Best Practices

Are You Innovating or Just Doing More?

Every once in awhile you get to step back and take a fresh look at your product and its current trajectory. You check your north star and evaluate see if you’re still on the path you have plotted or if you’re just going in circles. For me, this opportunity came with the addition of our first VP of product to our executive team.

A new VP coming onboard inevitably means peeling back the layers of the product vision, which can be a humbling experience. There were several worrisome days and a few nights. Egos had to be checked and all the closets cleaned out. Luckily for me, our new VP had a plan, and he had purpose. He gave us the opportunity to deconstruct our product and our vision, as a team, and rebuild it in a way that has allowed us to focus on truly innovative solutions for our customers.

This experience taught me several important lessons, but at the core of it all was this: if you are not incredibly deliberate you are not truly innovating, you are simply doing more.

Peeling Back the Layers

The first step in our process was to get a holistic view of our current product plan. To do this, we collected and broke down our entire backlog of ideas, and plotted them in this table:

How we broke down our product ideas

It was important to look at everything, to get it all on the table. As we began categorizing, we found that we had actually spent very little time thinking about BHAGs, we had a few, but not many. It became obvious that most of our focus had been around enhancements and bug fixes. Like many product teams, we had our heads down, plowing through the day-to-day, dreaming a little, but mostly focused on current features and customer requested enhancements. BHAG is, of course, Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. Conceptualized in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James Collins and Jerry Porras, BHAGs are the big stretch ideas that we hoped would eventually turn into our key innovations.

The Magic Matrix

Our first exercise revealed that our long-term vision had become too narrowly focused. But it was step two that was the real eye opener. This involved plotting our ideas on this matrix:     

Mike Storrs' product development matrix

Here’s how our ideas plotted:  

  •      Who Cares 4%
  •      Parity 47%
  •      Speculation 34%
  •      Innovation 15%

The majority would get us to parity or were fairly risky speculations. The few ideas that were innovative were just dreams and nowhere near getting into our backlog yet. This came as a surprise: we always felt innovative and believed that our product vision and plan were pushing us towards market differentiation. Now we saw more clearly. We were simply building a better version of parity features. We were just building more, not building new stuff. We now had two questions in front of us:

First, how did we get here?

And second, how do we make innovation a reality for our team?

The Perils of Customer Research

We’ve always worked closely with our customers, in fact, on an almost daily basis. We have robust feedback and solid product metrics that keep us informed about the nuances of our product usage. But, as it turned out, this was a slippery slope that made us fall victim to well-informed mediocracy.

We realized we had was a perfect recipe for creating a backlog full of “parity” ideas. Customers told us what they wanted, based off of what they have seen, Metrics told us what was being used and what was not. We knew what to tweak and enhance, but what all of our data didn’t give us was a clear path to new ideas. Even our big ideas were nothing more than complicated enhancements. We were not getting any closer to our north star — that dreamed of nirvana of customer delight.

Innovating In Your Wheelhouse

The time and complexity of maintaining a product outside of your core competencies will come at a significant cost and at a very high risk to your company. So, for our final step, we took a long hard look at our strategies and products and what we do well as a company. We narrowed our strengths down into three core competencies that we called our “wheelhouse.” This became our new innovation measuring stick. If the idea did not fit into our wheelhouse, it did not get onto our roadmap.

With our new measuring stick in hand, we evaluated all of our remaining ideas. We made the difficult decision to kill off any that didn’t fit. If it couldn’t be solved by leveraging the tools in our wheelhouse, then the idea was simply not a good fit. This put some of our most-requested customer features on the chopping block, but that was one of the best things we have ever done. Clearing out the clutter allowed us to focus on the right innovations for us. Time and resources are limited and you need to be strong enough to walk away or simply say no. Innovation can only occur when new ideas leverage the core of what you do best. It can only happen when an innovative idea fits your wheelhouse.

The problem is not the lack of good ideas, it is the lack of tools to help you find the right ideas. Innovation is not easy, but deliberately focusing on discovering highly-valued, highly-differentiated products that leverage your core competencies can bring a clarity that will lead to innovative ideas.

Find Your Way

Doing this kind of exercise takes time and consideration. It may require a significant change in product direction for your team, and it will definitely require buy in from the very top. I feel extremely lucky to have the kind of executive team that not only allowed us to make the changes but has prioritized this as a key focus of our company culture.

Your team may not be able to do it all at once, but baby steps help too. Ultimately, the results have the potential to fundamentally change the trajectory of your company. A true focus on innovation within your core competencies will allow you to excel at what you do best, and that is the true path to building products customers will love.