Innovating from within: How do new ideas get out the door?

Encouraging innovation from within an organization is not always easy, and different techniques are effective in different contexts. Part of the work of an experienced product manager is working with the existing structure when you are trying to deliver something new. Here are some guiding questions that can help you along the way.

What are your objectives?

Whether you are a team of three or a large organization, it’s important that we all know what success looks like. If it’s not clear to you, ask! What do we need MORE of this year? What will we do LESS of? How will we measure it?

Where do new ideas come from?

If you’ve had the objectives conversation, it might be time for some new ideas. Look around, and see where new ideas come from in your context.

Often, it’s not the top-down ideas that are the most innovative, but they have come from somebody tinkering around in their spare time, or from a hackathon or similar gathering that brings people together from across groups to spend a couple days developing a new idea. some time to identify where new ideas come from in your context and then seek to capture some of them.

How are ideas validated?

Not all new ideas will meet your objectives, and not all of them will bring value to your business. To validate the business value of a new idea with a minimum amount of overhead, I start with a Lean Startup technique of sketching on the business model canvas. It helps to get a few people together who have different understandings of your product, either because they work in different groups or with different customers.

In each section of the business model canvas, sketch your hypotheses, or possible explanations, for how the product would work. Who will be your customer? Who will you work with? How will you customer get the product? How will you support it? These are all testable hypotheses that your team can seek to validate.

In science, we say that you can never prove a hypothesis, only disprove it. That can sound like a bummer when you are excited about a new idea and you hope there is a repeatable business model behind it. But keep in mind that it is easier to construct a test that would be a problem for one of your hypotheses than to carry out many, many, tests that fail to invalidate your hypothesis.

Think about the last project you worked on where the product you made just didn’t work out in the marketplace. Wouldn’t you like to have known about that fatal flaw as early as possible? Sometimes a small shift early can have a big effect on the success of your product.

One way to test a business idea is to build the whole thing, coordinate a product launch, send your sales team out with marketing materials and see what happens. But this is expensive! Depending on where you are, this can mean many months of work across many groups. You don’t want to invest all that effort only to fail!

So, think about lightweight experiments that can validate your hypotheses. Who can you talk to in your customer segments to test the need for the product. Can you get early signups? Who will you need to partner with? Are they ready to work with you? You might even want to test your hypotheses for cost structure. For consumer products, you can even ask early signups to pick a price tier so you can get some early data on how much people are willing to pay.

How are ideas matured?

The business model canvas is useful because it’s a quick, flexible way to touch all the areas of your business model without getting too bogged down or committed to one approach or another. The business model canvas allows competing hypotheses to be tested and allows you to rapidly iterate towards discovery of a repeatable business model.

Over time, fewer and fewer of these competing hypotheses will remain and you will start to have convergence on your approach. This sensation can feel like an image coming into focus, where every time to take a look at it, the picture gets a little sharper. Once you start to have some confidence in an approach, it’s time to start moving it through the process by which products in your company make it to market. Some organizations have a formal decision process, where projects need to be documented and presented at certain stages, and there is a gate with a go/no go decision. Often, however, there are less formal ways to promote a product or a project through your company’s process, and it’s important to identify and use those, as well.

We’ll get into more detail about this in a later post, but start to think about what happens when an idea matures in your company. Work on your 30-second pitch: What are you talking about doing and why?

You may want to move from the business model canvas to a more formal document. Some companies request business proposals but many prefer presentation slide decks (e.g., PowerPoint). With a recent product concept, a couple of us put together a 90-second video that we shared internally to clearly communicate the product vision. Try a few techniques and see what works.

But don’t give up. As your idea matures, it often requires tweaks to stay on track. But all that work you did to validate it in the previous step gives you the data you need to show that you’ve identified a market problem worth solving.

How do new products get launched?

What does a green light look like in your company? Often it means the idea gets on “the roadmap,” where it is documented and shared with executives, stakeholders and sometimes even clients and customers. Whatever that green light is, make sure you know all the pieces involved in a successful launch.

Learn what groups exist in your company and what each does to serve a product launch. Find out what you need to do to support that and don’t assume it’s all in the “go-to-market” documentation. Prepare marketing and training materials. Set up a regular check-in across groups to keep everyone in sync and talk to each other about what needs to be coordinated.

This is the time for crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s, so make sure you are tracking the details. Keep a master checklist, and if you can, get help tracking all the project items.

Keep these guiding questions handy if you are trying to deliver something new. When you feel you are falling off the rails, try to identify where you are in the process and use these tips to get back on track. And as always, feel free to reach out to me for support or commiseration: or @hey_AW