How To Build Software With Courage During a Recession
What was the greatest innovation in history? The wheel, printing press, light bulb, computer — all solid answers. But I would also add something more abstract that has always resonated with me (even as a Brit at heart). I am talking about the celebrated idea that appears in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: that the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness are inalienable rights. This was such a contrarian concept at the time that it led to a (literal) revolution.
Innovation of any kind requires breaking from convention. You must be willing to boldly confront what is not working and replace it with something new and better.
As a product builder, you know the feeling of exhilaration that comes from bringing ideas to life. You are constantly imagining new ways to delight customers and help grow the business. And you relish the challenge of meeting constantly evolving market and customer demands.
But with the current market downturn, we are seeing organizations sacrifice strategic investments for perceived short-term survivability. There is markedly less tolerance for waste — many companies are cost cutting and scaling back exploratory products in an attempt to mitigate risk. There is even more pressure to reallocate effort to offerings that will quickly generate profit. Naturally much of this pressure to perform falls on product development teams.
Now is the time to scrutinize your existing innovation practices and processes — so you can determine what is working and where breakdowns are happening.
The two critical areas to focus on are your practices and processes. First is applying value-based product development to your innovation practices. This means reorienting your methods and team around creating greater value at every stage of the product development process — from strategizing and ideating all the way to launch. Next is process. You will want to establish (and then refine) a robust innovation funnel. This is how the team will continuously stream new ideas into features that drive value for customers.
Easier said than done. Many organizations struggle to get innovation right and end up investing in efforts with little to show. Our Product Success team at Aha! knows this firsthand from conversations with our customers. It is humbling to be able to offer our expertise to help organizations hone their innovation efforts.
Here are some of the most common roadblocks that we see that get exaggerated during economic downturns — and how your product team can overcome them:
Some folks conflate specific approaches to ideating or managing transformation efforts with the "why" behind it all. Before adopting specific methodologies such as design thinking, lean startup, and the like, take time to clearly define the vision for what you want to invest in and why. Product builders can do this by capturing an innovation strategy or building an innovation roadmap — these can help guide how the team identifies and pursues the most impactful ideas.
Missing organizational support
Even the most exceptional product managers need meaningful support in order to innovate. Maybe you have not yet gained buy-in from the right executives or convinced key members of the product team that your efforts are worth backing. To turn skeptics into supporters, come up with innovation KPIs and share your innovation roadmap to show what you are trying to achieve. Use any positive feedback you receive to build momentum and garner additional support.
Innovation is collaborative by nature. But when infrequent communication (or even radio silence) between cross-functional groups is the norm, misunderstandings multiply. Siloed teams may end up working towards different goals and initiatives — stalling or stopping innovation efforts completely. To combat this, work closely with your colleagues across product, engineering, marketing, and more to outline who is responsible for what. Then clarify how you will capture, share, and evaluate ideas. Many teams use ideas portals or purpose-built idea management software to collect and manage internal ideas and customer suggestions in a single place.
This is an overview of idea submissions in Aha! Ideas — showing new and popular ideas, top contributors, and status.
Unproductive ideation sessions
Collaborative brainstorming gives great ideas fuel — allowing you to turn a germ of an idea into a promising proof of concept. But in my experience most product teams either do not hold regular ideation sessions or lack the structure and tools to surface meaningful insights. To maximize your discovery work, engage in visual brainstorming with the product team on initial ideas for products and features. Creating sketches and diagrams in a shared tool can guide discussions and help everyone come up with creative solutions together (either in real time or asynchronously).
An example whiteboard in Aha! Notebooks — teammates can add digital sticky notes and collaborate in real time.
No consistent way to evaluate impact
You cannot afford to invest in what will not make an impact. To prevent your innovation programs from falling flat, apply a value-based approach to your product work. Vigorously quantify the impact of ideas as they progress to features. Then measure (and monitor over time) the actual value your offering delivers to customers — such as time in app or user feedback. Some teams use a product value scorecard to estimate the worth of each idea for new functionality and recalculate as the idea flows through the development pipeline.
Knowing the common roadblocks to innovation and how to solve them is the first step. Next it is up to you to contribute to a company culture where bold and actionable ideas can flourish.
As a product builder, you likely have more influence on the culture than you think. Even if your organization does not yet follow value-based product development, apply a value-based lens to your own product work by tying each idea or feature to the anticipated impact it will have on customers.
You can also inspire those around you. Model openness and transparency when you are exchanging information and ideas with your colleagues. This is especially key when times are tough. Doing so will help the team feel empowered to identify even more daring ways to innovate.
From ideation to launch, better product development happens with Aha! — free for 30 days.