returns.

Companies that lack sound idea development most often do not have a good network. Their managers often do not have deep connections with people outside their divisions or companies. To solve this problem they need to focus on building reliableexternal networks and (especially at large companies) improve internal cross-unit networks. The article points out that managers need to search for answers to specific problems by cultivating relationships with experts outside of their immediate influence. They should also focusfinding new ideas within broad technology or product domains. Ultimately, a company that does not generate new ideas will fade away with their declining markets.

For more information on this topic, see Leadership and innovation and Identifying the weak link in product innovation.

The Product Management Perspective: Much has been written about the need for product managers to find and cultivate new ideas for their products. One of the most popular ways of doing this is through customer visits. Listening to the customer is important to understanding market direction; however, product managers need more than that. Alain Breillatt wrote about this topic in his article You Can’t Innovate Like Apple when he said: “The point is not to go ask your customers what they want….The point is to go immerse yourself in their environment and ask lots of ‘why’ questions until you have thoroughly explored the ins and outs of their decision making, needs, wants, and problems. At that point, you should be able to break their needs and the opportunities down into a few simple statements of truth.” In other words, new ideas.


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Identifying the weak link in product innovation

My last post discussed The Innovation Value Chain, a sequential process that involves idea generation, idea development and the diffusion of developed concepts. When organizations give proper attention to each step they develop ideas into great products and services, which leads to great companies.

What happens when one or more steps in the process are neglected or omitted? Here’s what the authors say: “A company’s capacity to innovate is only as good as the weakest link in its innovation value chain.” Organizations typically fall into one of three “weakest link” scenarios:

  1. Idea-poor company: These companies do not cultivate new ideas from within the company and do not bring in enough good ideas from external sources. They spend a lot of time developing mediocre ideas that result in sub-par products and financial returns.
  2. Conversion-poor company: In many cases conversion-poor companies have many good ideas, but the “leaders” in the company do not screen or develop ideas properly. Great ideas often die in the budget process due to fear of the unknown. Managers hesitate to take risks and instead emphasize the incremental and certain, not the novel.
  3. Diffusion-poor company: These companies have a difficult time monetizing good ideas. They often suffer from the “not invented here” thinking. As a result, new products and services are not properly rolled out to the market. They milk the cash cow instead of paying further attention to idea generation or idea conversion.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? The article provides a survey that asks 13 questions, which helps identify area(s) where an organization struggles (the “weakest link”). Higher scores indicate areas of weakness. Identifying the weak links will help your organization focus on high-impact changes that will improve the conversion of ideas into great products and services. (Unfortunately the Harvard Business Review does not make their survey available online. Contact me directly for more information about the survey.)

The next few posts will explore how organizations fix each “weakest link” scenario.

The Product Management Perspective: The role of product management touches every aspect of the innovation value chain. Alert product managers work with their teams to bring about good ideas and turn them into successful products.


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Leadership and innovation

How do successful leaders identify market needs and create innovative products and services to meet those needs? They start with ideas. Ideas potentially come from many sources and need to be nurtured effectively to succeed.

The June 2007 Harvard Business Review includes an article by Morten T. Hansen and Julian Birkinshaw titled The Innovation Value Chain. The innovation value chain presents innovation as a “sequential, three-phase process that involves idea generation, idea development and the diffusion of developed concepts.” Each stage of the value chain is critical to the mature development of ideas into products:

  1. Idea generation: Innovation starts with good ideas. Ideas generally come from three areas: internally (within the team), cross-functionally (from different teams within the organization), and/or externally (from customers, partners or other sources external to the organization).
  2. Idea conversion: It’s one thing to generate ideas, but if they are not converted into products (or features or services) they will not benefit the organization.
  3. Idea diffusion: Once ideas have been examined and developed, they still need to receive buy-in (both from within and without the organization).

The following table shows critical tasks managers must do to successfully turn ideas into products customers want to buy:

The Innovation Value Chain

The Innovation Value Chain

Subsequent posts will focus on each phase in more detail, what happens when one or more of the phases is neglected, and how organizations can fix problems in any stage.

The Product Management Perspective: Product managers play a key role in gathering ideas, converting them into products and distributing them to their markets. The more they focus on proven processes to guide them, the more predictable will be their success. It’s critical that product managers not only understand the theory behind innovation but also understand how to implement it.


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Five stages of problem solving

I’ve been thinking about the importance of problem statements lately. Well-written problem statements help product managers communicate both the difficulty faced in the market and the potential reward for solving the problems. If you stop and think about it you’ll see that problems are actually opportunities. New features, new products and even new industries spring up from people who see problems and find ways to solve them. The key to successfully solving problems is understanding them. The following steps will help you express problems clearly and help you identify solutions:

  1. Define the problem: Understand the nature of the problem and articulate it clearly so you understand its effects on the people you are trying to help.
  2. Produce ideas: Make a list of things you can do right away to solve the problem. Be aggressive in finding the right solution.
  3. Test the ideas: Discuss the best ideas with your team and test them with customers. Find out which ones resonate.
  4. Choose among ideas: Choose the idea that will best solve the problem.
  5. Plan for action: Write a plan to solve the problem. This plan will most often come in the form of clear product requirements that will guide the development, QA, marketing and other teams to successfully implement a product (or new product features) that solves the problem.

Well-written problem statements are an important communication tool for product managers. Adopting the five stages of problem solving to the writing clear problem statements — and requirements that solve them — will increase the success of your products and give you a repeatable process.

Note: I’ve adapted the five stages of problem solving to product management based on what I read in the book “A More Excellent Way” by the late Neal A. Maxwell, a great educator and religious leader.


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Tuned In


The expression ‘tuned in’ has been around for a long time, but its meaning is about to change. In a few weeks from now Wiley will release the book Tuned In: Uncovering the Extraordinary Opportunities That Lead to Business Breakthroughs. The book details the Tuned In Process, a six-step method for creating a resonator, a product or service that so perfectly solves problems for buyers that it sells itself. Following are the six steps of the Tuned In process (with clarifying questions):

Step 1:
Find Unresolved Problems. How do we know what market and product to focus on?

Step 2: Understand Buyer Personas. How do we identify who will buy our offering?

Step 3:
Quantify the Impact. How do we know if we have a potential winner?

Step 4: Create Breakthrough Experiences. How do we build a competitive advantage?

Step 5: Articulate Powerful Ideas. How do we establish memorable concepts that speak to the problems buyers have?

Step 6: Establish Authentic Connections. How do we tell our buyers that we’ve solved their problems so they buy from us?

The book details how companies such as Starbucks, Zipcar and Disneyland got tuned in to their markets; how organizations such as NASCAR and Picture Perfect Weddings understand their customers; why products such as the Blackberry and GoPro camera meet specific needs of buyers; and how a magician, a preacher and a doctor all tuned in to specific needs of customers in their niche.

Finding the resonator is key to the success of the company, and tuned in entrepreneurs and executives find ways to make their products and services stand out. They create opportunities for their ideas to take off and become successful. They understand their market and products.

An equally interesting part of the Tuned In study was the contrast of tuned out companies. They tend to exhibit the following behaviors:

  1. Guessing: Guess what the market wants
  2. Assuming: Assume current customers represent the market
  3. Telling: Try to create the need by expensive advertising or an army of salespeople.

Tuned In is written by three great authors:

Craig Stull is the founder and CEO of Pragmatic Marketing, Inc. and the author of the industry-standard Pragmatic Marketing Framework.

Phil Myers is President of Pragmatic Marketing, and a frequent writer, speaker and consultant on the subject of Tuned In Leadership Strategies. Check out Phil’s takeaways from their book tour. (Side note: I met with Phil for lunch a few months back and he kindly gave me an advanced copy of the book).

David Meerman Scott is the author of the bestselling book The New Rules of Marketing & PR and a sought-after keynote speaker. (Side note 2: Check out the podcast I recorded with David in May.)

We will no-doubt be hearing great things about Tuned In for years to come. I highly recommend it to your reading!

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