Continuous Innovation is Product Management

Jeff Gothelf, Author of Lean UX and Sense and Respond, discusses why product teams need to manage for outcomes instead of outputs, and what leaders need do to empower their teams to achieve continuous innovation.

After publishing one of the most influential books in product management, “Lean UX,” Jeff did exactly what he espouses in the book: he got feedback. The insights he gained from readers lead him to the realization that while many product teams now understand the value of customer-centric product management and continuous innovation, often times, the Senior Executives who need to enable their teams to practice it do not understand it.

Many organizations see software as the way that they deploy their product or service to the market. Few organizations see it as the core of their business, and even less view it as a continuous thing, as a living system that you're continually optimizing. Most of the clients that I work with still see in chunks and big releases, and it's this continuous mindset when organizations take advantage of it, they have a unique competitive advantage over the other players in their space. Because now, they can interact with their customers on an ongoing basis, 24/7, 365. Learn from them and adjust and optimize their systems, their services and their products in reaction to the feedback that they're getting from the market."

It’s critical that Senior Executives do understand continuous innovation because of the two trends Jeff lays out at the beginning of this episode:

  1. Every business is a software business
  2. Managing a software business is fundamentally different than managing a hardware or services business

Managing software products has enabled companies to shift towards continuous innovation. Continuous innovation gives product managers the opportunity to get continuous feedback from customers and improve the impact of the product that they’re building. Jeff describes the advantages of this approach and how it differs from past best practices:

In the past, you could do usability testing, and you could do some customer interviews and conversations, but you really didn't know how customers, or if customers were going to use your product in an effective way until you actually shipped the thing to the store and hoped that people would buy it. Today, you can learn continuously. As soon as you put something out into the market, that's how fast you can start to get feedback about whether or not what you actually created was worthwhile, easy to use, valuable, actually solve a problem for a customer."

Jeff mentions Amazon as one of the most effective practitioners of continuous innovation. Amazon pushes code to production every 11.6 seconds, and they learn something every time that they do.

I spent the remainder of the interview asking Jeff about how companies can successfully make the shift to continuous innovation. Jeff starts by making a distinction between managing for outputs and managing for outcomes.

A new feature release is an output. The value you provide to customers is an outcome.

Jeff says that managing for outputs made sense in the industrial age but is no longer the best approach:

The other reason that companies managed to output is because it's binary. You either shipped the feature on time where you did not ship the feature on time. And because it's binary, it's easy to measure and if it's easy to measure, it's easy to manage."

Outputs are easier to measure, and therefore easier to manage, however, delivering value to customers is what makes a product and business successful.

To make this shift, Jeff says companies need to adjust how they measure success:

“Defining success in a culture of continuous innovation means that the definition of ‘done’ changes from ‘works as designed and shipped on time in a bug free way’ to ‘works as designed, shipped on time in a bug free way and actually delivered a meaningful change in customer behavior.’”

Jeff advises leaders to empower their teams to achieve more meaningful outcomes by framing objectives as a business problem to solve. “Instead of framing work as a set of features to build and deploy, it frames the work as a business problem to solve,” he says. Jeff then discusses the two traits leaders need to be successful in this new approach: curiosity and humility.

To close out the interview, I asked Jeff about how he's helped companies achieve continuous innovation as an outside consultant:

...That's really the biggest benefit of being that external consultant is that you've got the political capital to speak truth to power because that's why you're there. You can be blunt. You can be clear and you don't have to beat around the bush or worry about egos too much. You've always gotta worry about egos a little bit but you don't have to worry about egos too much because that's what you've been hired to do."

However, he does acknowledge the importance of being empathetic to how difficult change can be:

You've got to be sensitive to the fact of these folks have worked here and some of them for many years. There's a reason why things are a certain way and you, as an outside, who spent maybe a month trying to understand and assess the situation, and maybe you've got a good sense of what's broken but it's gonna take you a lot more time to really get a sense of how to make things better so just because something seems deeply flawed right up front, be sensitive of the fact that folks work there. Some folks have staked their careers on some of these changes. It's really important to carefully tread through some of that internal politics that's been brewing potentially for decades.

You’ll learn a number of actionable strategies from this episode on continuous innovation and making organizational change.

Here are the highlights:

  • Jeff describes what motivates organizations to change their approach to product development (5:45)
  • Jeff’s suggestions for managing products in continuous deployment (10:00)
  • How Jeff’s philosophy helps teams manage outcomes as opposed to outputs (12:15)
  • The skills and mindsets executives need to drive continuous innovation (16:55)
  • Jeff describes his best practices for influencing stakeholders (22:30)
  • Jeff shares how consultants can influence organizational change (25:40)

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