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4 Pillars of Product Innovation that Every Leader Should Know

Round Editorial

Out-of-the-box thinking and unconventional approaches are power tools in today’s hyper-competitive tech landscape. But what does it really take to be a product leader and innovator — and succeed at both? Scott Belsky, Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President of Design & Emerging Products at Adobe, who has literally written the book on how to make ideas happen, recently joined Round for a virtual discussion to share his four musts:

1. Embrace “polygamous careers”

After a career path that has included many titles — founder, author, VC, product leader, startup advisor, and more — Belsky has become a proponent of what he calls “polygamous careers”. He believes that the traditional labor market, which has placed people in one job for years at a time, is an outdated model. It has been frowned upon for employees to take up career pursuits outside of their 9-to-5. In the modern world, giving people the freedom to generate income and feel fulfilled from multiple projects at once is good for business and good for employees, as long as they are performing within their current role. “What if you engage an employee who is the best in the world at doing something, and they do that for three companies that stretch different parts of their imagination and interests. Is that okay?,” says Belsky, reflecting on the questions that leaders will need to ask themselves in the future. The benefit of this “poly” approach is that it keeps workers deeply engaged and fulfilled with the work they do, while also allowing companies to attract (and keep) top talent. After all, a happy employee who is firing on all cylinders is less likely to leave.

2. Introduce a period of skepticism, when rallying around an innovation or idea

Belsky believes that every person and team needs both a period of no-holds-barred creativity and a period of discipline — which means a willingness to kill ideas liberally in order to pursue others fully.He called to mind the famous example of Walt Disney, a man who went to great lengths to ensure that his creative teams vetted ideas ruthlessly and ended them when necessary. In fact, when developing films, Disney implemented a process using three different rooms. Room one was for the purpose of idea generation without any restraints; limitless brainstorming was fully supported and encouraged. In room two, the ideas from room one were organized, and a negative bias was introduced — to point out all the reasons why were these ideas were not going to work. “Why is this idea bad? Why is this idea redundant? Why is this not original? That was the nature of the conversation that happened in that second room,” says Belsky. Meanwhile, in room three, a reconciliation occurred, to decide what ideas were going to survive. All three of these phases are important; you need to make room for innovation while also being willing to say, “no, we’re not going to pursue that idea.”

3. Focus more on “the first mile” of a user’s experience

The natural tendency is for businesses and product leaders to gravitate towards their best customers — the die-hards who stick with the product over the long haul. But this can lead to neglecting what Belsky refers to as “the first mile” of a product’s user experience, everything from the welcome tour to the onboarding. These are critical components of initial engagement that make up the “top of your funnel” for engaging new users. When in doubt, focus on the default states, says Belsky. “The best product leaders in the world understand that the ‘devil's in the defaults’,” says Belsky. In other words, most users arrive without any history in or knowledge of your product, and the default states should make things easy to figure out and enticing to use.Another mistake: Focusing on the first mile, and then never evolving it as the company grows. Instead, Belsky recommends constantly putting yourself in the mindset of the person using your product for the first time — whether that means visiting your website or using your product — and being on the lookout for new hooks to captivate them in the initial interaction with your brand.

4. Care about surprising and delighting your customers

“The term ‘product-led growth’ is a very popular buzzword these days. This is actually a fancy term for making customers happy,” says Belsky. The question, of course, is how do you do that? “Well, you can make a product more functional, faster, etc. — and those things are always good. But people often don’t rave about a product doing what they expected it to do; they rave about it doing things that they didn't expect,” says Belsky. “It’s controversial to say, but technology doesn't win because of the technology. Typically it wins because of the user's experience of the technology,” he adds.Consumer products ultimately succeed because of how people feel about themselves using them. That’s why the element of surprise and delight in the product experience can’t be underestimated. Take Tesla, for instance. Imagine the internal product roadmap discussions that first gave the green light for engineers to devote their time to developing the Rainbow Road — a feature that allows drivers to engage what looks like Rainbow Road out of Nintendo’s Mario Kart on a car’s in-dash display of the road ahead. But that’s exactly what happened.“It’s really hard to prioritize something that is just funny or makes your product look like an Easter egg or somehow captivates or surprises and delights a customer in a way that they didn't expect,” says Belsky. “But you have to be a little irrational,” because it’s those things that help a product spread like wildfire and become successful, often through word of mouth.”

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