Thinking Innovation? Don’t Burden Your Product Manager

Recently, I was at a conference speaking to entrepreneurs and product managers and when asked if innovation is one of the key functions product managers should also own, quite a few entrepreneurs agreed to it. As per them, product managers need to think innovative and importantly, own the innovation piece in the company.

Innovation Bulb : Who has the switch?
Innovation Bulb : Who has the switch?

And that’s a wrong expectation. Expecting product managers to hustle through growth hacking is a good short term bet, but will backfire in the long run. And here is why.

#1 : Let’s Define Innovation.

“Innovation is the application of new solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulate needs, or existing market needs. This is accomplished through more effective products, processes, services, technologies, or ideas that are readily available to markets, governments and society. The term innovation can be defined as something original and new that “breaks in to” the market or into society.” [wikipedia]

From a product management point of view, it could be an out of turn idea that makes its way into the product roadmap. Or needs to make its way into the roadmap.

Now, let’s be honest. Who is actually innovating in your company? The tie-and-suit class (i.e. everything but engineering) OR the jeans-and-tee one (geeks)?

Chances are that the geeks are coming up with more crazy (and weird) ideas than your sales/marketing team. After all, there is a reason why growth hacker is an engineering/product role and NOT a marketing function.

#2 : Does Your Startup Always Need Innovation?

Businesses primarily need to deliver appropriate quality, consistently and affordably. There’s many a business that’s doing a great job of that without a fundamentally new product or idea, or even in a very crowded market.

“Innovation” as usually referred to is not always critical for you to be able to do that. Sure, there’s lots of innovative thinking in delivering solutions, in pricing, in managing customer relationships, etc. But honestly, that and a lot more boils down to great execution more than to something pathbreaking. Indeed, the pathbreaking needs to be sold harder!

Innovative products or solutions might indeed – in some cases – be the core of an offering, but it’s important to remember that their pain point getting solved is what customers care about. Consistently, reliably and at the right price, of course.

After all, how many innovative features has Dropbox launched over the last 1 year? The beauty of the service is that IT WORKS. Ditto with Youtube. Ditto with Facebook.

Note: Feature overload is not innovation (Read : Forget features! Great products are answers to very difficult, unanswered questions!)

#3: So where do Product Managers fit-in?

First, let’s talk about the product manager role.

From our earlier piece on ‘Jobs of a PM’

An essential attribute of a PM is leadership. In most cases, PMs deal with teams which do not directly report to them. He has to –

a) Convince the team of the product idea

b) Get a buy in and commitment from the team for its implementation

c) Work with the team to set deadlines and adhere to the overall timelines

d) Do the overall monitoring and check on quality.

That is, mostly a product manager owns the product and decides on features that impacts the stakeholders.

What about innovation?

Well, innovation has to have a tangible impact to the product/business. Be it improved user experience to improvement in performance, innovation cannot be a product/business on its own.

And it’s the product manager who has to evaluate and understand the value of innovation and how to sell it to different stakeholders (especially when it’s out of turn and you have to convince engineering, marketing and operations team to fit-in a new feature).

The PM (and founder when official PM is missing) role is about channelizing innovation and shouldn’t be looked upon as the one who is responsible to come up with innovative features. In fact, a lot of innovative product suggestions will come from customers if the PM is listening carefully. Who channelizes that? Who validates that?

That’s your product manager. Call him/her the growth hacker, but for sure it is not the most “innovative” role out there, and shouldn’t be.

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