There are various types of innovations such as Product Innovation, Process Innovation and Service Innovation etc. Though I did not indicate explicitly, I was talking about stimulating “Product Innovation” in my earlier blog. One of the key drivers of product innovation is to derive new product ideas based on the deeper understanding of customers needs (both implicit and explicit). The new product idea can be based on application of new technology or any alternate product design that can enhance the usability or experience of the customers. The success of product innovation lies in our capability to understand both implicit and explicit needs of the customer. As I indicated in one of my earlier blog (The need for introspection of target market), the needs can change and it is the responsibility of Product Managers to keep well informed about the changing needs.
But the focus of the blog is to facilitate engineers to gain a broader understanding of the customer needs (at least explicit needs). Majority of the engineers keep themselves abreast with the latest technology, the gap is only in the application of technology to generate new product ideas because of lack of awareness of customer needs. In other words, there is a lack of solution thinking. Solution thinking is about the ability of engineers to successfully answer the following queries
Who is using our product?
Why are they using our product?
How are they using our product?
Solution thinking would facilitate engineers to identify product/solution gaps and it indirectly drives innovation to generate new product ideas to fill those gaps. We can make this very simple by having Product Managers communicate customer needs to engineers periodically through a forum or through a streamlined process such as MRDs/PRDs. Later engineers can generate new product ideas based on those inputs. However customer needs are not something that is written on a wall, so by including engineers, we are only expanding our capability to spot/understand more customer needs. Such inclusive focus will generate larger ownership among engineers and narrow the gap between product capabilities & customer needs.
We need to take a quick look at our history to figure out what is stopping our engineers from inculcating solution thinking. As a low-cost delivery center, traditionally our focus has been on WHAT to develop and HOW to develop. Honestly, our focus was never on WHY, please read my related blog post on the need to focus on WHY. Our emphasis on delivery excellence and engineering excellence etc has led to engineers working in silos with focus on specific modules of the entire product.
On the other hand, solution thinking requires a holistic view of how the product is used by the customers and how various components of the product interoperate to deliver a solution to the customer. By keeping our existing practices intact, I am only advocating for an additional process (listed below) to inculcate solution thinking.
- Product presentation delivered to all the new entrants to the product team. Product presentation would just have 3 steps
- What is the product
- Who are the users of the product
- What are the specific business problems addressed by the product
- Visual tools to explain how each element of the product interconnects with the rest of the elements
- PRDs should not only list the features required but also highlight the needs that would be solved by those features.
The above 3 aspects might tell ‘Who is using our product’ and ‘Why are they using our product’. To understand ‘How are they using our product’, engineers have the distinct advantage of knowing it through support. While handling support issues, it is essential that engineers’ not only focus on resolving the problem but to figure out how a customer is using the product. We can do so through the standard way of asking for the business implications of the problem for which support is sought. Customers define how the product is used and hence it is critical that we use customer support diligently to know how they are using our product.