“Innovation” must be the most overused word in any software product description or company brand aspiration, and yet it's still at the top of every company's wish list. We all want the label, but not every product can truly earn this distinction.
Big companies drool over startups' ability to fail fast, pivot, and try another tack without first having to sell the concept to the stock market or board members. Startups wish they had more resources, could hire more talent, and/or improve their odds of success by reaching a bigger audience before big companies gobble up their ideas. We’re stumbling over ourselves to be unique and to chase the dream of innovation.
So how do companies actually achieve the mythical i-word?
Is there a process or approach that can fuel a team to take on a fresh customer-focused perspective and test the path along the way?
I’m glad you asked. In part 3 of my interview with Alex Westner, we tackled how companies large and small are using Design Sprints to fail fast and learn. This article stands on its own but I’d encourage you to read part 1 and part 2 if you are boning up on ways to improve your product management.
Let's see what Alex has to say...
How do you approach innovation?
If you’re working in a research lab, you’re making stuff and you’re possibly innovating. However, if you’re working in a for-profit business, the challenge of innovation is to build something cool and unique and in such a way that customers are going to give you more money than it cost you to make it. In other words, we can’t innovate for the sake of being innovative—we’re innovating to create a profit. It’s also not enough to just create value (revenue), because you could easily create value and generate revenue by spending way too much on development costs in order to earn those dollars. It’s profit that’s important. This is where the Lean Canvas framework will help you think more holistically about the business.
Another tool I have started using is called Design Sprints (or Design Thinking), which is fairly common in big companies. Here’s how it works: You give the team a week-long sprint to solve for either a product or a specific set of product problems. You have five days to understand the customer and the problem and to create a validated solution.
A 5-Day Design Sprint Outline
Day 1: Understand the Problem/Customer
- Focus on the customer, define the persona, get to know him/her very well
Identify our target persona’s biggest needs and wants
Day 2: Divergent Thinking
Collaborative brainstorming to address our customer’s biggest problems
Various and rapid drawing exercise to get as many ideas out as possible
Day 3: Design
Distill, select, prune, combine our best ideas into one or two solutions that we will prototype and test.
Day 4: Prototype and Script
Split into 2 groups: Prototype group and Script group.
Prototype group will create the thing that the team designed, in a way that it can be tested with customers, e.g. interactive PowerPoints, simple web pages, paper mockups.
Script group will write the script we will use to test all assumptions and hypotheses about the customer, their problems, and our solutions.
Day 5: Test with Customers
Bring in real customers that fit our target persona
Use our prototype and script to test and validate the business model and our solutions to their problems.
Alex's breakdown of what happens in a Design Sprint:
On Monday, you get internal alignment with the team around the customer problem. You team may include marketing people, engineers, or product managers--anyone who needs to be involved. You even try to find customers to talk to on the first day in order to bring the voice of the customer in right from the start.
Day two is like a craft fair with sticky notes, pens, and paper. You spend the day brainstorming as many ideas as possible to solve your problem using divergent thinking. You sometimes do more drawing than talking. By the end of the brainstorm day, teams are usually freaking out as they realize they can never build all of their amazing ideas.
This is fine and a healthy part of the process.
Work fast—write out words or draw pictures—just get those ideas out!
On Wednesday morning, it’s time for convergent thinking, where you’re really trying to take the cream of the crop from your ideas and nail down what you think is going to actually solve the big customer problem from day one. This is also when the gloves come off and shit gets real!
The team must evaluate ideas, give critical feedback, and really listen to each other. One exercise I’ve found that helps this process along is Journey Mapping, where the team can plug-in their ideas from the previous day into a customer journey of the problem.
This exercise helps bring out both competing ideas and duplicates. You’ll also tend to see more ideas around the most critical parts of the journey—this is where you want to focus your efforts on design and prototyping.
Two Journey Maps with competing ideas—each idea is written/sketched on a single post-it note—for each step of the user workflow.
Thursday is all about prototyping (like a hackathon!). The team needs to build a thing in one day that we could put in front of a customer. We don’t have time to build a real product, so you have to hack your way to a prototype: We’ve made interactive PowerPoints, screenshots, and drawings. We’ve even used paper cutouts with overlays that customers can pretend to use (pushing paper buttons).
For hardware products, you use Play-doh, clay or Legos. In most cases, 3D printing is actually too slow. Also on day four, you have a separate team crafting the interview script because you have a lot of questions remaining.
You’ve been through four days of thinking about the customer, their problems, your solutions, and your business model, and you have a lot of new ideas that you need to test.
Day five is all about customer interviews. You’re putting your prototype in front of someone and getting their feedback and their reactions and you’re testing all of your hypotheses. By the end of the day, you’re often blown away that you went from talking about a problem to “Holy shit, we actually have a solution that was just validated by 80 percent of our customers,”—in just one week. You have something real that you can begin building on Monday.
For more on Design Sprints, here’s a book recommendation by Alex: :
The key is to go really fast and bring in as many customers as you can.
Later on in the product cycle I have even had engineers begging me for Design Sprints and to bring in more customers.
When have you ever heard that engineers want to talk to customers?
This experience was so gratifying to them that they wanted more. I was like, “Wow, this is amazing.” Later on, when we hit some design roadblocks in the product, we would do a modified version of design sprints, so cramming the entire process into three, two, or even half days. I’ve also done longer sprints, where we couldn’t finish in a week, but that actually failed. The weekend just kills momentum.
Can you give an example of what actually happens in a Design Sprint?
There are a lot of little games you can play and little exercises to do. For example, everybody likes crazy eights. You gather the whole team (including engineering). You take a big piece of paper and fold it into eight squares. You get a marker and a timer and then allow 30 seconds per frame to draw out a solution to a customer problem (e.g., how to record a guitar).
You get a 10-second break in between frames. It feels very rushed and as you start drawing, the clock is ticking and the alarms are going off.
You’re like, “Shit,” because you've only drawn a small picture, written a couple words or a user flow. It’s fast paced and gets you to stop overthinking and just gets your ideas out.
People love it. Even those initially intimidated by the idea of drawing are asking, “Could we just do that exercise again? That was fun!”
The divergent thinking was their favorite—all the drawing and ideating. When you get really good at these Design Sprints, you know which exercises to use to solve particular problems.
What other innovative product design experiences have you had?
One event I love is called Project BBQ, which is an invite-only audio think tank conference that I have been attending for years. What I like is that the agenda is only formed the morning after you arrive as all the companies pitch their ideas. It’s intense, dynamic, and exciting. A bunch of audio experts get together to solve big problems that they just can’t solve by themselves. You get competitors working side by side and people from different parts of an industry.
Once the agenda is set, everyone tries to solve big audio problems. In the end, you work hard and play hard. I actually brought the structure of Project BBQ to iZotope to do something called the iZotope Open.
It made sense for iZotope because there are a lot of people there that had a ton of ideas but felt like they didn’t have a voice or a way to get their ideas out. When a company is so structured and organized, sometimes if there’s too much organization that can be stifling for a creative person. This kind of open format allows anyone to share ideas and get something out there.
Since you’re a software product manager, what’s your favorite product?
My favorite product these days is my AI chatbot interview scheduler called Amy. The company is called x.ai. I love how AI (Amy Ingram) saves me so much time and hassle by doing such a repetitive and mundane task. In a recent consulting gig, I had to book over 20 customer interviews, and with AI, it only took me a half an hour. I simply sent out 20 emails, cc-ing my AI assistant on each one, and the meetings just started to appear on my calendar over the following 48 hours.
I used to use Calendly for a while and it was cool. But it’s just so fun and weird to have a robot sending emails out to people and booking meetings. I love the idea of AI more even than I love the product—I just love the concept.
Chatbots are a disruptive technology for many different aspects of business. I’m really hot on AI and chatbots right now, It’s all so fascinating. For example, I think only 50 percent of my clients realize Amy is a chatbot because I see all the responses, even though her email signature is transparent about being a robot.
Tell us about your company: Spark23
Spark23 is a product strategy consulting company where I coach and advise companies who are trying to start something new, or struggling with their product roadmap or performance. Most of my previous experience is in B2C software. The best clients for me are companies that want to build something new while keeping other divisions of the business running at a profit. If you’re starting something new, it’s probably not going to work the way the rest of your company does, and you probably don’t have the right people there who know how to build it. Rather than burn up your own resources, Spark23 can help you kickstart your new initiative without disrupting people who are at your office, keeping the profits flowing. Ideally, I am involved with planning and strategy from the outset.
My other type of client is companies with a struggling product line. These are more challenging for me to have a short-term impact, but with time and support from management and the team, we can get their product strategy back on track toward innovation and/or profitability.
I’m always open to a conversation if you want to see if Spark 23 is a fit for your next product or innovation sprint.
It’s a wrap
After interviewing Alex, I was reminded about of the important role of product management in a company and how important it is to involve the whole company. The customer-focused approach to solving problems is really the way forward in the age of the customer, where feedback is instant and direct.
We can also learn from product management for go-to-market approaches: Imagine Design Sprints for marketing and sales problems, or even customer service. We can all learn from these ideas on driving innovation and working across an organization to promote better understanding of the goals and customer.
If you are struggling with go-to-market challenges and aren’t sure what’s not working, get in touch with Alex or me for a consultation to discuss how we might suss out the best opportunities, drive more innovative thinking, or, at the very least, fail fast.