Strategy

Doing boring things well makes room for innovation


On a recent sleepless night when my daughter was struggling with a high fever, I found myself silently willing her immune system to kick the nasty virus’ behind. And that’s when it occurred to me, that while she gets compliments for her intelligence and her bubbly personality, no one ever compliments her on her immune system. Even though a properly functioning immune system is a prerequisite for her to learn new skills and to maintain her happy, light-up-the-room demeanor.

The next morning (in my half-woken daze) my neurons started connecting my thoughts about my daughter’s immune system with thoughts about product management and innovation. I kept thinking about whether I, and product managers in general, worry enough about their organization’s hidden systems. Do we think about the systems that might be ‘boring’ when described on a PowerPoint slide but are critical to support risk-taking and learning i.e. innovation?

I should clarify a few things at this point, I do not believe that well-oiled systems and processes can, by themselves, ensure the long-term success of a product or company. We all know that existing paradigms can shift dramatically and an optimized, efficiently running system can become irrelevant almost overnight. Also, I want to re-emphasize my belief that product management is about the what and the why and not the how – I just want to posit that the what and the why of systems that are critical to the survival, evolution and success of the product are (or should be) the concern of product management.

When I went looking for some examples of companies that do the ‘boring’ things really, really well, I found a couple of familiar names.

Apple and its supply chain:
I’m pretty sure that inventory stats won’t ever make the cut for any of the slides at an Apple keynote address, but my hunch is that Apple’s ability to run the tightest manufacturing supply chain in the world makes a lot of the innovations on the eye-catching slides possible. According to a recent report from Gartner, Apple is still #1 at masterfully orchestrating it’s entire supply chain and ensuring that its products are never sitting around gathering dust. In reality, Apple products generate so much demand that their main problem is assembling and shipping products at breakneck speed (hopefully in humane conditions). However, if the unthinkable were to happen and one of their products fails to create demand, the company won’t need to bleed money and take write downs like some of its struggling competitors. This must give them the ability to recover quickly from missteps and keep innovating.

Facebook and its uptime obsession:
Admittedly, uptime alone never made someone’s web-based business a success – sometimes stating the obvious is necessary. However, it is almost criminal to waste away one’s hard fought product-market fit because of sloppy reliability. It’s now historical fact that Facebook’s leadership has had an uptime obsession since the very early days. Their expansion, which seems almost instantaneous in hindsight, was measured and underwritten by an ability to ensure reliable uptime for all the new and existing users. On the other hand, the fates of services that came before Facebook but did not pay much attention to mundane details like reliability were sealed pretty quickly. Facebook seemed to have understood early that earning trust comes before earning money – the important thing is to remember that at all times.

A distressingly large number of products fail in the marketplace – some businesses are able to learn from such failure and succeed while others disappear. My belief is that the businesses that prevail understand that innovation is 99% execution and that the resilience that powers risk-taking and creativity comes from focusing on the mundane yet critical details.

Strategy

When and why is ease of use important?


This post is spurred by a few thoughts that have recently crossed my mind. One, it’s been an eternity since I’ve posted and the ideas for posts are now stacking up, withering and dying off… it’s time for some action. Second, I’ve recently moved from a quiet suburb of Portland, Oregon to San Francisco… life is not as easy(logistically) as it used to be but the energy of this big, busy, noisy city is exhilarating. And third, as part of this move we got rid of one of our cars and kept the Subaru (which I have mentioned in a previous post)… the Subie has a manual transmission and despite the traffic and the hills in our new town, we are happy it’s the car we kept.

How does any of this relate to a blog that’s apparently about Product Management? Well, these thoughts got me thinking about the value people place on ease of use – more pointedly, I am wondering if ease of use is the highest virtue to seek in products and services – in life?

Let me make it clear at the outset that as a Product Manager who admires products that people buy, use and love, I am not advocating for making things hard to use. No, no, no – I am merely wondering about the questions that need to be asked to understand if (when) ease of use is deemed valuable by customers and markets. I’ve writing about the questions that came to me but I’d love to hear your opinions…

Who is the target customer/user?
Early adopters (all Product Managers have met a few) love new products and services; they love figuring things out when they are difficult and duct-taped together. This makes them feel a sense of pride and they may gain credibility in their community for tackling a new product first. These users demand greater control so they can configure, customize and morph the product or service into sheer coolness. Of course, the more this demand for control is satisfied by the product creators (think massive options dialogs or unending variations on coffee drinks) the harder and more intimidating adoption becomes for the novice. I realize that it’s extremely challenging to peel away from the early advocates but, just like indie bands do every day, sometimes it makes good business sense to appeal to the masses. If the masses are the target customer, focus on ease of use – to these users easy is cool.

In what context is the product being used?

I recently read a great article that urges product creators (designers and managers) to empathize instead of trying to quantify ease of use (clarity) and value (usefulness). Empathy comes from identifying and understanding the scenarios of use and then building the product or service to fit these scenarios. Consider for example how quick service and cheap prices are more important at lunchtime on a workday and possibly a negative when you are trying to impress someone on a dinner date on the weekend. Understanding the real use cases makes it very clear that sometimes being easy isn’t the most pressing need.

What are the alternatives to your product?

In the early days of a product category, there might not be an alternative for a product or service. Soon enough, competitors will emerge and start outdoing each other with features/functionality and be rewarded by customers (the incremental value of each new feature is still high). It is truly a time when you build it and they come. Of course, at some point the various offerings become virtually indistinguishable. Then the easiest way to compete becomes price and we all know where price competition takes the market – the eroded margins make it impossible to fund innovation and slowly the most eager price droppers start hemorrhaging into obscurity. This is precisely the time to focus on the customer experience and ease of use. In a landscape of indistinguishable alternatives, how good a customer feels (or how little they are annoyed) becomes critical.

Just to be clear, ease of use is always a good thing but product management is about making tough trade-offs. And as we debate these trade offs, it seems helpful to keep in mind that products, like people, grow and the priorities one sets will need to change with that growth. For now, here’s to noisy cities and manual transmissions – check back with me in a couple of years.