Effective Product Roadmaps

Product Roadmaps, in general, are confusing. The truth? Even the most experienced Product Managers still don’t have them fully figured out.

Three years ago I wrote a blog post about Rethinking the Product Roadmap, in which I advocated for a focus on solving customer problems instead of listing out features with deadlines. I received lots of feedback on the post, much of it praise, but also some criticism. The biggest takeaway comment for me was, “This is great for new products in the Discovery Phase, but what about accounting for products that we have already validated and need to build?”

In the time since, I’ve been working with clients to find what works best in real life situations. I want to share with you the framework that I have found, which allows for a balance of discovery and delivery and takes us out of that laundry list of features. But first, let’s talk about Roadmaps in general, and how they got us on the wrong track to begin with.

Think back, before Google Maps, to what a real roadmap was- those things with tiny, tiny city names and thousands of squiggly lines.  The ones that made it so you could never drive alone because you needed a copilot, someone to wrangle the giant map and dictate to you how to navigate from point A to point B. Yeah THOSE things.

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Well that’s where the term Roadmap actually comes from.  When using a roadmap, you always knew where you were and where you wanted to go, and you had all these different routes to choose from. Some routes were shorter, some were longer but more scenic. It was ultimately up to you to choose your optimal path. Product Roadmaps should work just like their namesake, but their intended purpose was lost somewhere along the way. Now, Roadmaps function more like Gantt Charts.

Gantt Charts are a project management tool used to keep track of timelines and due dates. While Gantt Charts are fine for large manufacturing projects, they do not work well for most software situations because of the uncertainty around development.

When we’re first deciding what software product we should be exploring, we don’t know what our users want, and thus we are not exactly sure what the finished product will look like. This makes it nearly impossible to estimate how long the product will take to build. Yet, we still use this Gantt Chart model to plan our work, which locks us into delivering solutions by certain dates. Teams get frustrated that there is no perceived flexibility in these plans, and management gets mad when teams don’t deliver on time. The result is a bunch of feature releases that don’t make a difference for our users.

Instead, we need a model that helps us take into account uncertainty and allows us the flexibility for both discovery and delivery. To do this, we focus on Product Roadmaps that are made up of outcomes, a theme, and hypotheses, and we leave out any unvalidated solutions or features.

Let’s look at an example I created of a completed Product Roadmap for one team. I’m using the New York Health Exchange’s website as an example of a product as I can easily pin down things that need to be fixed- like, lots of things. I’ve never worked with them, and I don’t claim to have knowledge about how they function internally, but I am a customer of the website. This is how I would approach improving the product if I were working with them.

Example_Product_Roadmap_-_Google_Sheets

 

The top section of our Roadmap outlines our Vision, Challenge, and Target Condition, which reflect the goals outlined in my post on Product Strategy.  A Product Roadmap should be aligned around these same goals and help communicate the tactics to reach them.

According to this Roadmap, Team X is working towards the overarching goal (or Challenge) of getting 99% of people who create an account on NYS of Health to sign up for insurance.

Now that we have our Challenge set, the team analyzes the customer problems standing in the way of them reaching that goal. This is the same process we outlined in the original Roadmap post. Let’s say that after user research, we find that the biggest problem for NYS of Health’s website users is that it takes a very long time to search for and find an ideal health insurance plan. It’s a confusing process and incredibly frustrating. It causes people to give up instead of sign up.

So Team X decides to tackle this problem, and sets a Target Condition that will tell them when they have reached a successful outcome. “Decrease the average time to find and purchase health insurance from 3 weeks to 2 days in Q2.” While users can only sign up once a year for health insurance, there are plenty of changes that could be implemented to make it easier once that enrollment period opens.

From there, Team X would figure out the top areas they want to explore or deliver on in Q2 to reach that Target Condition. We call these Themes. For example, the “Search Enhancements” Theme will include all the UX work needed to simplify the search for health insurance options.

In order to answer the question, “Why are we exploring this theme?” we write a Hypothesis or Problem Statement. When products are still in the Discovery Phase, we are still validating the problem and solution, so we want to state what we know and what we don’t know. Our Hypothesis should support that we believe our solution will solve the biggest problem.

So with our Search Enhancements Theme we are in Delivery Phase, and our Hypothesis is “We believe that by enhancing the filter options to reflect the top deciding factors that shoppers make when choosing a health insurance, we will make it easier for them to narrow down their choices and find the right health insurance.” We have already validated that people have problems narrowing down their choices to find the right health insurance, and we think that offering some enhancements to the filter options can solve that problem.

Our last theme, Subsidy Communication, is an example of a problem that is still very early in Discovery Phase. We have identified that there is a very low conversion rate for people who qualify for Subsidies, and we want to investigate why that is. We have a few ideas but we have not yet validated them. So we need to clearly communicate our Hypothesis, highlighting what we know (“the people who would get Health Insurance for almost free are converting at a very low rate”) and what we don’t know (“we are not sure if people leave before they know if they whether or not they qualify for subsidies, or if they just don’t understand our explanation of subsidies”).

After the Hypothesis section comes the “Outcomes” – the most important part of our Roadmap. Here, we state what we hope to achieve by solving this problem or proving this Hypothesis. Each Outcome should relate back to the Target Condition in some way. All of our work is going to help us reach the Target Condition, so it would be a pretty boring Roadmap if every Outcome for each theme is just a repetition of that goal. Instead, think about how each of those changes or improvements signals a move towards your goal.

For example, with the Search Enhancements, we can tell if we are making it easier for people to search by measuring the qualitative components of frustration and the quantitative components of decreasing the time to identify an option. You want to make sure you are focusing on a good combination of both business and user outcomes in these sections, and make them measurable.

The last two sections deal with status and priority. The Status should state where you are in the Discovery versus Delivery phase. If you are in the Discovery Phase, you’re delivering to learn, so your focus is on experimentation over releasing features.  In the Delivery phase, you’ll be delivering valuable features and solutions to users. Sit down with your team and define what this means within your company, and then share these definitions with the rest of the company so there is mutual understanding.

Notice here that our Roadmap does not include any specifics on how we plan on tackling these problems.  This is because we are still experimenting with options- we haven’t laid out a plan to implement a set of features or solution components.

The above example is only one team’s Roadmap. There might be many other teams working towards this same Challenge, but they would all have different Target Conditions. These Roadmaps could then be combined into a Portfolio Roadmap that could be communicated across different levels of the business, like so:

Good Roadmap - FDS portfolio.007

It’s important to remember that a Roadmap is a communication tool first and foremost. It’s meant to align teams across time horizons and goals. Management should be goal and Vision setting with a timeline of  6 months to a few years, while teams should be looking at a smaller timeline, from quarters up to 6 months. There should be an accompanying strategy document that addresses how these goals help the company reach its Vision, but the Roadmap itself does not serve that purpose.

Roadmaps are a living document. If you invalidate a theme, update it. If you’ve changed a goal, update it. There is no reason you should be struggling to work around a Roadmap that does not work for you. When you’re communicating with customers, focus on how you are going to solve their problems, not how you are going to deliver their features. Your customers care first and foremost about the value they are receiving.

 

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We teach Product Roadmaps in our 10 week online course at

Product Institute.

The next class will start in April 2017. Use APRIL17 for $100 off.

Sign up for our mailing list on the top, right hand side of this page to be notified when we launch our next class.

 

 

Stop Blaming the User

I’m finally going home from a long business trip and I’m very excited. But my experience with United Airline’s customer service this morning completely killed my good mood.

They keep blaming me for their mistake. It’s a story I know well because I see it so commonly in Product Management too.

When I was booking my return ticket from London to Newark, the cheapest option was for something called “Mixed Cabin”. I could fly Business Class between London to Dublin and then Economy from Dublin to Newark. Since I had to get up at the ungodly hour of 5am to get to the airport, I thought that could be a nice treat on my first leg. So I booked it.

Here’s what my reservation looks like from a few minutes ago:

Imagine how surprised I was when I checked in for the first leg on Aer Lingus and they gave me seat 27B. “There must be a mistake,”,I thought. So I told the flight attendant that I was booked through United in Business. She replied, “We don’t have Business Class on any of our flights.”

What a bait and switch! United is selling me something that doesn’t exist. It’s only a one-hour flight, so I’m not going to hem and haw all day, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it. So, I tweeted… because that’s what you do when you’re angry. What happened next, pissed me off more than the switcheroo.

The customer service agents considered this my fault, and acted like it wasn’t a big deal.

 

As someone who doesn’t work for an airline, how am I supposed to know that Z class doesn’t exist on Aer Lingus? When you purchase your ticket and it says “Business”, that’s what you expect. I don’t think I am wrong for being upset; yet United is telling me I am. If I went to a restaurant and ordered the duck, the waiter wouldn’t say “I’m sorry, we actually meant steak when we wrote duck. Here’s your steak, deal with it.”

I’m not telling this story to complain about United (well, maybe that’s part of the reason). The moral of my story is this: I see product teams commiting this classic mistake all the time. Product Managers love to blame the user. If the user doesn’t understand something, they are just stupid. If the user won’t tell us what they want, they are difficult. If they are calling to complain, they are ungrateful.

This is a dangerous mindset, yet it’s so prevalent. “Users don’t know what they want,” is the battle cry of Product Managers all over the world. It’s their excuse not to talk to them, because what could a user tell them that they don’t already know?

The problem isn’t with the user. It’s with you.

The Curse of Knowledge Bias makes you forget that as a Product Manager, you have more knowledge than the user when it comes to your product. You can’t understand how they could find something difficult when you can do it so easily. Users become just a thorn in your side, and if they went away and took all their complaints and wishy-washy answers to your questions with them, you could build THE BEST PRODUCT IN THE WORLD! You forget that if users went away, you would be out of business.

Recently, I was training Product Managers at a very large company. I always start off with a major focus on the user and trying to uncover their problems. We did a Product Kata workshop to help demonstrate this. The idea behind Product Kata is to take a step back, figure out what you need to learn, and create a test or step to learn it. In this case, the teams had to create a “paper pizza” for the user. Chris Matts helped out by being our user. They had 45 minutes to sell Chris $10 worth of pizza. Everyone immediately jumped in and started asking him “What do you want?” He answered, “I don’t know what I want. I like these things…”

After a while, everyone hated Chris. Someone even said, “I am going to pivot my pizza business to martial arts because Chris better learn to defend himself.” That was pretty funny, but also a prime example of the problem. This happens all the time in real life. The reason people were getting frustrated is because they were asking Chris, “What do you want?”

It is not the user’s job to know what they want.

It‘s their job to know what problems they have. You need to understand how to question them about their context, problems, and needs. If you cannot do this well, you will end up getting frustrated with the user. When I interrupted the teams from running around like chickens with their heads cut off, I asked them “What do you need to learn?” No one had even thought of that question (even though I just taught them they should!). They just set to work to immediately build a bunch of crap hoping he would buy it.

When they stopped and realized they needed to learn the context in which he was eating the pizza, they were able to solve it within 5 minutes. After 30 minutes of wasting a bunch of paper pizzas.

Sound familiar?

It is easy to blame the user, but it is so dangerous for organizations. It leads to culture of disdain for our customers and whole lot of arrogance on our part.

In large companies this is particularly true. When you have layers of bureaucracy, very long-term employees, and a million different departments separating you from the user, it’s easy to forget about them. Product Managers in these companies say, “We can’t talk to the user, that’s the job of another department.”

There are always ways to learn more about your customers, even if you have different departments. For example:

  1. Go talk to the customer service team. When I was working with a client at the beginning of the year, we had trouble finding users to talk to. We could easily talk to people who already signed up, but we couldn’t get in touch with people who dropped off. Customer service could, though. We talked to them about what we were trying to learn, and gave them questions to ask. Then, we met with them weekly to go over what they learned from the users. This helped a lot. If you can, even go so far as to take customer service calls a few times a month.
  2. We designed ways to learn more from our user in the above case, as well. We implemented things like Qualaroo to get feedback from users when they were dropping off. They were allowed to type whatever they wanted in a box asking, “What’s stopping you from signing up today?” We got thousands of responses and learned the biggest problems.
  3. When I was working for a B2B company, I was told I wasn’t allowed to talk to users because we would disturb them. I was the head of UX there. I fought for that ability, and was allowed to go with a sales team member. In that interview, I was able to prove that what we were building was not what the user expected. I brought that back to the team, and it gave me more buy in to keep doing more interviews. We ended up setting up a little feedback group of some willing customers and gave them access to tools earlier than others, and some extra hands on support. This proved invaluable for our discovery methods.

It’s easy to forget that the reason our businesses exist is because someone is buying our product. Someone. Not a nameless persona full of stats, but actual human beings. Human beings have feelings and needs. When I am paying United for a service and they are telling me, effectively, that I’m wrong, I feel frustrated. I feel wronged. That leads me to start to look for their competitors. I’ve bet you felt that too on just about any airline. How many times have you tweeted that they don’t care about you? Felt that they don’t care about their customers in general?

It’s the same for your users. How do they feel when you do this? Blaming them is not the answer. I never said it was easy to talk to users, but it is the only way you can understand and build empathy for them. This is what makes a good Product Manager. If you don’t want to talk to users, get another job. If you’re willing to give it a shot, remember to take a step back and put yourself in their shoes.

What is Good Product Strategy?

strategy dilbert

“What is your Product Strategy? YOU NEED A STRATEGY.”

When I replay this scene in my head, I can hear the CTO very audibly yelling (slash pleading) with our product team. He was on edge. We had been experimenting towards a very concrete goal for two months, and had made a lot of progress. We had learned so much about what was preventing users from signing up on the site, and it was a lot clearer which direction in which we should be going. BUT we still had to test our ideas.

This didn’t sit well with the CTO because in reality he didn’t want a strategy, he wanted a plan. He wanted a list of what we were going to build, and when we were going to build it. He wanted to feel certain about what we were doing when we all came in tomorrow, so he could measure our progress based on how much we built. It’s not his fault though. This is the way we were taught to think about Product Strategy.

Most companies fall into the trap of thinking about Product Strategy as a plan to build certain features and capabilities. We often say our Product Strategy are things like:

  • “To create a platform that allows music producers to upload and share their music.”
  • “To create a backend system that will allow the sales team to manage their leads.”
  • “To create a front of the funnel website that markets to our target users and converts them.”

This isn’t a strategy, this is a plan. The problem is that when we treat a product strategy like a plan, it will almost always fail. Plans do not account for uncertainty or change. They give us a false sense of security. “If we just follow the plan, we’ll succeed!” Unfortunately, there is no guarantee of success here. (I wish there was, our jobs would be SO much easier!)

These product initiatives aren’t bad, they are just communicated at the wrong time and with the wrong intentions. When we lock ourselves into planning to build a set of features (ehem, Roadmaps), we rarely stop to question if those features are the right things to build to reach our goals. We stop focusing on the outcomes, and judge success of teams by outputs.

We need to have a plan but the plan shouldn’t be “build feature x.” Our plan should be to reach our business goals. We need to switch from thinking about Product Strategy as something that is dictated from top to bottom, and instead something that is uncovered as we learn what will help us achieve our objectives.

Product Strategy is a system of achievable goals and visions that work together to align the team around desirable outcomes for both the business and your customers.

Product Strategy emerges from experimentation towards a goal. Initiatives around features, products, and platforms are proven this way. Those KPIs, OKRs, and other metrics you are setting for your teams are part of the Product Strategy. But, they cannot create a successful strategy on their own.

We need a few core things for our Product Strategy to be successful:

Vision: The vision is your high level, ultimate view of where the company or business line is going. In large corporations, you want to narrow this to the business line or customer journey. In smaller companies, this will be your company and product’s overall vision. Think long term here, and keep it qualitative. This is a good chance to talk about competitors, how customers will see you, and ambitions for expansion.

Challenge: The challenge is the first Business goal you have to achieve on the way to your longer term vision. Which area of your customer journey or funnel needs to be optimized first? It’s communicated as a strategic objective that helps align and focus your team around a certain aspect of product development. This can be qualitative or quantitative. Try to keep these still in broad, high level terms. This one is the hardest for me to personally wrap my head around, but check out the example below for some clarity.

Target Condition: The target condition helps break down the Challenge. Challenges are made up of smaller problems you need to tackle along the way. These are set in terms of achievable, measurable metrics. When you set a target condition, your team shouldn’t know exactly how to reach it tomorrow. They should have a good idea of where to start looking through.

Current State: This is what the current reality is compared to the Target Condition. It should be measured and quantified before the work starts to achieve the first target condition.

 

Product Strategy Animation

These all contribute to something called “Unified Field Theory”, which is explained very nicely here by Bill Costantino and Mike Rother from Toyota Kata. When we are building products, we have a threshold of knowledge. We cannot start on Day 1 and exactly plan to reach our vision. There are too many unknowns and variables. Instead, we set goals along the way, then remove obstacles through experimentation until we reach our vision.

This is best explained through an example, so we’re going to use Uber. Let’s pretend you’re a Product Manager working on the platform that allows drivers to sign up.

Please note: I have no affiliation with Uber so this is a guess as how they might line up their strategy if they chose to use it. The vision is from a statement their CEO made in an interview. The rest I am improvising for the example.

Vision
The CEO has stated that the company’s vision is to make Uber the cheap and efficient alternative to both owning a vehicle and taking public transportation. (He really said this in an interview, but everything after this is hypothetical).

Challenge
So if we understand the Vision correctly, Uber wants people to use them as their sole source of transportation. They would first want to look at why other people are taking other transportation methods now instead of Uber. They may go out and interview people and find that in certain cities where Uber isn’t as popular, there is a very long wait time to get a car. They would compare this to other problems and determine how big it is in comparison. Let’s say it’s the biggest challenge at the moment.
So the first goals they may want to tackle is decreasing the wait times in cities where it’s exceedingly long. Let’s say anything over 10 minutes on average is too long, and we want to decrease that down to 5 minutes or less because we’ve seen in cities with those wait times, people are 80% more likely to use Uber.

This is now our Challenge: Decrease wait times in cities where it is over 10 minutes to less than 5 minutes by January 30, 2018.

Target Condition
As a Product Manager, you now want to figure out what is causing that long wait time. The problem in this case might be that there are not enough cars to serve that area. So our metric we care about now Acquisition of new drivers.

Our goal for our team should be measurable and achievable, something like: We want to onboard at least one driver for every 50 people in each city by January 30, 2017.

As the Product Manager responsible for the onboarding process for new drivers you would be tasked with contributing to that acquisition. You would first measure how many drivers per people in each city you currently have (Current Condition), then find the obstacles that are preventing new drivers from signing up today. Next, you experiment to remove each obstacle until you successfully hit your goal. The Product Kata explains how to do that.

So let’s step back and take a look at all that:

(You can download a blank copy of the Product Strategy canvas here.)

As a Product Manager, you don’t have control over all these numbers. The vision is set by CEOs, CPOs, Boards, and other C-Level Executives. The challenge is set by the next level of management (VP of Product for Each Journey or Business Line).

Direct Managers help their teams set effective Target Conditions. At the beginning these may need to be handed down from management. As teams get used to this way of working, the managers and team can work together to set them.

Once these four items are set and communicated, the team can start applying the Product Kata method to figure out how to reach the goals. It’s the Product Manager and their team’s responsibility to determine the user problems and other obstacles standing in the way of achieving that Target Condition. Then they experiment to solve them.

This aligns everyone around a strategic goal and vision. Every level of the portfolio has their objectives. Teams are held accountable for their progress towards the goal they are responsible for reaching.

Now you have probably looked at this and said “well this isn’t a product strategy, it’s a business strategy.” Yes, this does come off looking like a bunch of business objectives, but isn’t that why we built a product? To reach our business objectives? Product Management is the art of solving your customer’s problems to reach your business objectives. If you’re not doing both of those things, your product is just a fancy piece of code for show.

The next post will be on how to format your Product Roadmaps around these strategies, and how to communicate with stakeholders to encourage experimentation.

 

How to Educate Stakeholders

There is one question I always get during every Product Management workshop:

How do I convince/teach/educate stakeholders to work this way?

stakeholders

We need to change this perception.

The class has bought in on validation before building, a focus on problems, and defined metrics. They can see the value, but they are afraid they will return to work and get shot down. Often they do. Unfortunately, there’s really not much you can do about it as a Product Manager. Your job is not to educate and train your entire company on this way of working. It’s to create valuable products for your customers and your business.

The way I approach stakeholders is the same way I approach customers – empathize. Stakeholders aren’t at this company to make your life miserable. They are there to do a job. So start to ask questions and learn about them. How are your stakeholders measured for success? Usually they have concrete goals they have to hit. Learn what those are. What are your stakeholders problems? How can you solve them?

When you start empathizing with stakeholders, you realize that the things they are demanding or requesting relate back to assumptions. These assumptions are based on what they think will help them solve their problems. Become a Product Manager for your stakeholder. Explain how this way of working helps them achieve their goals. This has worked very well for me in the past, even with really difficult stakeholders.

Now, if you stakeholder still doesn’t understand this way of thinking and is not bought in, you need to change your approach. If you are having meetings where you are asking for feature requests, stop. Stop it right now. The meetings you set with Stakeholders and the way you run those meetings set the tone for your relationship. If the purpose of all your meetings are to gather requirements (aka feature requests) and communicate deadlines, this is the way your Stakeholders will view you – as a place to dump their requests and get status updates.

Flip those meetings on their heads. Use them to learn more about their business and the problems they are currently trying to solve. Give status updates on what you are currently learning and the goals you’re working towards, not hard dates on shipments. Changing the conversation allows your team to come up with the best solutions, instead of building just what the stakeholders or customers ask for.

Remember, you’re job is not to teach or educate. You need to explain clearly why you do certain things, but that explanation is enough. Start to draw the line. Work with your manager on approaches and tactics so you have support from above.

Have you tried all this and it’s still not working? I’m sorry. That happens a lot. Honestly, until stakeholders, managers, and team leaders want to change, they won’t. You can encourage them to start coming to the same conferences and workshops you do. That will help build a shared context. Many of my workshop attendees leave and say “I wish my manager was here for that.” If you are a manager, I would take that sentence to heart. You’re never too busy to spend time educating and improving yourself. But, if none of this works, you have to make a tough call.

Last night I was talking to James Royal-Lawson who put it the best way I’ve heard yet. When someone asks how to convince their managers or stakeholders, he replies:

What do you want to do with your career? Do you want to go into training and change management? Or do you want to be awesome at your job? If you don’t want to go into change management, find a job that allows you to be the best you can be. If you want to do change management, then we’ll talk.

If you want to change a company, that’s going to be where you spend all of your time. This is what I do every single day. You have to be ready for it. It’s a long hard role. If you want to be the best Product Manager, then try some of the above, or find a place that will let you grow.

Ignoring Innovation: Lessons from Kodak

kodak

In 2007 I joined an innovation swat team at Cornell in the Johnson Graduate School of Business. It was called the Business, Science, and Technology Initiative (known to the cool kids as BSTI). We were working with Kodak to come up with a completely new product that would appeal to our age group, the early 20s.

For the next two years our team of nine would meet biweekly to research, experiment, and learn more about our fellow peers. I remember walking into the room on our first day. We sat down to write science fiction stories about how the world would look in 10-15 years. I really had no idea how this would pertain to Kodak or innovation at all. Were we going to build robots? Surprisingly our stories weren’t crazy fantasies. We were pretty level headed and realistic people.

We broke down the stories into motivations, desires, fears and needs. Then we made a motivational profile. We zoomed out to a 176 need and want statements, and then zoomed into 20 key ones that we would work with.

Here’s some of them:

  • I need to feel in control of my image.
  • I want to know what others think about me. (Later proved not to be a good idea by the infamous Juicy Campus)
  • I want to be able to act my age and not worry about how it will affect my search for internships and jobs.
  • I fear being judged or punished for one aspect of my identity.
  • I want to minimize inaccurate data/reports that are easily accessible.
  • I want to be able to be in different social circles and not have one circle judge me because of another circle.
  • I want to know what people expect from me.
  • I don’t want my identities mixed/mashed between my different social groups.

To understand these needs, you have to also understand the timing of 2007. We were one of the first classes that were completely on Facebook from day one. We were constantly checking status updates, broswing people’s profiles, and uploading every possible photo from the party the night before. I recently had to detag thousands of photos of my friends who now have babies, so I got to fully reminisce about how many photos we actually took back then.

I remember starting Cornell taking a digital point and shoot camera with me to every party. A few months later, I was using my stupid 1.3 mgpx flip phone to take most of my photos. Then, the first iPhone came out. It changed the game. Now we had better quality cameras in our pockets every day. Photos piled up. More people started getting iPhones. We were constantly connected to Facebook all day. Texting, monitoring, uploading.

Then a year later we got a reality check – internships. Everyone was applying for work over the summer. We knew the recruiters would be looking for drunken Facebook photos. These were the horror stories spread throughout school. You’d see people crying, “Lehman Brothers turned me down because I had a beer in my hand!” Security cracked down. We started filtering who could see our profiles. We were more careful about what we posted online. Those who weren’t could be seen crying around campus.

All this played into what we were doing for Kodak. After figuring out our own needs and wants, we went out to interview our peers and get their perspectives. We each ran interviews to learn more about them and empathize. We came out with similar results, but the key focus was really around managing our identities in an online world, enhancing your image through photos, and community management.

The key needs became:

  • I need to gain as much relevant information as possible about my outer network for reducing the social “cost” of interacting with my outer network and for efficiently recruiting new friends to my inner circles.
  • I need to gain as much relevant information as possible about my relevant relations in order to impress them.
  • I need to be able to control my image and images, and when crossing the intended boundaries, they irrecoverably self-destruct.

After understanding the needs, we went into brainstorm mode to figure out what Kodak could do. We spent time talking with their team to understand their mission, their technologies, and their business. Over the next few months we came up with ideas, got feedback from peers, and refined them. Finally, we finished a presentation for Kodak in which we suggested many ideas, including the following:

  • Build advanced camera technologies into a phone that can produce high quality photos.
  • Build software into that phone that would allow you to do basic editing of photos to make them look better.
  • Tag the photos with GPS location so they can be uploaded to albums easily and shared with friends or individuals.
  • Tie photo albums to events in your calendars.

There were other aspects we included about mood boosting and event hosting (which you’ll find in our write up called Market Driven Innovation) but these were the core elements I remember very vividly.

We were pretty excited about what we came up with. We could see the value for both Kodak and ourselves. I left that last day energized and waiting for a new product to come out. Then months passed. We heard nothing. Years passed. Again, nothing. I checked in at one point and heard they were evaluating it and waiting for a team to work on it. Years later I heard from former employees that point and shoot camera technology has been more appealing at that time to the management than phones.

Five years after we started in January 2012, Kodak went bankrupt. Four months later, Instagram was acquired by Facebook for $1 Billion. In 2013, Kodak emerged from bankruptcy. Two years later, and seven years after our suggestions, Kodak launched a phone. You probably haven’t heard about it.

There’s a few things I’ve learned from working with Kodak that make more sense to me now after working with many companies trying to innovate:

Having an innovation team doesn’t make you innovative.

When you treat innovation like a standalone part of the business, you lose your competitive edge. You’re not able to act on the ideas you come up with. Waiting for buy in, resources, and budget will push faster moving competitors ahead of you. Innovation has to be woven into all your product development teams. It should be something they think about on a daily basis, and are ready to start acting on immediately. Execution is 9/10th of the battle.

Don’t get distracted by what you’ve always done.

Kodak fell into the common trap of doing things the same way they have always done. While they were enhancing their point and shoot cameras and film, the market was going full steam towards phones. There were definitely people at Kodak who recognized this (and spun up programs like BSTI), but corporate structure prevented those on the ground floor from getting good ideas to market.

Failing to recognize market signals is a great way to kill a company.

Your customers can provide an eye opening way perspective. You just have to listen to them. The research we did showed pretty vividly where the market was going. Many companies don’t even incorporate these learnings into their product development timelines, instead falling into an endless loop of building things no one wants. Getting outside the building can change your perspective. But, make sure you are the ones going outside. It’s more powerful for the people building the product and making the decisions to hear it themselves.

In reflection, I learned a lot through this project. It just took me a while to realize it. It ties into the premises that I teach today about talking to your customers and building products that solve problems. If you’d like to read more about the entire project, we wrote an article called Market Driven Innovation.