Creating world-class products and services is a discipline that some organizations seem to master, and others struggle to achieve. We read about the visionaries like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and may think it is a magical gift bestowed on the few.
Radhika Dutt presents a different approach in her book Radical Product Thinking. She argues that it’s a new mindset that is needed and shares a repeatable model that anyone can master.
Radhika’s experience building products in numerous industries is evident in every chapter. She currently advises organizations on building radical products that create a fundamental change instead of optimizing the status quo.
Would you contrast vision-driven with iteration-led?
Being vision-driven means having a clear vision for the change you want to bring about and translating that vision into reality. Leaders such as Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk have been lionized for their ability to be vision-driven and create transformative change.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever experienced being iteration-led in an organization, you know that it feels like you’re tinkering and focusing on the short term but ultimately missing out on the large-scale opportunity.
In the last decade, we’ve learned to over-rely on iteration. In a growing economy where credit was plentiful, the tech industry has repeatedly chanted the innovation mantra “Fail fast, learn fast.” Methodologies such Lean Startup and Agile have taught us to innovate faster by harnessing the power of iteration. We’ve learned to build products and scale our companies by testing things in the market, seeing what works, and iterating. But inherently, “seeing what works” is optimizing for short-term results.
An iteration-led approach can move financial metrics up and to the right, but it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll build game-changing products. On the chessboard, optimizing for capturing a few pieces doesn’t guarantee that you’ll win the game. In the short term, you might feel like you’re making progress when you capture your opponent’s pieces. But in taking this approach, you give your competition an advantage. If your competition is playing the long game and is vision-driven, they’re finding the best moves across the chessboard.
When we’re iteration-led, execution is driven by short-term needs and becomes disconnected from the vision and strategy. Good products (and companies) go bad as they become bloated, fragmented, and driven by irrelevant metrics – they catch product diseases that are often fatal to innovation. In contrast, by being vision-driven we can avoid these diseases by translating our vision systematically into our everyday activities.
Would you share a few of the product diseases (when good products go bad)?
It’s important to talk openly about catching product diseases as they’re common across all industries and sizes of companies. Here are four of the seven most common product diseases that I’ve caught in the past. See if you recognize any of these in your organization:
- Hero Syndrome strikes when we focus on external recognition instead of creating the change that inspires us. I experienced this in my first startup in 2000, Lobby7. We were focused on going big and scaling while lacking a focus on what we were setting out to solve in the first place.
- Obsessive Sales Disorder means borrowing against the long-term vision to close short-term deals. At a company where we built hardware infrastructure for phone companies, each customer demanded customizations. As we tried to give each customer what they asked for, our product often looked more like a service.
- Narcissus Complex happens when we’re looking inward at our own goals and needs to such an extent that we lose focus on what customers need. In another startup I founded, Likelii, I built a set of features thinking about what would make me use the product… In focusing on our own needs, it’s easy to lose sight of what customers need.
- Hypermetricemia means focusing excessively on measurable outcomes to determine success, without first understanding whether those are the right things to measure. Often we set OKRs or business goals and find ourselves committed to metrics that aren’t the right ones to measure after all.
What is Radical Product Thinking (RPT)? What are some of the elements of it?
Whether you’re an entrepreneur, executive, or civic leader, Radical Product Thinking gives you a methodology for being vision-driven and systematically translate your vision for change into reality. In the RPT way, your product is your mechanism to create the change you want to see in the world. This means whether you’re working in a high-tech startup, a nonprofit, or a government agency, you have a product.
The five elements of RPT (Vision, Strategy, Prioritization, Execution and Measurement, and Culture) give organizations a step-by-step process for building world-changing products and avoiding the most common product diseases.
Although commonly used words such as vision and strategy might make it seem that this book would summarize truisms we’ve heard before, true to the name radical, RPT shakes up all that we’ve been taught on each of these topics to date.
Take the example of vision. For years, we had learned that a good vision is a BHAG (a Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and that it should be a short, memorable slogan. Vision statements that proclaimed the company’s aspirations “to be number 1 or number 2 in every market”, or “to be the leader in <insert industry jargon here>” were touted as being visionary.
In the RPT way, a good vision is not about you or your aspirational business goals at all. Instead, a good vision is detailed and helps you visualize the end-state you want to bring about by answering questions such as whose world you’re trying to change, what their problem is and how they’re solving it today, why the status quo is unacceptable, and what the world looks like when you’ve solved the problem.
I’ve found that even when you know you have to write such a detailed vision, starting with a blank sheet of paper is counterproductive and leads to an intense game of wordsmithing and vision bingo. To avoid this, you can craft your vision in the Mad Libs format Radical Product Thinking available in the book or in the free Radical Product Thinking Toolkit – it allows you to focus on answering these profound questions instead of finding the perfect words.
Similarly, each of the other four elements of Radical Product Thinking helps you radically rethink your product and systematically translate your vision into reality.
Why is Radical Product Thinking desperately needed?
Building world-changing products and creating transformative innovation requires being vision-driven. Until now, however, we haven’t had a methodology for being vision-driven and systematically translating vision into reality. In the absence of such a methodology, we’ve continued to invest in our ability to iterate faster to deliver innovation. This approach is the equivalent of investing in a fast car and continuing to optimize its speed. A fast car, however, is only useful when you know where you’re going and how to get there.
Radical Product Thinking is desperately needed to give your organization a clear process for setting the direction for your fast car – it helps you plan where you want to go and how you’re going to get there. More than just speed, organizations need velocity. Combining iterative execution with Radical Product Thinking gives you velocity: speed with direction. It helps you align teams and translate your vision systematically into everyday activities.
You’ve crossed industries and roles numerous times. What mistakes do you see as common no matter the industry?
It’s easy to default to being iteration-led, no matter what one’s role is. When I had founded a company, the marketing advice I often heard was, “Just try a lot of things and see what works.” In reality, before you start marketing, you need clarity on whom you’re targeting, what your positioning is, i.e. what their pain is, what current solutions exist, and what you’re doing that’s world-changing. In essence, you need clarity of vision and strategy before you try different marketing tactics. The mantras of “Fail fast, learn fast” and “Iterate quickly” are persistent across every function and across all sizes of companies.
A focus on execution feels satisfying because moving fast gives the illusion of progress. It’s like the thrill of being on a galloping horse, even if it’s going in the wrong direction. This is why product diseases are so common across all industries and sizes of companies – product diseases happen when our execution becomes disconnected from our vision and strategy.
How do leaders initiate a change in the culture to create an RPT culture?
Culture typically seems like a nebulous concept and an abstract idea. But in the RPT way, you can systematically engineer the culture your team needs to fuel innovation, i.e., you can be vision-driven about changing your culture. The obstacle, however, is that the vision for culture is often fluffy. For example, “We want an open and transparent culture.” But it’s not clear what this means and how you achieve it.
The RPT approach to organizational culture helps you define a clear vision for your culture so you can translate that vision into reality. RPT defines culture as the cumulative set of employees’ experiences on two dimensions: whether work is fulfilling or not, and whether work is urgent or not. When you visualize this on a 2×2, you see the following four quadrants:
- Meaningful work: This is work that is both satisfying and not urgent. Your activities fall in this quadrant where you feel like you’re:
- Contributing to a purpose
- Valued for your contributions
- Able to trust your colleagues and have psychological safety
- Heroism: This work is satisfying but urgent – it adds excitement to your day but too much of this leads to burnout. You’re in this quadrant when you’re:
- Overwhelmed with the amount of work you have
- Having to prove your worth at work
- Organizational Cactus: This work is depleting but urgent – this is the paperwork that helps an organization function but too much of this feels painful. Examples include:
- Dealing with bureaucracy and writing standard reports
- Asking for permission on small decisions
- Creating reports on useless metrics
- Soul-Sucking: Work in this quadrant is depleting and not urgent, akin to slow-growing cancer. You’re in this quadrant when you feel like you’re:
- Self-censoring to avoid repercussions of speaking up
- Managing up
- Dealing with unfair practices
Every culture is a mixture of the above four quadrants. But a good work culture maximizes the Meaningful Work quadrant and minimizes the three danger quadrants (see visual representation below).
This picture helps you create a shared vision of the culture you want to cultivate in your team. You can have open discussions in your team to understand your current culture and how it differs from this ideal state. You can then use the other RPT elements (strategy, prioritization, execution and measurement) to systematically increase the size of the Meaningful Work quadrant and minimize the other three.
For more information, see Radical Product Thinking.
Image Credit: Ravi Roshan.