Innovation Systems and the Importance of Environment

At the ProductCraft Virtual Conference on May 7th, Brian Crofts, chief product officer at Pendo, shared his session, “Innovation Systems for Product Teams.” Over the last decade, the role of the product team within the organization has completely changed. Before, product teams were considered “feature factories.” These days, as businesses undergo digital transformation and software reshapes the world, product is now recognized as a key driver of business outcomes. 

But in order to make strategic and innovative product decisions, these teams have to be empowered. And that requires trust. 

Trust and environment

Brian started his session by saying that empowered product teams are simply trusted teams. How do you create trust? By making and keeping commitments.

The team environment is critical to enabling trust. It has to be one that engenders failure, risk-taking, and innovation. Teams must feel psychological safety. So, ask yourself these questions: Do my team members feel safe to make mistakes? Do they feel encouraged to share ideas? Can my employees bring their whole selves to work? 

Brian brought up an example from his high school days playing basketball. He was on two teams at the time, and while the make-up of the two teams was generally similar, the coaches differed. 

The first coach created an environment in which the players had to play perfectly because any mistake would lead to instant punishment. The second coach allowed players to take risks and play aggressively. If mistakes happened, he simply encouraged them to shake them off and do better next time.  The psychological safety and environment on both teams were drastically different, and that led to different results. In the end, the second team ended up winning far more games. 

Innovation systems

Systems help your team keep moving toward positive business outcomes, and innovation systems foster consistent creativity and collaboration. In his session, Biran Crofts described each of the five components of the innovation system used at Pendo

1. Strategy

Strategy connects the dots between the company’s mission and the product team’s activities. It’s extremely powerful when teams can connect what they do to the bigger picture. 

2. Discovery

Discovery is generally understood as a method for developing new insights that lead to roadmap prioritization. Brian highlighted the “debrief” portion of the discovery process — it’s often overlooked and lost art within product management. People skip the debrief in favor of taking notes from a conversation and circulating that widely amongst their teams. But the debrief is much more effective — it allows teammates to talk aloud about what they learned from customers, distill powerful insights, and share their own observations.

3. Delivery

This component is about building better roadmaps and communicating them effectively. Brian believes that building the roadmap isn’t the hard part — it’s communicating it. He suggested a few ways to frame the roadmap to stakeholders: parity, 2x, and 10x. Parity covers the checkboxes that the product needs to have. 2x says that these product features will lead to competitive wins. But 10x describes a product that redefines the market, a product so innovative that competitors haven’t even thought that far. Another option is to describe the roadmap to customers in terms of past, present, and future. The past is technical debt, the present is current customer requests and commits, and the future is movement toward the overall product vision. 

4. Product Ops

The fourth piece of the innovation system is enabling product managers to do the things only they can do. The reality is that product managers have a lot on their plates, and product ops can help shoulder the load. They create more time and space for product managers to talk to customers and collaborate with other departments. They’re an operations function that makes the system work more smoothly by connecting the dots, performing product hygiene, and assisting with launch readiness. 

5. Design System

The fifth and final part of the innovation system describes the rules of what you can and cannot break within your product design. Brian admitted that design systems could fill up an entirely separate talk. But it’s important to acknowledge that this system must be considered within the context of your product and organizational maturity. Why? Component libraries can save up to 50% of project time for any team. 

Trusted and empowered product teams can innovate effectively. Systems, much like the innovation system above, are powerful mechanisms that help teams deliver those outcomes on a repeatable basis. But everything starts with building an environment that allows for risk-taking, creativity, and growth.