In my current Product Management job with a Privacy software company, my team is in the process of building something that’s pretty freakin’ cool. The only thing holding us back is a bit of ambiguity on what we are actually building.
Sounds crazy, right? When it’s time to innovate, this isn’t what you want to hear. Simply put, we’re trying to get ahead of a trend by introducing a product that not all of our customers know they need. But we’re still scratching our heads on exactly what to build and how best to build it.
We know the basic problem we’re solving from a high level. The question is how far we want to take it with each component. AKA what is a waste of time and what will stick? What are people actually going to care about in 2–3 years?
As a product of this, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about innovation. What it means, who stands to benefit, at what level is it too much, how to compare, the works.
What I’ve boiled it down to is that 95% of the magic happens before pen ever even hits paper.
Thinking of the big picture first
So many people miss this because they dive head first too quickly into the detail. What is the point of what we’re building, and does that point differ with where we’re trying to go? Because the truth is there are different flavors of innovation. Those that create new revenue streams, those that better the common good, and some that just make a process smoother.
How are your engineers and designers viewing the initiative in the grand scheme of things? Oftentimes I realize that this is a point that’s missed. I find myself backtracking on a design call to align our understanding of where we fit in the market and where we’re planning to be.
The building blocks are there. Your team just has to be in the loop on the direction you need to go. Without the big picture you’re building blindly.
Thoughtful preparation is a derivative of innovative design
Try going into design with your architect, a blank slate, and no plan of action as to what you need to solution. On the contrary, go into it with too structured of a plan that you conjured up yourself. You’re going to come out with rubbish 2/2 times.
Designers, engineers, and architects possess a creative brilliance. One of the most critical things I’ve learned is to step aside and let them do what they do best.
But to actually innovate and create a game-changing product, we have to think ahead to what tomorrow’s problems are going to be. To help guide our design in the right path and make sure we are designing for tomorrow, I make a list of as many of these problems (and some of tomorrow’s hypothetical problems) as I can think of.
Enough to get wheels turning while hopefully considering the right constraints and assumptions to account for some of those what-ifs. Then, I get out of the way.
The clueless mindset
A mentor and respected colleague of mine had good advice for how he tackles problem solving with a team. “Sometimes I go into a meeting and ask dumb questions like I don’t know how the hell anything works.”
We pride ourselves on being in the weeds with the technical details and understanding the intricacies, but sometimes the exact opposite approach is what can drive change. A simple “why” or “why not” goes quite a long way when you’re rethinking a solution.
When you’re laser-focused on the big picture and show up with an anything-can-happen mindset, you’d be amazed at what people will come up with.