Balancing the need to be Customer-Focused with the need to "Innovate"
I ran a poll on Twitter recently, asking the longest time period people had been asked to provide roadmaps for. The results were surprising!
The longest period I have ever been asked to provide a roadmap for was 2 years. I pointed out all the usual arguments against this:
This will be a work of fiction
There’s no way we can predict that far ahead
There’s no reason we need to predict that far ahead
Customers will use this against us if we show them
We haven’t failed if we don’t deliver feature X on date Y
Everything fell on deaf ears and I had to hold my nose and produce a document. The things on the roadmap never happened. They were never going to, the roadmap was a comforting fiction. I guess that I’m both surprised and also unsurprised that 34.4% of my compatriots have been put in the same position.
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Balancing customer focus with innovation
I got this question in a fireside chat recently.
How do you balance the need to be customer-focused with the need to innovate & introduce new features?
As product managers, customer focus (or indeed customer obsession) is supposed to be our stock in trade. It’s what we do. We build great products to solve our customer’s most important problems. It’s all about the customer (…in ways that work for our business). But how do we weigh that against “innovation and introducing new features”?
Let’s dig into it.
Wait, what? (Or… the logical fallacy in the question)
The question is framed with the assumption that there’s some kind of seesaw like this.
It can tip in one direction or the other, but it’s zero-sum and we’re either doing one or the other. Is this really true? I don’t think so.
What do we mean by innovation?
You could look at this and say… innovation means using the coolest new stuff. We’ve got a blockchain! We’ve got AI! We’ve gone metaverse! The sorts of things that make developers and data scientists happy. The sorts of things that make marketing teams happy. The sorts of things that make investors open their wallets for the next round of investment.
You could also look at it and say… innovation means finding ways to improve our existing offering to enable people to solve their most important problems better. It could be frustratingly low-tech. It could involve words or pictures rather than code. It could be unglamorous from the outside, but make all the difference in the world to your users.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how innovative something is if it doesn’t make a difference to anyone.
Whatever you do, focus on the user
I’ve been excited by technology for 35 years since I got my first computer and started writing “JASON IS THE BEST” on the ZX Spectrums in the computer shop.
I have always been in love with this stuff, and I always want to innovate and see what we can do, but not for the sake of it. It has to be grounded in the user. I've built too many cool things in the past that got used by comparatively nobody. So, whatever cool technology you are planning to put in the product, start with the use case, the job to be done, or however you want to frame it. “Innovation” for the sake of it isn’t going to help you sell anything, and may indeed confuse or muddle your proposition, or overcomplicate your product.
The bonus problem: The feature death march
You see this often in companies that have grown their products quite organically, without much thought given to product strategy. They probably have substantial revenue debt, where they’ve built a set of disconnected features and sold to a disconnected set of customers that don’t represent a coherent market. Rather than having a product that does things well for one segment, they have a product that doesn’t do many things well for multiple segments. The sales team are always being hit over the head by prospects for missing features or capabilities. This isn’t “innovation” per se but you can find yourself with constant demands for features X, Y and Z to “show progress” or “give the sales team something to sell”. Check out that revenue debt article for some ways to try to address this.
The final caveat (…or, “it depends”)
Back to that leadership team and those investors. Sometimes you’re going to be asked to build a feature or sponsor an initiative that appears to be somewhat for the sake of it. The key here is context. This is where you turn your discovery skills onto your leadership team. Why is this important? Maybe there’s been some key industry insight that you aren’t aware of. Maybe there’s a battle going on in the C-suite and this is a way to defuse some problems. Maybe there’s something bigger going on. Try to find out as much as you can about the reason behind the ask.
I would still encourage you to try to work back to a customer problem from whatever shiny thing you’re being encouraged to build, but at least you have the full context of what and why, and can make decisions with the best information possible.
These days, rather than just writing about whatever random product management stuff is on my mind, I’m taking some of the questions I get from my fireside chat sessions and answering those. Hopefully, these will be interesting to lots of people. Feel free to vote or submit your own questions! And, if you want me to come and chat with your team for an hour for free, feel free to book me on the above link.
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