How to Encourage Innovation in Your Team
5 November, 2021
How can a company unlock innovation at scale? It’s no longer about the coolest ideas driven by individual motivation. When I took on the role as the Director of Product, we still had several product management practices typical to a startup. The core product idea was validated and had achieved market fit. We needed the courage to think boldly while complementing it with a prioritization framework to assess and promote the validation of valuable ideas.
First and foremost, I had to understand what was going on. The biggest problem was that product teams were working directly off ideas 一 meaning that they would gather ideas and prioritize them every cycle. New feature ideas weren’t always incremental, adding to the core value, or monetizable. At the time, I had the great fortune of attending a workshop by Marty Cagan - the Guru himself. I was mind-blown at the opportunity that it presented compared to how little we were doing towards it.
The first change was to focus on problems instead of ideas. I began challenging the team on why and how they believed solving a particular challenge would be instrumental to customers and the business. This pushed them to look for stronger insights, in both quantitative and qualitative data. Defining the problem clearly provided a filter for ideas that we believed solved the problem.
The second was to bring visibility and collaborate on meaningful problems. Given a functional organization, each team was brainstorming, prioritizing, and concepting in silos. This led to endless meetings evangelizing ideas and a lot of waste. With the help of a product coach, we established opportunity trees for each area so that the problems, assumptions (hypotheses), and ideas were clearly mapped out, along with the insights backing them. We then set up a pilot with 2 cross-functional teams to work on 2 distinct problems. We took them out of the usual routine (and physical space) to run the sprint in order to understand practical challenges to discovery. This uncovered a gap in invalidation techniques as well as access to the customer.
Lastly, we made discovery a priority. We challenged teams to share visibility and demanded a healthy mix of scaling proven ideas and validating new ones. We provided a variant of the RICE framework that allowed teams to prioritize based on impact and learn quickly. This ensured that validation was seen as necessary product work within each 2-week sprint.
- Structured discovery enables innovation. As a leader, your role is to ensure teams have the necessary mindset, support, and toolkit of techniques. If teams feel they are measured on delivery work, they would never devote time to discovery.
- Spend a disproportionate amount of time on understanding the problem. This is crucial for teams to feel autonomous and not really on HIPPO to prioritize ideas.
- Collaboration is key. A single function, designers or engineers, cannot solve product problems or evaluate solutions.
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