What I learned about Innovative Product Development from MIT

I reflect often, but recently, I’ve been reflecting specifically on how my time at MIT contributed to my character as a Product Manager. Most of the lessons that I learned at the Institute came from a combination of experiences and conversations over time, not a particular course. Although undoubtedly, some experiences were more impactful given my interests, skill-set, and aspirations, than others, like helping design an in-person and digital course, conceiving of and running the MIT Technology Conference, working in Indonesia, and teaching at an accelerator in South Africa. Below are 5 PM principles that I believe in and try to abide by. It’s important to note that I have a specific phase of product development in mind: one that invents new products or manages existing ones during their infancy or has to adapt an existing product to a new market. This what I’m most drawn towards and these principles may not resonate as much with PMs with steady-state products. To make these principles easier to grasp, I’ve included tangible examples from work that I’ve done in the past, wherever possible.

A common tactic throughout each of these principles: measure as much, as often, as you can (and show everyone your numbers). Measure the problem state, progress, and outcomes, with transparency.

1. Consistent innovation happens in an eco-system:

At its core, this lesson assumes that novel solutions cannot be solved for in the abstract, as if a mathematical problem. Novel solutions to practical problems come about by piecing together several observations, often over some period of time, and intellectual effort alone is not enough to bring a product to market. Abstract problem solving might get you a win once. But, consistent innovation needs an eco-system that consists of problem and outcome definers, builders, funders, champions, customers, and a source of knowledge. At the macro-level, this model for spurring innovation explains why Silicon Valley and Cambridge/Boston have been hubs for entrepreneurs and innovative activity for so long. With the combination of strong higher education institutions (ex. 20+ in the Cambridge / Boston area) that produce talented people, entrepreneurs inspired by previous success stories, cultures that rewards problem-solving, funding and resources from venture capitalists and accelerators/incubators alike, these two geographies enable innovative thinking and risk-taking through action. Abstracted out to the micro-level within companies, a PM can only launch innovative products if she has builders (engineers), her own vision for successful outcome, intelligence on her industry / technology / customer, active support from key stakeholder groups, and an organizational culture that does not forbid failure.

2. Cross-functional collaboration is required to solve real world problems:

What’s a real world problem? A problem that involves more than one group of people, without a clear culprit or solution, and possibly without strong leadership. Because real world problems (ex. an unwieldy sales pipeline, proliferation of inconsistent data and analysis throughout an organization, low voter participation rates within a community), are complex and un-contained to one group, they need active participation from several stakeholders to be resolved. This cross-functional collaboration is most important in the problem definition stage. With real-world problems, multiple groups often feel pain, but for different reasons and so their respective ideal solutions probably look different. Let’s illustrate this with the example problem of low voter turn-out in local elections.

Politicians, community groups, small businesses, and private citizens are stakeholders affected by the low voter turn-out problem. Some politicians might be benefiting from a low civic engagement but others might be suffering because they have little clout. Their ideal solution might be that the incumbent gets removed from office or that the impact of his legislation receives sunlight in the public space. Community groups might be suffering because they feel that important issues (housing, education) are being underrepresented. Their ideal solution might be that they petition the imcumbent in office. Private citizens might also notice that the quality of life in their neighborhood is not that great. And there’s no one solution to address the POV of several people. If you’re a PM in a tech company that focuses on civic matters or in a government office, you cannot bring about the outcome of higher voter turnout without considering the incentives and interests of every stakeholder before designing a solution. Otherwise your solution won’t stick.

3. Think in the space of possibilities:

This is not to say that you think of solutions firstly. This is to say that you imagine the outcome(s) that want in great, rich detail, first (ex. anyone, at any time, can know where in the pipeline a deal is and promotion from one segment to the other is based on observable activity, every analyst knows which data set to refer to for a question that they have to answer) unencumbered by assumptions rooted in legacy. For example, if you are trying to make central analytical tool, but immediately start working towards a solution with constraints based on the way your company operates *today*, you are boxing yourself into a sub-standard solution (at best) from the start. If you assume that analysts won’t be able to learn a new tool then you will end up designing one that looks a lot like tools that already exist. If you do that, then there is a non-zero chance that what you have built is duplicative and not adding incremental value. If you’re not adding incremental value, you’re not being innovative. Of course, you have to take into account your immovable constraints, but you should know whether the constraint is immovable instead of assuming that it is. Firstly think in the space of possibilities, and then work backwards.

4. The importance of thinking from first principles:

This is closely related to the previous principle of thinking in the space of possibilities. However, this is a behavior that you can encourage in yourself and your team rather easily by always asking “why” (often several times) to inspect their rationale and to understand their POV. Most people are not prone to thinking from first principles. Their imaginations are limited to what they see before them. For example, how would it strike you if your colleague PM suggested that you solve the problem of low voter participation by sending texts to all local residents to raise awareness instead of knocking on their doors in 2004, before the first Obama win made clear the importance of digital? Community organizations tend to knock on doors but outreach does not *have* to work that way. The purpose of knocking on doors is to raise awareness on an issue on an individual basis. When you view the problem that way, texting becomes equal to knocking on doors. That’s not to say that texting will be effective, but I am using this as an example to view a problem through its parts and think from the first principles of what you’re trying to achieve.

5. Fame is thin, quick to get fat, quick to thin again:

I think this might be one that I cherish the most. Fame is thin: once you develop a reputation it’s easy to keep building on it. You exagerate a few accomplishments to get a new job, and then you do it again, within the company you might rely on others’ perceptions of your work to get noticed and move ahead, etc. While a practicality to some extent, given how difficult it is to communicate one’s value proposition in today’s competitive job markets, too much fat can only hurt you. Over time, only muscle will get you up the hill of your career / industry / time.

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