Innovation vs. growth: the product manager’s dilemma

March 17, 2018

A crazy-smart and very senior product guy I know says he believes that a company should “tear it all down and begin again” every five years. I know, some of you are thinking this is more crazy than smart. Tear it all down? What about jobs, investors, operations? The rest of you, though, see the wisdom in this statement. That’s because you know the constant and sole focus on growth and incremental innovation will be the the long-term death of the company. The culprit? The dreaded S-curve.

Before we go too much farther, let’s first get clear: innovation is not merely invention. Innovation is something new that adds value. When we talk about incremental innovation, these are the smaller things that make the bigger thing—the product or service—better, and usually more efficient in some way. These are usually very good for growth of the existing thing. When we talk about disruptive innovation, we’re talking about whole new things—either a brand new product or service, an emerging market or a radical change to an existing product or service.

Without reading a lot of HBR articles, you can already understand why disruptive innovation for the established company is so difficult, right? The energy needed to make the shift to disruptive innovation is massive, and the risk of making a bad choice can be disastrous. We all know the stories of big companies taken down by a disruptive innovator (think: Blockbuster/Netflix). And we all know the hero stories of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk willing to risk to risk it all for a singular vision. But for the vast majority of product managers, and their VPs and CEOs, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. They can see the disruptive forces on the horizon, but don’t have the personal capital or freedom to take that kind of huge risk. It’s understandable; there are many many jobs on the line and an investment in physical resources, not to mention investors and other stakeholders.

That leaves a dilemma: knowing you should be looking for disruptive innovation opportunities, but getting pulled into improving efficiency on current offerings because the energy needed and risk involved is simply too great.

But there’s another path available to you. You can leverage “design research” to support both growth and innovation.

Design research is finally starting to get some real traction in the product management community. Smart product managers are thinking of their user’s needs and the “why” before they consider features. To help them do that, they are engaging UX resources (DEFINE?) and starting to undertake design research, often usability testing as well, to support product development. This is a very positive trend and will drive growth and incremental innovation. That said, it won’t support disruptive innovation. Nor will it propel a company past the dreaded S-curve.

So, how do you leverage design research to support both growth and innovation?

Finding innovation opportunities from design research means you need to look into the negative spaces; to hear what people are not saying, to observe what they are not doing. That’s tricky. Because it is very subtle and hard to know whether you really have something. But stay with it. If you structure your design research into a program and start to look at the same things from multiple angles, you will undoubtedly uncover huge strategic insights.