Category Archives: Design Thinking

Digital blurs the distinction between product and service

 

For my preparation for the Services Major @HEC I have read some interesting stuff about service blueprinting. What I find really interesting is the fact that digital can be seen as the replacement of front line employees. Or, in other words: the “physical” product is kind of “dissolved” into a service. And this fits very well into the product management concept of finding solutions for user problems on the one hand side and on the other hand side the border between marketing / branding (e.g. intangible assets) is becoming more and more unclear…

In some circumstances, it makes sense to modify the traditional blueprint. For example, when blueprinting an Internet or kiosk-based service that does not have any onstage contact employee activities, it could be beneficial to remove the onstage contact employee action row and replace it with an onstage technology row that would capture how customers interact with the company’s technology (p. 12 “Service Blueprinting: A Practical Technique for Service Innovation” by Bitner, Ostrom & Morgan).

If a company is really serious about providing great service, everything needs to be thought from the customer. In Bitner & Co. framework, this would be Physical Evidence / Customer Interactions layer. This is very close to design thinking. There are also interesting case studies to be read about companies who have become successful due to a radical change in their thinking: from executive level to frontline employees. It is great, not to feel too lonely as a Product Manager and to get support from academic folks in the US (https://twitter.com/WPCCSL) with great reputation. In that sense, I am really looking forward to our Services Major @ The Center for Services Leadership (CSL) in Phoenix, Arizona next month!

When ignoring design thinking destroys company value

 

When employees don’t want to see the limitations of their mindset, it becomes dangerous for their companies. Even more if they are in executive or leadership positions. Not only the diversity of thinking is at risk, but also critical competencies can be missing. But what to do if there is a completely blind spot? If the responsible managers simply are not aware of their open flanks? This can happen even to the brightest people. With great experience and superior thinking. Suddenly they might intuitively feel challenged on a very fundamental basis. A challenge that questions everything they do and have done so far. And believe me, consequences arising from this type of challenge on a very personal level can be really irrational. I have experienced such situations at least twice in my career.

And then comes the moment of truth: how do they react? Do they let this threatening thing happen (for the best of their business) or do they fight it back (for the best of their self affirmation)? Times have changed: technology enables customers to do things that have never been conceivable before. It is time to change perspective and really build great products for them. Which companies will see and use those opportunities? Not those with employees and executives who won´t let go.

Designful companies will outperform the others. It is just a question of time…

No need to be afraid of R&D

 

When I was put in front of engineers for the very first time, I really didn´t know how to deal with them. Quickly I realized that my leadership style didn´t work out anymore. Please don´t get me wrong: I was an experienced manager with almost ten years of leadership experience. Until that point in time I was pretty successful in my roles. My strategy to get myself over this point was to put pressure. “We need to have feature A released by June, otherwise we won´t achieve our business target and our investors won´t like it…” I said. And you know what: my R&D colleagues simply didn´t care. Instead they asked me what to do, how to build it etc. I was not able to answer questions about the product itself and was caught waffling in many cases.

More than that: I always felt uncomfortable to talk about the product to be built. Even tried to avoid talking about it. Incredible, isn’t it? On top of that, I tried to avoid exposure to the teams in charge. Wanted to “manage” it top down.

The result was poor. We launched a product that more or less completely failed. But even worse: I had lost my reputation with my R&D team. They simply didn’t take me seriously anymore. My behavior had increased the gap between “business” and “engineering”.

Now after a couple of years later I understand why. I had to learn it the hard way how to collaborate with my R&D colleagues. But not without having gone to the other extreme: having lost my connection with my stakeholders. Only in the recent years I have been able to balance the needs better. And actually got a lot of satisfaction out of this. Starting with a product vision and then going through technical but also design and customer iterations is something extremely exciting.

The most important thing you need to bear with: accept that you don´t know much. You don’t need to be the one knowing everything and also not the one with the best ideas. In the contrary: the more you step back the more successful you will become. One team gave me a nickname after I had left – “Il Padrino” – the guy behind the scenes but in charge…

Many business people eye away from uncertainty

 

Learning about all the frameworks in a MBA education and dealing with all the business cases leads to a situation where business people might feel over confident in understanding what is going on in the world. More than that: a lot claim to know better and to have a more strategic view than the Product Managers.

At the same time, the Product Manager is forced to justify his/her proposal in a situation where proof of evidence is simply not existing. And not only that: many assumptions are being made. If you forced design thinkers to prove every single of those assumptions, nothing will ever really happen. It is all about intuition and iteration with real customers. It is about dealing with uncertainty. Really dealing with uncertainty – not just pretending to do so.

“The Designful Company” is a great book. It also describes the situation of the earth not being entirely discovered. Maps would only cover part of the globe, many white areas are still left. There are some people who are attracted by those and who are willing to “fight the dragons”. And others shy away.

Digital has created even more white spaces than ever before. The world is full of new opportunities. So why do many business people don´t conquer them? Well it is because of the uncertainty they would have to admit to be existent.

If you have an idea about your target market and a top level understanding of what product you want to build you still have the challenge to build it. Building it from scratch is hard. You can copy cat similar products or you can just tweak your existing UI – both feel more comfortable than jumping into the cold water.

And now imagine the product visionary coming in with her/his ideas. Not using what is out there already but trying to build new solutions to existing problems. And now try to figure out your own emotions in such a situation. You don´t understand the solution, it is different from what you have experienced before. Would you leave your framework castle to deal with it or shoot it down from behind your safe (business) walls? Up to you to decide!

It is difficult for Product Managers to think business

 

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Why do founder CEOs with strong product management skills have difficulties when their companies need scaling? Why are product managers often perceived as the guys who don’t understand “business”? Why is is often so frustrating to manage stakeholders if you are a Product Manager?

I have asked myself this type of questions pretty often. Actually, at times I felt so far away from business that I was proud of being an idealistic advocate of our users. I found excitement in challenging the business colleagues by presuming I had the better (because user related) arguments in discussions. And yes, it is true that there are many articles about this topic. One of my employees pretty often asked me to be less “ideologic” and my strategy papers etc. were often perceived as kind of “bible”. Personally I believe this has been and still is a defensive move of the function product. Let´s try to understand the different historical phases of product management:

PHASE I (TACTICAL MARKETING)

Product was simply one of the four p´s in the marketing mix. Product Managers got a list of features they had to build and to release. That´s it.

PHASE II (STRATEGIC MARKETING)

Marketing became more and more a philosophy for companies to be truly consumer centric. It is the moment where marketing started to ask for seats at the executive table.

PHASE III (R&D COMPLEXITY)

Latest with the arrival of digital, products became too complex to be built based on top down specification. The introduction of agile methodologies has changed they way R&D needs to be led.

PHASE IV (STRATEGIC PRODUCT MANAGEMENT)

With all the agile teams led by Product Managers a new level of organizational challenge arrived: how to make sure all teams are working towards the same goal? Traditional general managers often fail to manage R&D because they are not seasoned Product Managers. They need “help” in steering those teams. The only way to inspire those teams is to have a clear product vision instead of asking for simple features to be built. There is translation needed. Otherwise there will be no real link between general management and R&D and the company will not be successful.

So, if you experience Product Managers not embracing your corporate strategy, this might be due to the fact that she/he is not willing and/or able to challenge it. It might be a comfort zone related issue. On the other hand side, it is always hard to leave the area of your own functional expertise and to broaden your view. It is like a nail that has been driven into a plank and then needs to expand in order to make a real hole…

Broadening_Business_Ambition

 

A big question remains open: how to broaden your view as a Product Manager? I have chosen to do a MBA for this. But if you have colleagues with a solid consulting background and openness towards design thinking this might also be very valuable.

Why good product management helps sustainability

 

During a lunch with Erik we have had a discussion about sustainability. This inspired me to write this post. Good product management means focusing on serving user needs best with special focus on creating tangible benefits. Starting with a problem that is worthwhile solving from the user´s point of view, the emphasis is to iteratively come up with solutions that get users excited. There is no waffling, but pure product in the hands of potential and hopefully future consumers.

Consequent design thinking ensures that no “waste” is being produced. This also avoids that products are being built which serve only one purpose: maximizing the profit of the building company – not the one of its customers.

Real sustainability emerges if the ingredients viability, desirability and feasibility come together. A good product manager focuses on all three and is therefore compliant with sustainability standards.

So, dear product managers: now you have another very strong argument in discussions about how important design thinking is. Think long term, help to improve sustainability!