Product School

How to Spark Product Innovation

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Author: Product School

September 5, 2023 - 10 min read

Updated: January 24, 2024 - 10 min read

Being a Product Leader is about more than just ticking boxes; it's about driving product innovation that meets and exceeds customer expectations. However, the constant pressure to innovate can be a double-edged sword, stifling creativity instead of fostering it. Contrary to the myth that Product Leaders are lone innovators, real innovation is a team effort that requires cross-functional collaboration.

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In this article, we'll explore:

  • The importance of sparking innovation as a Product Leader  

  • Why the solo Product Leader is a myth

  • The difference between technical innovation and product innovation

  • Practical tools and techniques for collaborative innovation

  • Real-world examples of how product innovation actually works

So let's dive in and make innovation a practical, achievable goal rather than just a buzzword.

Why innovation is the cornerstone for every Product Leader

Product innovation isn't just a trendy term you slap onto your LinkedIn profile or business plan; it's the engine that powers not only your product but the company at large. It's what separates the market leaders from the followers, and the memorable products from the forgotten ones. In other words, innovation is what infuses your work with purpose and your products with value.

But what exactly does 'innovation' mean in the context of Product Management? It's not merely coming up with a game-changing idea; it's also about the rigorous process of refining that idea, implementing it, and continuously improving it. Moreover, innovation is not an end goal but an ongoing practice, a culture that needs to be woven into the fabric of your team and organization.

So as we delve deeper into the strategies for mastering product innovation, keep in mind that the real work lies in integrating innovation into every aspect of your role. It's about being willing to take calculated risks, experiment, fail, learn, and iterate. In doing so, you're not just fulfilling your job description—you're driving the company toward new horizons, catalyzing change, and setting new industry benchmarks. 

Unmasking the Myth of the Lone Product Leader: True innovation is a team sport

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We've all heard the narrative: the lone genius who crafts groundbreaking products in isolation, steering their team toward unparalleled success. However, this enduring tale is not only misleading but also perilous. Here's why:

1. The myth sets unrealistic expectations

This stereotype sets you up for failure. It grossly oversimplifies the process of product development and innovation. Successful product innovation is usually the result of collective brainstorming, iterative fine-tuning, and cross-functional collaboration.

2. The folly of one-man ideation

Operating as a solo act can introduce multiple blind spots into your strategy, as well as a lack of diverse viewpoints that might overlook better opportunities or potential constraints:

  • Neglecting business constraints

High-concept ideas might sound revolutionary but could be completely unfeasible in the real business world.

  • Bottlenecks

Waiting for a single person's approval can slow down the ideation process, putting you at a disadvantage compared to faster competitors.

  • Disconnect from customers

Ignoring the critical voice of the customer can lead to products that are disconnected from market needs.

If you've ever felt an acute case of imposter syndrome when you couldn't churn out "revolutionary" ideas in solitude, you're not alone. The undue pressure to constantly be the innovator can sap your creativity and make you less effective in your role.

3. Why you can't go it alone

Firstly, isolating yourself to come up with the next big thing leaves out invaluable customer input, which should be the cornerstone of any product decision. Secondly, innovation isn't just about ideation; it's about execution, too. Overlooking the operational and technical aspects of your vision can lead to costly miscalculations.

For all these reasons, the most effective Product Leaders act less like isolated masterminds and more like catalysts that spark team-wide creativity. You can synthesize a well-rounded understanding of customer needs by gathering diverse insights from engineering, design, sales, and even customer service, and come up with products that truly resonate in the market.

For instance, consider the Tesla electric car. While Elon Musk often grabs the headlines, it's the synergy of experts in engineering, battery technology, software, and design who collectively enabled Tesla's transformative impact on the automotive industry. 

The two classes of innovation: Technical Innovation vs. Product Innovation

Innovation isn't a one-size-fits-all concept. Let's clarify the playing field by breaking it down into two major categories: Technical Innovation and Product Innovation.

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Technical Innovation: The frontier of possibility

Imagine the academic halls of research or the cutting-edge labs in Silicon Valley. This is where technical innovation takes place. It’s the field of scientists, engineers, and researchers. They're pushing the boundaries in fields like computing, medicine, and blockchain. However, their incentive isn't necessarily market-driven and they aren't concerned with market viability—that's where you as a Product Leader come in.

For instance, consider IBM's quantum computing research. They've made significant strides in advancing the field of quantum computing, a technology with vast potential to solve complex problems much more efficiently than classical computers. However, it hasn’t turned into a product that you or I could use.

Product Innovation: Where the rubber meets the road

This is your domain. You're not necessarily the innovator of deep learning algorithms, but you know just how to implement them to solve real-world problems. You take the existing technologies and find a solution that people didn't even know they needed. You understand the customer, the business, and how to deliver value within existing constraints.

Take, for example, Tesla's Autopilot feature. The core technology behind autonomous vehicles is not proprietary to Tesla; it's built on years of research in machine learning, computer vision, and robotics. However, Tesla's ingenuity lies in how they've applied this existing technology to create a consumer-facing product that aligns with specific customer needs for safety and convenience.

Why this distinction matters

The key differentiator between technical and product innovation is applicability. Technical innovation provides the raw capabilities but without the focus on solving specific customer issues or driving business goals. Product innovation, on the other hand, takes those raw materials and crafts them into solutions that address specific customer pains and business objectives.

4 Ways Product Leaders can drive innovation

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1. Customer-centric approach

If you're not obsessed with your customers, you're doing it wrong. The best in the business are not just looking at what customers say; they're diving into why they say it. Techniques such as empathy mapping and customer persona creation aren’t just buzzwords; they’re tools that help you step into your customers' lives. Imagine their daily struggles and aspirations; these are the nuggets that pave the way for groundbreaking innovation.

2. Agile methodology

Whether it’s Scrum, Kanban, or any other flavor of Agile, the core idea is to keep learning and adapting. Short, focused sprints allow you to respond rapidly to market changes. The 'fail fast, learn fast' approach is your best friend, empowering you to iterate and pivot effectively. If you’re not agile, you’re not resilient, and if you're not resilient, you're not really innovating.

3. Design thinking process

Are you simply solving problems, or are you innovating? There's a difference. The design thinking process encourages you to go beyond the obvious. With its five stages—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—it gives you a structured roadmap to take your wild ideas and refine them into practical solutions. The aim is not just to think differently, but to think better, driving your ideas through a rigorous funnel that culminates in genuine impact.

4. Cross-functional collaboration

The real magic happens when you get designers talking to engineers, marketers brainstorming with customer service agents, and so on. Collaboration is more than just a term—it’s a melting pot of different ideas and skill sets that make 1+1 equal 3. Platforms like workshops and hackathons aren't just events but are incubators for brilliance, offering spaces for collective problem-solving and ingenuity.

Tools leveraged by Product Leaders for Product innovation

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Data analytics platforms

Data is the North Star in your innovation journey. Tools like Google Analytics and Mixpanel offer insights into user behavior, funnel performance, and engagement metrics. They help you understand what’s working and what isn’t, giving you the data-backed insights you need to guide your next big idea.

Idea generation tools

Ideas are the raw material of innovation, and to keep that factory running smoothly, you need the right tools. Techniques like mind mapping or SWOT analysis can stimulate idea generation. Digital solutions like Miro and Trello act as virtual whiteboards, breaking down geographical barriers and allowing teams to collaborate in real time.

Prototyping software

The distance between an idea and a successful product is a lot shorter if you have the right prototyping tools. Solutions like Figma and InVision offer rapid prototyping capabilities that streamline your iterative cycles, allowing you to test concepts quickly and more effectively. In the highly competitive market, speed and adaptability can make or break your product.

Real-world case to illustrate how Product innovation happens

Let's cut through the theories for a second. How does innovation actually manifest in the real world? Let's look at a few case studies that you can pull concrete lessons from.

The Netflix evolution

You know Netflix as the streaming giant, but do you remember its DVD rental days? The company pivoted by observing changing customer behavior and technological advancements. Netflix initially used data analytics to recommend DVDs, but it didn't stop there. The team evolved the product into a streaming service, perfecting its recommendation engine along the way. The lesson? Be flexible and ready to pivot, leveraging data analytics to guide those crucial turns.

Google Maps offline mode

Simple, but groundbreaking. Google Maps was already the go-to GPS app, but there was a pain point—lack of access during offline conditions. Product managers, using empathy maps and customer feedback, identified this as a critical issue. The offline feature was born, allowing users to download maps and directions. By addressing this, Google Maps shifted from being 'great' to 'indispensable.' The lesson here is to keep listening to your users. You might discover that the next big feature is something you'd initially overlooked.

Slack’s growth through extensibility

Slack started as an internal tool for a gaming company. But the real magic happened when they opened it up for integrations. They didn't just say, "Here's a messaging tool;" they said, "Here's a platform you can build upon." Now you've got bots, workflow automation, and hundreds of third-party integrations. The takeaway? Sometimes innovation isn't about adding more features; it's about enabling your users to add their own.

Dropbox’s simple solution to a complex problem

Dropbox didn't invent cloud storage, but it did make it user-friendly. Earlier products were clunky and challenging to navigate, filled with jargon that made non-techies shudder. Dropbox offered drag-and-drop simplicity. They focused on making the user interface as intuitive as possible, and it worked! The lesson here is that you can innovate by simplification. In a sea of features, being user-friendly can be your differentiator.

In short, innovation is a collage of lessons learned from studying your customers, embracing change, facilitating growth, simplifying complexity, and even borrowing insights from different sectors.

Learn more with Product School

Elevate your skill set and spark innovation in your Product teams with our Product Leader Certification (PLC) designed by successful Product Leaders to help you build end-to-end product development skills while offering the hands-on experience you need to lead product teams.

Take the first step to becoming a strategic, successful, and influential Product Leader. Schedule a call to discover all that our PLC has to offer. Act now and transform your career today.

Updated: January 24, 2024

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