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How to fuel innovation through sharper product management

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The better the product management processes, the better the product. Here’s how to get from idea to market share.

Sometimes you catch lightning in a bottle. Post-it Notes, microwave ovens, and potato chips were accidents that became innovative products. But the operative word here is sometimes.

In my experience, however, consistent innovation isn't luck — it's a commitment to nailing down product management. In fact, those who unveil winning product after winning product understand this and have perfected a defined, repeatable process.

Differentiate between product management and project management

Let's start with roles. Product managers are crucial to innovation as the cross-functional leader who drives the "idea to commercialization" results in all companies, from startups to large corporations. But often, the role is confused with a similar-sounding one, that of "project management."

Projects are temporary exercises with clear definitions of what needs to be delivered where and when, while products are ongoing with multiple stages over a more extended period. Product managers must build and automate a framework to create and scale repeatable outcomes to determine what features go into a product during the appropriate time frame.

While product and project management are two different skills, they are indeed complementary. The best product managers have excellent working relationships with project managers to create an environment that allows innovation to be a repeatable process. In short, a good product manager is necessary to set project managers up for success.

Perform a product portfolio SWOT analysis

At the heart of innovation is differentiation. What is it about your product portfolio that no one else can do better — or at all? To take that a step further, how can you develop new products or enhancements that embody that differentiation?

In many cases, using a simple, old-school strength, weakness, opportunity and threat (SWOT) analysis can help move a product manager closer to creating a system for consistent differentiation. You can identify the gaps and see the way forward.

This exercise will identify areas that need to be corrected, and that should be protected. You can more clearly see how external factors may accelerate or impede innovation and how product development teams react to those factors. From the pandemic to climate change, the advance of IoT to 5G to remote work, change is happening at a dizzying pace. When multiple external factors intersect, things get even more complicated.

Performing a SWOT analysis, especially if you can be brutally honest about each quadrant, will allow you to see how drastically the winds have changed — and how you can adapt and harness that wind.

Remove barriers to innovation

All companies are different and have different missions, goals, and mission statements. While a product manager's personality should fit well within the company's culture, I've found that the best product managers —regardless of their views on work attire or open workspaces — possess attributes that remove obstacles to innovation.

  • Technical smarts. An innovation-forward product manager should have technical expertise in your industry and hopefully in your specific corner of the market. This doesn't necessarily mean a technical degree; it just means an aptitude to understand and converse in technology. This will drastically reduce onboarding time and acclimation and allow them to start moving the needle quickly. They should also understand how to implement product management solutions that allow transparent collaboration between departments.
  • Business smarts. The right product manager will use their business knowledge to identify market gaps that your company can fill.
  • People smarts. It's critical to identify the innovation-blocking pain points that teams are experiencing and remove these challenges. But apply that same intuition to customers. Henry Ford famously understood that people wanted "a faster horse" — he didn't take the suggestion literally. He understood what people were asking for and created an innovative way to give it to them.

Implement innovation processes with scalable flexibility

Lewis Carroll is credited with writing, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." I think this holds a lot of truth for product managers. As mentioned, sustained innovation results from clear, repeatable processes that create conditions for new ideas to be uncovered and executed.

When the appropriate guideposts are in place, organizations can continuously discover innovation instead of stumbling upon it. Core offerings can be updated to serve emerging customer needs while maintaining the familiar brand organizations have worked hard to maintain.

Another notable quote — which on the surface feels like a contradiction to Carroll — comes to mind. George Bernard Shaw asserted that those "who cannot change their minds cannot change anything," and that's also true. Yes, you need structure to ensure all details are tended to, but it's just as essential to remain open-minded about how that structure might need to evolve. New or updated products often require new methods for completing traditional tasks at each stage of development — or new jobs altogether. Implementing processes with rigid flexibility can help maintain control of product development while allowing for creative solutions to new challenges.

Product management excellence isn't easy. In fact, its complexity has grown exponentially in the digital age. But having the right processes in place can remove a lot of friction that keeps companies from innovating year after year. The ride may be bumpy, but the payoff is enormous when perfected. Buckle up.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

Learn more about applying new product development best practices with Sopheon’s e-book, “From Innovation to Profit: New Product Development Strategies for CPG.”

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