The Product Manager's Dilemma: Operate vs. Innovate
July 28, 2020

The Product Manager's Dilemma: Operate vs. Innovate

by Brian de Haaff

How do you keep the business running well and invest in the future? This is a struggle almost all product managers face. You know that lasting growth means finding ways to expand your product's market leadership or even reach new markets entirely. But you also know you must stay focused on what is right in front of you to keep existing customers happy. It is a difficult balance — identifying the big ideas that will open up new opportunities while continuing to deliver on what you have promised.

The best product managers excel at operating and somehow make the time and space for innovation.

You might think that operating is at odds with innovation. But product managers need both to succeed. Your customers expect you to continuously improve your product and enhance their experiences. And for the business to grow, you need to provide greater value. Difficult, yes. But this is what makes product management such an exciting space.

Product managers are the ones building the future of the business. Every day you have the opportunity to serve customers and your colleagues. You are the one choosing which features or product ideas will lead to customer happiness. These are hard decisions — even when you have a strong vision for your product.

But it is especially difficult if you are a new product manager or just getting started during the challenging times we are experiencing right now.

That requires a more specific type of strategic thinking — one that is based on a deep understanding of yourself and your product. When you are new to product management or starting a new role, you do not have that depth. So you have to be extra intentional about developing that knowledge. Here are a few ways to gain new insights, so you can drive innovation while continuing to operate the product and business:

Who are you?

First consider the maturity of your product. Maybe you are in a high-growth period and have the resources and organizational appetite to pursue more disruptive opportunities. Or if your product is mature, then you are hunting for gems in a steady cadence of enhancements to your core offerings. What matters is that you have a grasp of where you are so you can make investments that extend the lifetime of your product.

What makes you different?

Always build on your strengths. You want to factor and leverage the unique attributes of your company that your competitors cannot copy. Maybe your organization excels at customer service or you have developed proprietary technology. Regardless of how you differentiate, document those key elements so you can identify unmet customer pain points that your product is uniquely positioned to solve.

What are the alternatives?

Copying your competitors is not the goal. But you should study what your competitors are offering. Try their products for yourself to really get a sense of what they are doing well and where they are failing to meet customer needs. Gaps in competitor offerings can be useful when evaluating innovation opportunities.

When you truly know your product, your differentiators, and your competition, you can better balance the known with the new.

Every company will face different opportunities and challenges. You may find that you need to adjust where you put the most effort over time. But what matters most is that you stay true to your core values. Because that is what got you where you are today and what will keep you grounded in where you want to go.

How do you balance operation and innovation?

The road to building better products starts here.

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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