Product innovation for everyone

Most of the new entrepreneurs I mentor have a product vision but little idea of how to turn their vision into something tangible and profitable.  They have some level of business understanding but little experience to guide their decisions.  They have tools like the ubiquitous “Lean Startup Canvas” but struggle to define their business plan, in particular knowing:

  • How to define a “customer segment” or “target market”
  • How to “validate” customers and prove real-world value
  • Which features, benefits, and other investments to prioritize

The hard problem of new product and company development is overwhelming to the new entrepreneur. In order to overcome such extraordinary difficulty, you must then be an extraordinary person! I believe this perspective may contribute to the public, romantic narrative of “genius product makers” like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk*.  But does “true innovation” require “real genius”, by definition?  In my opinion: No.

Recent scientific studies suggest that a belief in innate, ‘genius’ qualities (mostly in men) may do as much harm as benefit.  Specifically, for an entrepreneur, overvaluing one’s own (expert) opinion creates confirmation bias risk — this could mean allowing a preexisting vision to interfere with third-party feedback and “true” product or technical validation.

A chart of confirmation bias

So, if it doesn’t take a visionary genius, what does smart product development actually require?  Here’s my take:

  • A significant understanding of the customer (users) and the job that they are “hiring the product to do”.
  • Honest intent and excellence of execution
  • Proof that the product provides enough customer value (measured in money, primarily) to be “worth making

One method for creating products with less personal bias is “Outcome-Driven Innovation” (ODI).  ODI was created by Strategyn’s Tony Ulwick to discover “what customers really want”.  Phases in the model include:

  1. Intensive research and identification of customer “jobs to be done”.  The core premise here is that a customer (the product user) “hires” a product to complete a number of “jobs”.
  2. Data gathering on the importance to and current satisfaction of the customer in completing each job
  3. Aligning research data with a viable market strategy

At its heart, the premise of Outcome-Driven Innovation:

  • There are standard, useful models available for creative product development
  • Product outcomes can be defined clearly
  • Customer segments may be selected rationally

The conclusion then, is that “product innovation” is not something only practiced by media-savvy genius founders, but is in fact a teachable and achievable process for most people who are willing and able to put in the hard work.

The painting in the header of this post is Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.
*Also included: Mary Shelley, Edison, Tesla, Turing and whomever the next celeb is.