Need for solution thinking to stimulate innovation

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 focus of the blog is to facilitate engineers to gain broader understanding of the customer needs (at least explicit needs). Majority of the engineers keep themselves abreast with 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 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 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 deliver center, trtraditionally 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 inter operate to deliver a solution to the customer. By keeping our existing practices intact, I am only advocating for 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 essentially that engineers’ not only focus on resolving the problem but to figure out how customer is using the product. We can do so through 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.



How to stimulate innovation

If there is one thing that every organization on this earth wants to do irrespective of the size/market/geography is to INNOVATE.

As part of the innovation drive, all the organizations set innovation goals to file X number of patents in a financial year and increase the goal marginally YoY. Revenue realization targets are also set from those innovative ideas. Organization goals are further translated into BU goals and each BU will be entrusted with responsibility of filing a specific number of patents. Goals are good to have as it indirectly communicates the purpose of the organization and priority of the organization. By setting innovation goals, organization drives the message that innovation is critical for the growth. Therefore it brings-in necessary process to capture innovations and deliver those innovations in their products. But the hard truth is that less than 1% of the organization contributes to Innovation. So the first step in the Innovation drive should be to stimulate employees to innovate.

In order to stimulate innovation, we should not do the mistake of persuading individual to innovate. We have to make every individual in an organization to realize/understand what is in it for them to innovate. In my personal experience I have seen most of the engineers desire to learn/accomplish something different/unique. But those genuine aspirations get lost because of lack of thought process on how to trigger the journey to accomplish something different/unique. Everyone desires to move from point A to point B, but what we often do not do is to provide a moment of pause to ponder upon three critical aspects
WHY– Why to accomplish
WHAT – What to accomplish
HOW – How to accomplish

Taking a moment to work on the What/How/Why circle will help every employee understand the purpose of reaching point B and eventually trigger clarity on how to start the journey of reaching point B. Undoubtedly there might be varying purposes, however each of those purposes somewhere deep down would be either directly or indirectly tied to innovation. Further such a heterogeneity of purposes will lead to innovation in areas across product development, product design, business, processes etc.

Once we are done with the 1st of stimulating innovation, next step is to focus on eliminating the barriers of innovation. The two innovation barriers that I have indicated below need not be exhaustive.

  • Psychological barriers – Common misconception that Innovation is BIG and COMPLEX creates a mental barriers among many to innovate
  • Lack of solution thinking – Engineers work in silos and hence they lack the knowledge of how the product is used by end customers.

Let me talk in detail about each of the barriers of innovation in subsequent blogs. Stimulation and elimination are not the only requirements for successful innovation, there is another major ingredient called environment that is conducive to innovation. An environment that encourages employees to focus on innovation in addition to their regular day-to-day tasks and that eliminates fear of failure among employees. We can go ahead and talk about innovation environment in detail, for now let us put aside that topic for a future blog article.

How –> What –>Why (Are we here?)

Last week I attended P-Camp hosted by IPMA @ IIM B and was privileged to listen to series of talks by some of the leading professional in the industry. One such talk was delivered by Mr. G. Venkatesh, CTO at Sasken. He was talking more about collaborative innovation and how imminent it is in the flat world structure.

Before we delve into the details of collaborative innovation and various reasons for its necessity, we have to take a look at how outsourcing industry in India has transformed over the last 2-3 decades. During early stages of outsourcing, customers used to elaborate WHAT task is required and HOW to perform that task. Companies in India diligently followed the instructions and later delivered the task as instructed by the customers in the west. Later Indian companies started focusing on process excellence, execution excellence and they evolved themselves to decide HOW to perform a particular task. So they never expected companies from the west to let them know HOW to perform the task, rather the focus now is only on WHAT task has to be performed. Such a transformation to happen is really great and over the years most of the Indian companies (especially the top 4) have pioneered the art of formulating a process and have consistently proven in execution excellence. However, the larger questions that loom is that whether those companies have reached next level of transformation or at least inching towards such a transformation. The next level of transformation as the blog title suggests is to ask the customers WHY they would have to perform such a task. Asking WHY would facilitate to gain deeper insights into the core problem of the customers paving way for solution based thinking. More importantly, it will help Product Managers identify/discover new market segments, new use cases.

Let me try to put things into perspective with some simple analogy. Last week, one of our customers is asking us to increase the number of HW entries in our product. Those entries do the functionality similar to ACLs (Access Control Lists). During the design phase, the architect did not see any demand beyond ‘X’ entries and HW limitations too do not allow us to go beyond ‘X’ entries. However, when there was a new requirement, engineers were baffling to find out WHAT should be done to increase those entries. After a long struggle, when they almost hit a dead-end, someone out of blue started asking WHY would the customer need such an enhancement. Later both PM and engineering team found that the customer was using the HW entries differently than it was designed for. Actually, there are alternative means to achieve their requirements. Had the engineering not hit the dead-end and had there been a feasibility to increase the HW entries, there would have been a definite attempt to increase the HW entries costing us few additional dollars. As in this scenario, asking WHY does not always help us to identify either new market segments or use cases. However, it definitely helps us to put things into better perspective. Asking WHY is very simple, but more often engineers are so focused on their individual components that they lose the larger picture of the end-to-end solution. Now let me get back to our original focus on collaborative innovation. Collaborative innovation will facilitate us to move away from the mindset of individual components to end-to-end solution level focus/thinking. Such thinking is imperative for succeeding in WHY transformation

In another case, we found out that our product was bought by a data center company. DC was not part of our market segment so focusing on WHY they want our product rather than WHAT they want from our product will help us in understanding their requirements. Later PM team can factor those requirements to either create a new of the product or position the existing product exclusively for DC customers.

When the World is getting flatter and when India is slowly but gradually losing its status as a low-cost delivery region, delivering more value is the only way to regain the momentum and maintain an invincible position. Asking WHY helps us move in that direction.