Creating New Products – A Case Study on Application of Proven Principles that Work

“Creating New Products – A Case Study on Application of Proven Principles that Work” with Alexander Cowan, CTO, Leonid Systems

By Cindy F. Solomon

December 2012 Event

At the December 5, 2012 meeting of the Silicon Valley Product Management Association meeting held at Tech Mart in Santa Clara, Alexander Cowan, CTO, Leonid Systems presented “Creating New Products – A Case Study on Application of Proven Principles that Work” For over 15 years, Alex has been helping companies apply technology to increase their performance. Most recently, Alex served as Director of Professional Services at BroadSoft, a leading provider of VoIP application platforms. Prior to BroadSoft, Alex served as Director of Sales Engineering at SOMA Networks (WiMAX equipment provider).

Before SOMA, Alex was a manager at Scout Electronics where he was responsible for product definition, customer experience, product promotion, and analytics. Alex began his career founding LinkLite Consulting, which now operates as GovPlace. Alex has experience in Chinese, Japanese, and Spanish-speaking operating environments.  Alex is the author of Starting a Tech Business, about bringing ideas to life. Alex studied Industrial Engineering and Economics at Stanford University.

Alex shared specific case studies and provided an integrated viewpoint of what new product development entails and requires. In preparing for his talk, he elicited questions in advance in order to cater his information specifically for product managers seeking to drive innovation in established technology companies.

He organized his talk into 4 areas: Ideation, Organization, Planning and Development.

1.  Ideation is the process of pulling together the conceptual basis for your product or service.  Cowan said that new product ideas used to originate in self-love and now they incorporate 2 pillars of design thinking; empathy and creativity.

During the dot com period, mid to late 1990’s, a product idea was an outgrowth of the originator’s direct experience and problems they wanted to solve, so the product was a very personal and subjective result, and it was stuck to until the end. It enabled a few great successes, and many, many failures, some self-inflicted and in retrospect, avoidable.

Currently, design thinking is a response to direct observation of users to improve our understanding of how to develop and redesign products. He mentioned IDEO, as a leader around design thinking methods.  “You have to care” about the users of the product and be passionate about serving their needs and improving their experience and the results they can produce as a result of utilizing your product.

Important tools used for design thinking are personas and user stories.  In order to develop personas, go out in the field to observe users in their own environment without intervening.  They may not be able to tell you what they need or want, but you will be able to identify a difference the product could make to their actions only by watching what they do without thinking.

A persona is vivid – you should be able to describe that person like your best friend who will enable you to connect the dots about how they’ll use your product and how they’ll find it. Personas are descriptive, like introducing a character in a novel or play. Take photos to create data to create personas.

Once you know your users through personas, you can start telling stories about them.  Stories drive empathy and set the stage for creative solutions.  A story has very specific syntax – it is not just a statement about the persona. It’s important to describe what the persona wants to do and why they want to do it:

As a [persona], I want to [Y] so that I can [Z].

2. Organization
There used to be the misconception that a small organization could become a big company by “aping” the big companies habits and personnel.  This turned out to be hugely misguided and destructive misperception.  The modern alternative is customer development introduced by Steve Blank in Four Steps to the Epiphany.  Any entity that is not an established business is not a small version of a big company – it’s a fundamentally different animal. Startups need to organize and operate in fundamentally unique ways than large, established companies.  When you’re still learning about your proposition and business model, you need a customer development team with various talents, that is flat and 100% focused on validating the business’ key assumptions, sitting with customers, developing personas, testing prototypes and mockups with customers, putting things on line and testing hypotheses.  Cowan shared how there are two parallel teams at Leonid Systems; the product team for new innovation and customer feature development runs different than mainline development, as is necessary and appropriate to their mission.

3. Planning
The purpose of customer development is to arrive at validated product/market fit. Iterative management is proving or disproving assumptions and arriving at the “pivot or persevere moment” (popularized by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup) where the decision is made to either scale up the business or revise the concept.

Both the five year long range plan and the lack of planning are unmanageable. The scientific method is the best alternative to the problem of planning.  Identify and prioritize the key assumptions, determine how to test them, and describe the experiment – what you’ll do to prove or disprove the assumptions.  The Business Model Canvas described in the book, Business Model Generation is a great planning tool, even if you’ll document a more formal plan.

4. Development
Waterfall development is high tech’s version of the five year plan – define a set of requirements upfront and move in sequence. If there are changes, you have to redo the plan.  If you don’t exactly know what you want or how customers will react when they see them, you need to get a minimum viable product (MVP) out the door quickly to validate assumptions. Agile is a great way to communicate empathy to the development team since they’re regularly exposed to perspective out in the market via the product owner, who is responsible for writing stories and discussing them with the development team.

At the conclusion of his talk, Alex asked people to close their eyes and think about design thinking and if we could implement it at work tomorrow.  He provided six tips as a takeaway for product managers who want to wage evolution in their organizations:
1. Go: Don’t Ask permission – just do it
2. Show: Show don’t sell – build something worth seeing
3. Focus: Identify a beachhead, then storm it
4. Broadcast – leverage your work on an everyday basis – make sure everyone knows where to find it
5. Make Yourself Agile – structure and organize work on the principals of the Agile manifesto
6. Make yourself awesome – don’t wait for the last judgment

Cindy F. Solomon is Founder of the Global Product Management, creator of the ProdMgmtTalk mobile app, contributing author to 42 Rules of Product Marketing, and organizer of Startup Product Talks  Follow @ProdMgmtTalk and @StartupProduct

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