Driving Innovation as a Product Manager

A product leader’s job is to (1) develop innovative products that are (2) difficult for competitors to copy and (3) produce good profit margins. Represented as an equation:

(Innovation + Competitiveness + Profit) x Product = Success

In this article, let’s consider the first component of that equation: Innovation.

Innovation refers to the creation of novel ideas and development of products based on those ideas. It is a creative endeavor. In product management, I often encounter two models of how PMs are thought to drive innovation.

  1. The lone genius approach: Product manager develops innovative ideas on his own and hands the ideas over to development teams who execute on them.
  2. The creative leadership approach: Product manager leads a cross-functional team for creativity; identifying goals, setting constraints, and creating space for a collaborative creative endeavor.

The lone genius is a myth. Studying the lives of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, et al, in sufficient detail quickly reveals that they weren’t lone geniuses and did not develop their product concepts by themselves. They were all creative leaders who led their organizations through highly collaborative design journeys. While the public perception of their genius might have helped their companies’ marketing campaigns, working product managers must dispel themselves of the dangerous illusion that the products of General Electric, Ford Motor Company, Apple, or Tesla were anything but the result of thousands of people working together in a creative process, guided by creative leadership.

So how does a product leader succeed with the creative leadership approach? Some answers can be found in the output of a Harvard Business School colloquium held in 2008. The Harvard Business Review article Creativity and the Role of the Leader (by Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire) presents the following key insights.

Drawing on the Right Minds

The first priority of leadership is to engage the right people, at the right times, to the right degree in creative work. That engagement starts when the leader recasts the role of employees. Rather than simply roll up their sleeves and execute top-down strategy, employees must contribute imagination. As Cook put it, “Traditional management prioritizes projects and assigns people to them. But increasingly, managers are not the source of the idea.”

Tap ideas from all ranks.

[Google’s] founders tracked the progress of ideas that they had backed versus ideas that had been executed in the ranks without support from above, and discovered a higher success rate in the latter category.

Encourage and enable collaboration.

[Researcher] looked at the problem of how to achieve collaboration on radical innovations; when no obvious antecedent exists, it’s difficult for a vision to be shared. His analysis of six award-winning products (from three quite different industries) showed how product development teams used not only prototypes but also metaphors, analogies, and stories to coordinate their thinking.

Open the organization to diverse perspectives.

innovation is more likely when people of different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise share their thinking.

Bringing Process to Bear—Carefully

“If there is one device that has destroyed more innovation than any other, it is Six Sigma,” stated Mark Fishman, MD, president of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. Bob Sutton echoed the sentiment, citing research showing that when organizations focus on process improvements too much, it hampers innovation over the long term. “The poster child here is Kodak, which kept making the process of manufacturing and distributing chemical-based film more efficient instead of devoting attention to making the shift to digital photography,” he said. “In other words, it kept getting better and better at doing the wrong thing.” For Kim Scott, the problem comes when an emphasis on efficiency causes managers to try to avoid duplication of effort. “In creative work,” she noted, “you need to have people approaching a problem from different angles.”

Map the phases of creative work.

The leader’s job is to map out the stages of innovation and recognize the different processes, skill sets, and technology support that each requires.

Know where you are in the game. Appreciate the different creative types among your people—and realize that some are better at certain phases than others. And be very tolerant of the subversive. Creative work must, like Mark Twain’s character Huck Finn, avoid all “sivilizing” influences.

Manage the commercialization handoff.

Few people have equal capabilities in idea generation and idea commercialization; that’s why large corporations normally separate the two functions. The consensus is that, eventually, an innovation reaches a point where it will be best served by people who know how to take it to market. Unfortunately, since the passion for an idea is highest among its originators, projects often lose steam at the handoff. Management’s job is to limit the loss of momentum with adroit timing and handling of the transition.

Provide paths through the bureaucracy.

The manager must act as a shepherd[…] executives must protect those doing creative work from a hostile environment and clear paths for them around obstacles.

Create a filtering mechanism.

Managers must not only water and fertilize, but also kill off the stuff that holds no potential. For every idea with real commercial promise, there are dozens that aren’t worth pursuing.

Fanning the Flames of Motivation

Motivating people to perform at their peak is especially vital in creative work. An employee uninspired to wrap her mind around a problem is unlikely to come up with a novel solution.

Provide intellectual challenge.

Researchers at Duke University research project surveyed a large R&D organization to find…

which workers were more intrinsically motivated—fired up, for example, by intellectual challenge or independence—and which were more extrinsically motivated, by such things as salary, benefits, and job security. The researchers looked at patents filed by each respondent as a reasonable proxy for innovative output. Their finding was clear: Early-stage researchers who were more motivated by intellectual challenge tended to be more productive. (Interestingly, this did not hold true among the group doing later-stage work.) A stronger desire for independence was also associated with somewhat higher productivity. It wasn’t that extrinsic motives were unimportant; a person’s greater emphasis on salary was also associated with greater productivity. The desire for intellectual challenge was, however, much more strongly linked to it.

Allow people to pursue their passions.

If the keys to creative output are indeed intellectual challenge and independence, management must find ways to provide them. In large part, that demands awareness of individuals’ interests and skills. […] some people are simply more revolutionary in their thinking than others and therefore more suited to radical projects.

Be an appreciative audience.

employees doing creative work are more motivated by managerial behavior, even seemingly little things like a sincere word of public recognition, than by monetary rewards.

Embrace the certainty of failure.

Arguably, the managerial reactions that speak loudest to creative workers are reactions to failure. […] managers must decrease fear of failure and that the goal should be to experiment constantly, fail early and often, and learn as much as possible in the process.

Provide the setting for “good work.”

work that is excellent technically, meaningful and engaging to the worker, and carried out in an ethical way.

Learn More from IDEO

IDEO has created a course called Leading for Creativity. I will provide a review of the course on this blog soon.

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