How to incorporate innovation in your product?

In this article I’d like to talk about framework that I used to incorporate innovative initiatives in the product that I recently joined. The framework is called Innovation Workshop. It encompasses 4 activities and I’d like to share my experience of engaging in them. One thing to keep in mind — this workshop is not targeted for short-term ideation, but rather useful for long-term visionary practice.

The article will be especially useful for product strategists and business stakeholders who strive to break thinking patterns and would like to zoom out from daily activities to capture larger scale opportunities. Keep reading for templates and examples.

Creative ideas — as a first step to innovation

Before we jump to the workshop itself, I’d like to focus on two practices that can help you become better at generation of creative ideas. Specifically they are:

  1. Generating thought provoking questions & challenging status quo
  2. Observing
    Customers, market, competitors, other countries etc.

Especially for product managers, second practice is not something new: competitors analysis, customer development and other initiatives are part of our role. Our goal is looking for surprises — something we didn’t realise or understand before, that could help direct us in a new research direction for a chance to increase the value of our product. For example, if we speak about competitors — observation can help us discover something we can bring back to our organisation.

Now let’s discuss questioning.

There are two great approaches where “question-storming” can help you think more creatively:

  1. Impose constraints on thinking
    Your goal is to formulate a question that will artificially “ban” the existing approaches in the organisation. Therefore you’ll have to break usual patterns to come up with new ways of doing things.
    For example, what if we could no longer use our existing marketing capabilities and channels? What are our options?
  2. Eliminate constrains on thinking
    Here on the contrary, your goal is to focus on the idea that there are no limits — monetary, technological or other.
    For example, what kind of product would we create if we had all the knowledge and capabilities in the world?
    I also would like to mention a famous quote by philosopher Alan Watts:

What would you like to do if money were no object?

Try using these approaches and you’ll be surprised at how your thinking will become more strategic and creative!

If you’d like to dive deeper into the topic of fostering your innovative mindset, check out a book recommendation at the end of this article summarising key findings from 6 year long study involving surveying 3000 successful executives like Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell and others. Check out a video featuring one of the authors Hal Gregersen covering major themes of the book.

Now that you have warmed up your creativity, let’s jump to the first activity of innovation workshop!

Activity 1: Opposite Thinking

Opposite thinking is a great activity to expand perception about usage scenarios, user habits and other aspects around your product. There are just three steps involved in this activity:

  1. Assumptions
    The goal is to list out our beliefs about product/concept/domain
  2. Opposites or Alternatives
    The goal is to transform assumptions from step 1: it can be something significantly changed or completely contrary
  3. Solutions
    Coming up with improvements and ideas based on the insights from step 2

Example will help to clarify. Let’s assume we are working on a YouTube service, but for organisations — where content is generated and consumed internally.

Our assumption in this case could be: “users upload videos to become subject matter experts”. Now let’s try to reverse that — the easiest way is by just adding contradiction: “users upload videos NOT to become subject matter experts”. Ok, so maybe we can introduce another purpose or user role then. One of the ideas to address that could be: “create possibility to manage the content and spot subject matter experts”. We can bring it even further — staffing in the organisation could use that functionality to suggest detected subject matter experts to new projects.

Keep in mind, those ideas are just the first steps that have to be further validated and analysed. But it’s a good start!

Activity 2: Trend Matrix

Trend and Technology Matrix will help participants to spot everything new around — whether it’s new circumstances like COVID-19 that made everybody adjust to new reality or new technology like implantable brain–machine interfaces (still new, but remember — we are not thinking short term here). Then based on the scoped out trends and technologies, tune to your creative self and try to understand what opportunities those new winds can create for your business. Thus there are two steps:

  1. Trend AND/OR Tech
  2. HMW = How Might We …
    * solution-oriented (how), optimistic (might), collaborative (we).

Let’s turn back to our example product — YouTube for organisations, where content is generated and consumed internally. The global trend that we’ll review: “the amount of generated and consumed data is increasing rapidly”. We can stop here and start ideation process. But we could also narrow down a bit and add technology to the mix: “machine learning is on the rise”. Now we can turn to solution generation, it could be: “provide summary on different topics to increase value from the content and decrease the amount of time spent on information consumption”.

NOTE: after you came up with solution — it might look enormous to capture. But you can break it down a bit for further validation and analysis. For example, first stage of the solution could be creating summaries for individual videos.

Activity 3: Analogy Thinking

Sometimes all of us get caught up in the daily routine. One of the great opportunities to get fresh perspective on your product, company and domain is to literally look around. Often times approaches and ideas that work in other industries can be evaluated as solutions against the problem you are trying to solve. Thus comes our 3rd activity — Analogy Thinking. It includes the following steps:

  1. Cases
    Highlighting successful cases or interesting approaches from other industries
  2. Company
    Coming up with analogous ideas for your domain

Let’s apply this principle to our example product — YouTube for organisations, where content is generated and consumed internally. The case for review could be — stock market. Investors in the stock market analyse countries, sectors and companies to spot assets that could yield high returns.

How it could be applied for our product? The analogy could be — content creators invest their time to generate videos that will be interesting enough to other users = capture more views. Therefore the system could scan the users’ interests to spot “hot” topics for any specific moment. Then suggest content creators ideas for topics that are more likely to result in more user engagement.

Great benefit of this activity is that you are trying to look at successes or approaches that become ordinary from new angle. Thus triggering new ideas.

Activity 4: Evolution Analysis

And the final activity of the Innovation Workshop is Evolution Analysis. It helps to calibrate your vision and abstract away to the bigger picture. What attracts me the most about this activity is a reminder that world is continuously evolving — and you have to be all eyes and ears to keep up. The goal of this activity is trying to figure out what is awaiting the industry and the world. How user patters and behaviours might change.

Once talking about video industry, we can consider the following unfolding of events:

1985 — VHS cassettes and super successful Blockbuster company who was renting out those cassettes. Fast forward to 2010 when the company filed for bankruptcy.

1997 — ShareYourWorld.com founded by Chase Norlin, first internet video hosting site. Closed in 2001 due to budget and bandwidth problems.

2005 — broadband network came about and YouTube emerged.

2013 — videos get social with Snapchat, Facebook Live and Instagram.

Now — super tailored videos + possible to search videos for fragments that cover needed topic and play just them.

Future — Neuralink and its implantable brain–machine interfaces that able to send impulses directly to the brain to possibly also consume content.

When I was engaged in this research activity, I got quite inspired — how quickly things change. It got me thinking — especially in modern fast paced world where new technologies and products emerge so quickly it’s important to tune down the noise and try to focus on spotting the signal. So every now and then try to find the time in your daily work to allocate the time for just observing and involving in these creative activities. They’ll really seem as breath of fresh air.

Workshop Conclusion

This is all great, but without application in real life it conveys little to no value. So now I’d like to share a few insights on how this activity helped me as a product manager and strategist.

Let’s first take a few steps back. When I joined the product, I inherited the pilot projects based on one specific technology. Together with the team we designed the POCs and experiments to understand the feasibility and presumed value increase to our users. As a result a few applications have been incorporated in our product and a few were rejected due to poor quality of the results that we got.

Approach “as is” worked... However having a structured methodology to innovation can push efforts even further and planning experiments or POCs will be simplified. With Innovation Workshop it was possible to figure out initiatives that we can pilot over the course of 2021 and 2022+. This way the team can work on clear objectives that are set up (specific features that have been validated, analysed and described for implementation ), but also on aspirations. Therefore here’s the result of the Innovation Workshop for my case:

  1. R&D initiatives are incorporated in our efforts for 2021 — in addition to validated, analysed and described for implementation activities.
  2. Bigger and more vague ideas were sketched out for 2022+
    * for revisiting in the future (next year Innovation Workshop).
    * to check against venture capitalists investments in the domain. To see where the growth expected.
  3. Broader perspective on the product was acquired.
  4. Additional motivation and inspiration for the team.

Looking back at some of the R&D initiatives we performed already, I spotted brighter sparkles in the eyes of our team members. Doing something new or sometimes vague in promises (some things you just can’t validate), raises enthusiasm, unleashes creative spirits in each of the team-member. Therefore Innovation Workshop and generated ideas will be useful not just for the product, but for the team as well.

I’m fascinated by smart people, so would like to mention abother quote:

If you can increase the number of experiments you try from a hundred to a thousasnd, you dramatically increase the number of innovations you produce.
— Jeff Bezos

Try incorporating Innovation Workshop in your work, come up with experiments, run them and good luck!

FAQ

Q: Where does Innovation Workshop stand in product development lifecycle?

To answer this question, I’d like to reference an article by Farid Sabitov where he talks about Triple Loop Product Lifecycle and maturity levels. I highly recommend to check it out.
To build up on the Learn, Build, Measure phases (thus Triple Loop) the innovation workshop will stand aside from those activities and act as source of experiments and contributor to the vision of the product. Then when more information is gathered or POC experiments performed, those initiatives can transition to product strategy and later have some footprints in the OKRs.

Q: Who should participate in this workshop?

Usually this workshop is targeted to teams of product strategists and business stakeholders. However, it’s a good idea to reach out to others in your organisation with different backgrounds and ideas as it can give new perspectives on the problems you are trying to solve.
Tip: especially consider innovator and early adopter type of personalities.

What a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of the other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.
— Albert Einstein

Q: How long does it take?

Depending on how closely different activities are stacked together, how many people participate and how long each activity runs it can take about 1–3 days.
Note: preparation for the workshop is not included.

Q: How often should it run?

When you feel stagnation in your product /company— that’s probably a good sign that Innovation Workshop can help to transition to the next level. From my perspective running it 1–2 times a year helps to broaden the horizons and perspectives on the industry, products, user habits etc.

Q: Are there any “rules” or best practices?

There are no rules really :)
But some recommendations will be useful:

  1. Try to avoid saying “No”. Innovation Workshop is aimed to be collaborative tool. Therefore if ideas are evolving from one to another that’s one of the signs you are doing it right. Try to build up on somebody else’s idea in addition to offer your own.
  2. Using visuals can foster the creative process, so using images is also a great approach to consider.
  3. Don’t focus or think about the complexity of realisation. Think big, dream, let your mind wander.
  4. Prepare in advance — just like for any meeting it’s a good idea to do some homework. Having everybody thought about trends, technologies, cases and assumptions will set the team off to a more productive workshop.

Thank you for dedicating the time to check out my article. I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share your feedback or some other practices that you use to become more creative, innovative and strategic thinker in the comments section below.

Additional Resources

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Product manager with 8y+ of experience in the tech industry: launching new products (0->1), scaling existing products (1->∞) in startup, SMB & enterprise setup.

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Liliya Sabitova

Liliya Sabitova

Product manager with 8y+ of experience in the tech industry: launching new products (0->1), scaling existing products (1->∞) in startup, SMB & enterprise setup.

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