Innovation and product management

So what is innovation? Is it building crazy stuff that you hope people will want? (Can you think of some products that fit this category?) One CTO told me, “We’re creating products to solve problems that people don’t even have!” (I think—I hope—he meant to add ‘yet’ to that sentence.)

From Wikipedia:

Innovation is the development of new values through solutions that meet new requirements, inarticulate needs, or old customer and market needs in value adding new ways.

Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a better and, as a result, novel idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.

Innovation differs from improvement in that innovation refers to the notion of doing something different rather than doing the same thing better.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s great when companies challenge their teams to develop innovations. Unfortunately the challenge for many teams is they already have 110% of their time allocated for existing projects, so it’s hard to find the time to focus on anything else.

Is innovation unfocused development time?

Or is innovation solving problems in a new and unique way.

MAILBOX redefined the mailbox problem. It’s not about reading and replying—you do that from your desktop. It’s about curating and triaging to reach Inbox Zero. The metaphor is this: you don’t really read email from your phone; you really curate it. You decide to file it, trash it, or be reminded later when you’re working on email from a better work environment. And of course, you can reply to messages but I rarely do. My favorite option is the coffee cup: “bring this message back tomorrow morning.”

Did Apple innovate with iPod? There were already some MP3 players on the market albeit not from the top names in consumer electronics. And yes, 5,000 songs—or 15,000 in my case—in your pocket is a great idea. And yes, they invented another file format. But was it the iPod—or was it iTunes that was the innovation?

Didn’t Apple create the first complete product? An iPod plus great iTunes software plus the iTunes store plus agreements with the major music labels.

The innovation is they solved the problem from media to hardware to software.

What about NEST? (I love this thing!! You gotta get one!)


NEST is a programmable thermostat that programs itself from your usage. If you tend to prefer a cool room when you’re sleeping, you turn the NEST down as you head off to bed. Do that a few times and it’ll always do it. I have it set to cool during sleep time, warmer when I wake up, cooler during the afternoon, and warmer during dinner. Sure, you can do that with your office thermostat… or can you? I saw a great picture showing a brand-name thermostat with a 1-1/2 page “how-to” sheet taped next to it. It really hurts the esthetic.

And to make it even better, the NEST confirms that you connected your wiring correctly, it hops on the internet and coordinates your thermostat with the weather forecast in your area, and it sends you an email once a month with details on your usage and tips for improvement. And they even included a screwdriver in the box! Nice.

I define innovation as solving a problem in a new way. Developers and designers often know about technical capabilities but product managers need to focus their creativity on a persona with a problem.

Find a problem. Solve it. That’s innovation.