Product managers are often responsible for driving innovation within their organizations. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given product managers—particularly the good ones—have a deep understanding of their user personas and potential voids in the market. This knowledge can sometimes lead to breakthrough ideas.
But innovation doesn’t happen in a silo. Those breakthrough ideas, like the market knowledge that leads to them, come from collaboration. Product innovation is a team sport, involving many people throughout an organization.
Let’s discuss some ideas product management teams can use to enlist everyone across the business to help with innovation.
5 Ways Product Managers Can Foster a Company-Wide Innovation Culture
1. Encourage ideas from across the company—and make sharing them fun.
You never know where your next great product idea is going to come from. Someone on your support team heard an idea from a customer for an elegant solution to a common user challenge. That customer didn’t even phrase it as an idea—just a wish-list item or even a complaint that your company isn’t already selling it.
Light bulb moments like this can happen at any time in any department at your organization. So, tap into the potential for inspiration your sales, support, marketing, HR, even legal teams might experience. When you start encouraging people throughout your company to bring you their product ideas, your staff will start to find more opportunities for idea-generating moments like these.
Make this innovation culture fun. Create awards for the best ideas from your coworkers and make a big deal about awarding them.
2. Promote innovative thinking everywhere—not just within the product portfolio.
A company can reap benefits by innovating its internal processes, how the company gets market feedback, or even the way it arranges the office.
One great way to promote an innovation culture is to seek and celebrate innovation wherever it can add value to the company. A bonus here for product management is that once your staff starts looking for ways to grow your business through innovation, they’ll be more likely to come up with great ideas for your product portfolio, too. Innovative thinking is contagious.
3. Share your product team’s experiments with the whole company.
One great way to tap the collective creativity across your company is to show them the things your team is trying with your products. Share the experiment you’ve designed to add new functionality to the product without telling your customers, to see if they respond positively. Then, keep the company posted on the outcome—good or bad.
Sharing experiments like this internally will help your organization in a couple of ways:
First, it will give them ideas for designing experiments to improve their own process and their own areas of the business. That means more potential for innovations.
Second, it will show your coworkers in other departments that your product team views failure as inevitable and even a valuable teacher. Showing your colleagues that your product experiments don’t always work out will also make the idea of sharing their own ideas seem less intimidating.
4. Foster cross-functional collaboration through innovation teams.
Product management teams often overlook the wealth of perspectives and experiences they have right in their own organizations. Sales sees your market a little differently from your marketing team, which has a different perspective from your support teams, and everyone sees things differently from engineering and design.
By combining some or all of these varying vantage points about your user personas, your products, and your market, you can sometimes hit upon a great idea that no single team operating in silo—and certainly no individual—would have come up alone.
So, if you can persuade your senior management team to allow it, encourage cross-functional innovation teams to work together, brainstorm ideas, and share their unique experiences working in the company or talking with customers. You just might strike innovation gold here.
5. Promote a company-wide focus on your business’s vision—which should extend beyond your products.
Sometimes thinking only about your products can create tunnel vision, a view that’s too limited to allow for those big innovative ideas that could lead the massive success.
So, as part of your effort to unlock the innovative potential of your entire company, try to encourage everyone to think in terms of your business’s high-level vision, that one big idea that should influence every decision your company makes.
IKEA’s vision, for example, is to “create a better everyday life for many people.” Their vision is not limited to the products they develop, how they lay out their retail stores, or any other single component of the IKEA experience. It’s a broad-based goal to improve people’s lives. And that leaves a lot of room open for innovation.
When you can encourage your coworkers to think in these high-level terms, you’ll help them tap into creativity they might not be able to access if they were thinking only narrowly about how to improve your flagship product.
It’s worth remembering that product managers don’t always need to innovate. Sometimes the best use of a product team’s resources is to make incremental, valuable improvements to its existing products, and to find incremental ways to better serve its existing customers.
But when it is time to innovate, product management should not try to do it alone. The best innovations come from tapping to the collective creativity of a team. So, if we could make just one takeaway suggestion here, it would be this: Make innovation a company-wide effort, and reward it every chance you get.