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Setting the First Product Innovation Team in a Large Corporation

Product Team
Managing Expectations

30 September, 2020

Caroline Parnell, previously managed product teams at O2 and Vodafone, taps into her own experience of setting the first product innovation team and managing the process through a well-structured pipeline while collecting ideas coming from across the company.

Problem

I was tasked with setting up the first product innovation team in our company. As one would expect, large corporations are notorious for their complicated and often unhurried approach to business and bringing in the startup mentality and entrepreneurship approach was crucial for ramping up innovation. Testing things quickly, learning what works and what doesn’t, and making decisions at warp speed was very different from what the company did ever before.
 

Actions taken

I looked at the theory to understand how I could set up a product innovation pipeline process and adapt it to match our company’s needs. This included an early discovery stage, customer testing stage, and eventual roll out to customers. I designed the process having those three stages developed to include concrete step-by-step activities.
 

I took my proposal to the Board of the company and explained to them how the previous way of doing things was no longer appropriate. I elaborated on why we had to embrace a startup mentality that required flipping the existing model of approaching innovation on its head.
 

Instead of having one new product that we would look at over 18 months, we should be looking at 30 projects over the course of a year. We would be looking at them quickly, figuring out what could work and then dropping things that wouldn’t.
 

The Board was very affirmative but concerned about how we could assess if we were using our time on the best projects. We agreed to put in place a governance process that would be policing the process and ensuring participation from the Board and different stakeholders.

Then, I had to set up the process itself. I made sure to include the right representatives from across the company who would be part of the stage-gate reviews.
 

I had to upskill the product managers as well. It was important that they understand that their success was not dependent on the ideas making their way through the whole of the process, but on recommending the right next step at each gate. That meant discerning between three options -- should we carry on with this project, should we park it for a later date, or should we stop it -- and they could recommend any of them at any given moment. The critical mindset shift was required to stop the project instead of carrying it for the sake of it.
 

Then, I had to recruit additional resources to the team. I was looking for people who were comfortable with ambiguity because they would have to deal with uncertain challenges like future technical trends or whether the company should enter new sectors. Also, I needed people who were collaborative, could build good relationships with other departments and could make other people feel bought-in and be comfortable about coming on a journey with us. They should also excel at learning new techniques and processes and be happy to try those things out.
 

Once we got the process set up and the team that could manage that process, we had to make sure we were able to funnel new product ideas into the process because we wanted ideas to come from anywhere within the company. Every month we would have an informal pitching session where anybody could come along, talk about their product ideas for two minutes, and then we would put those ideas into a list and do some most rudimental ranking based on one to five scoring. We had several criteria for ranking: how much customers would want it, how much money there would be in the future for this idea, how would it fit with our business strategy and OKRs, and how much effort it would require to bring this idea to life. This basic ranking system allowed us to ensure the best ideas floated to the surface. Essentially, we created a front-door process for feeding in ideas.
 

Lessons learned

  • Some people who joined the team struggled with our approach due to the ambiguity of the projects they were working on. For some PMs, it was a stressful environment to work in unless they were comfortable with early-stage product discovery.
  • As a company, we were not clear enough about our innovation strategy and didn’t identify specific areas to focus on. We had an open brief that we could look at anything and while initially, that felt liberating, I am realizing with hindsight, how that dispersed our focus. We should have set some guardrails about what areas of innovation we should look at and stay within those guardrails.
  • As a business, we went from doing one or two innovation projects each year at a very high cost and a lot of manpower, to doing 30 innovation projects. We drastically reduced the time we were spending on any new idea and if we couldn’t find any signs of potential within two weeks we would discard them.

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