We Can’t Schedule Innovation, But We Can Schedule Discovery

  • When we lose a deal, the sales team is strongly incented to point to some missing feature. (Sometimes accurately, usually not.) Up the management chain, that gets simplified down to “if we were more innovative, we’d have Features X and Y and Z that customers are asking for.” Of course, this is the opposite of innovation since those missing features are already being promoted by competitors and appearing in RFPs. A more accurate description would be that “Features X, Y, Z are table stakes since we’re late on something the market already knows it wants.”
  • CEOs are under constant pressure to open up new segments or markets or revenue streams. And those new segments tend to have incumbents. So we need something uniquely interesting when we enter that new market — a way to differentiate ourselves and outflank competitors. Hence the demand for “a new twist, a magic bullet, something really innovative to grab share from entrenched players in our intended next segment.” Great if such a thing exists and has eluded competitors for years, but far from assured.
  • (B2B) Marketing is constantly pushed to widen our funnel and generate more interest. Our messaging is focused on the core customer problem that we solve, bolstered by case studies or testimonials, but that can feel repetitive. “We got great attendance at last month’s webinar about machine learning. Let’s add a series of white papers/webinars on other innovative tech like blockchain, low-code and multi-cloud microservices to pull in prospects wanting the latest.” Real customers, of course, should ask if we’re actually using those and how (specifically) it makes their lives better.
  • Boards and investors (and therefore CEOs and CFOs) want something that’s a high barrier to entry. “What’s truly unique about our app, something the competitors can’t copy? Can we patent our experience or reporting? How much better is our scalability algorithm?” Something really innovative drives a hotter IPO or pricier acquisition.

Real Innovation is Hard, Rare, Not Always Obvious

So what’s our alternative?

  • Remember that the rest of your company is about execution and deadlines and deliverables and current-quarter revenue. Discovery is about deferred gratification and eating our vegetables. So bring a truckload of empathy (not lectures) into the boardroom.
  • Get execs involved in hypothesis setting: “What don’t we know that we’d like to confirm/deny? What are some inexpensive ways we might find out? What are you hearing?
  • Include a ‘what we learned/upcoming experiments’ section in status updates. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth reporting. And budgeting for. And scheduling. And celebrating.
  • Collect instances where we were 100% certain of success, jumped right to full implementation, and delivered low-value stuff. “Remember Product Bravo? 2 years, $3M spent, and no customer adoption. Same with Project Foxtrot. Before we greenlight $4M for Project Oscar, let’s put $50k and 8 weeks into serious validation.” It’s natural to forget previous bad outcomes.
  • Share real discovery artifacts. “Here’s a two-minute video of a real end user explaining why price isn’t her issue, but our weekly invoicing made her cancel. Suggests a way to reduce churn and still getting full price. We could test quarterly invoicing against deep discounts for full-year subscription.” Encourage folks to ask what else we’ve learned.
  • Frame discovery in investment terms: “We don’t know which stocks will go up/down tomorrow, so keep a balanced stock investment portfolio. Likewise we need to put 5–10% of our ongoing product/design effort into testing dozens of ideas so that we can up our odds.”
  • Merchandize smaller innovations: “This new workflow reduced abandoned carts by 4%. Real innovation from the design team.” “Marketing’s installed base upsell campaign doubled trial users for text notifications.” “A clever fix for that scalability problem has dramatically cut incoming P1/P2 issues.” Don’t be shy about celebrating outcomes or adding some sizzle.
  • Avoid “innovation theater” if possible. A few hours sticking Post-Its on the wall generates lots of starter ideas, but no validation until we do the hard discovery work.
  • Recognize that revenue comes from finished products, not ideas. So expect to spend 85% of your time pushing (great, successful, innovative, delightful) products out the door and into paying customer hands. By itself, discovery doesn’t pay our salaries.

Sound Byte

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Rich Mironov

Tech start-up veteran, smokejumper CPO/product management VP, writer, coach for product leaders, analogy wrangler, product camp founder.