In part three of our series on digital products we look at the innovation myth stopping businesses from seeing product results — and how it can be overcome by creating the right experience. Read part one to find out more about the product challenges businesses face and part two on aligning products with business goals.
In the previous two articles we’ve touched on the challenges facing digital product innovation and the importance of ensuring that it is aligned and supported by the greater business. While following best practice is relatively easy (though we see many companies jump straight in without proper set-up), the next step in enabling amazing experience of digital product innovation is a bit trickier.
This is where most companies fall down, investing in centres of innovation and think tanks or throwing copious amounts of money at problem solving with little to show for it as the months (or years) go by. They struggle to make magic: digital products that solve customer problems and return true business value.
This is due in part to society’s stubborn insistence on a definition and understanding of innovation that is unhelpful: that groundbreaking innovation is created by lone geniuses with a spark, a eureka moment of divine inspiration.1
In truth, innovation is rarely the result of a flash of brilliant insight, nor is it the result of hiring the right special unicorns. It takes work and belief in one core concept: the power of the team.
And if you don’t believe us, ask Thomas Edison.
The power of we
Edison is famous for his inventions, but he didn’t actually invent most of them — at least, not alone. Rather, he gathered the best inventors, machinists, workers and tech in a research and development laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1876.2 In a shared work area, the team of artisans (whom he referred to as ‘muckers’) worked fluidly on different problems and projects as and where their skills proved valuable.3 The right people, in the right place, sharing the right experience allowed the group to create the phonograph, perfect the electric lightbulb, create a working electrical system, electric train and some 400 individual patents.4*
It was a team effort, and it is in this same spirit that businesses can ensure their own product creation is successful. In no uncertain terms can this aspect be undervalued — no matter how much money or time you spend on developing or rolling out a product, without the right people experience you simply won’t get the results you seek.
Businesses must bring together a team of fast-paced thinkers, makers, designers and problem solvers from various backgrounds who are passionate and experienced in their crafts, then create the conditions to pursue excellence, high performance and outcomes.
For a product studio, we’d typically include people with experience in a range of areas, including strategy, design, technology, data and product management. A ‘product owner’ will help maintain focus, priority and decision-making to enable the team to deliver value. A typical product team might look like this:
Bringing together a team of high performers in specific crafts, business domains and capabilities (each with their own language and ways of working) and asking them to work towards a common goal requires the right environment to enable success. This is where investing in experienced product coaching can help create the environment for success.
Coaching and facilitation will foster high performance and collaboration by promoting team cohesion, strategic/goal alignment and clear direction as well as establishing a high level of psychological safety. This will ensure the group can communicate openly, be creative and take risks without fear. It’s also key in encouraging autonomy in decision making that will allow the team to have a hands on approach to solving problems, but make no mistake, leadership also plays an important role here ensuring such a structure is recognised and supported.
In Menlo Park, the laboratory building where the team gathered was one large space — different tables around the room catered to different projects — and the workers could work collaboratively among them, challenging each other as to the best way to do things. Edison essentially created a product studio, where energy and activity abounded, creating the heartbeat of innovation.
It won’t be the first thing you think of on your product journey, but having a dedicated space for product innovation helps to facilitate collaboration, transparency and focus. It is itself a strong symbol of change that represents the company’s commitment to a different way of working and an important step towards digital transformation.
Bringing people together in a product studio space (this can be physically, or, given the COVID-19 restrictions many countries face, virtually) helps to rapidly gain alignment, make decisions to reduce business risk and ensures the customer is always front of mind. Product team (‘the squad’) meetings take place in the space, as well as product testing and development, prioritisation sessions, reviews, governance meetings and stakeholder showcases. It is about more than ‘having somewhere to work’ and enabling a place, online or offline, of visibility, activity and energy.
Ensuring teams have access to and are properly trained in the right collaboration tools enables them to focus their energy on delivering outcomes for the customer. The tools should fully integrate with the flow of work and allow teams to maximise their productivity and the product’s quality. Important visual artefacts such as customer personas and journeys, product vision, mission and roadmaps should be displayed in the space (and accessible on digital platforms) to help with alignment and decision making during sessions and for stakeholders to view.
As mentioned in our discussion of the product innovation challenges businesses face, this agile way of working (in both behaviour and mindset) is critical because it provides the structure and processes for optimised and efficient delivery.
Which approach to innovation?
With the right people and the right environment in place, the last piece of the puzzle lies in the approach the business takes to innovate with digital products.
It’s not enough to just rebuild an existing digital platform, adding new and improved customer features and consider the job done. This kind of innovation is incremental and will only help you catch up to competitors. Nor is it right to solely focus on the next shiny thing (breakthrough innovation) when you have existing operational issues with the digital products you use to run your business and serve your customers.
The answer is to approach both types of innovation together in the same activity.
In a product studio, we recommend a dual track approach to product innovation that focuses on both incremental (new product build, new features and functionality) and breakthrough innovation (new product concepts, sources of growth, or making core features more intelligent using AI). There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two, where each track feeds into the delivery backlogs of each other. Teams work closely to ensure alignment and identify opportunities for better performance and features.
The result is that you deliver improved customer experience and business value, while testing and validating new sources of growth for your business. With a bit of luck and magic from the team, you may find your portfolio of digital products starts to multiply.
Don’t underestimate the importance of people
Thomas Edison died with a whopping 1,093 patents to his name, but his success says more about his way of working, and the team supporting him, than to any prophetic gift of innovation.
There are countless examples of companies who invest the money in digitally transforming their business, ‘the next big thing,’ or finding solutions to long-standing internal inefficiencies. Many end up exactly where they started, and poorer for it. Those who have success with innovation, like Edison 150 years ago, such as Google, Apple, Spotify and Atlassian, are the ones that have put a strong emphasis on the importance of teams. For these companies the role of the team is a core part of organisational culture.
Innovation is about more than having the right idea. Ensuring you have the right team in place, and the conditions for them to excel, is just as important. As we’ll discuss in the fourth and final part in our series on digital product innovation, the approach to data and technology is pretty essential too.
*For more on Edison’s team and how it approached innovation, podcasts on the topic include Atlassian’s Teamistry, season one, episode one: The Wizards of Menlo Park, or for information on the ‘war on current,’ The Dollop, episode 37: AC/DC – Tesla vs Edison.