What is top of mind in the world of product management? What does the product manager seek? How might the practice of collaborative innovation help the product manager achieve their goals? The innovation architect Doug Collins shares his perspective on these questions based on his recent participation in a product management summit.

I had the opportunity to attend this January the Frost & Sullivan New Product Innovation and Development summit in San Diego. Frost has run the annual event for ten years. They do a good job. In particular, Frost succeeds in attracting a diverse group of people engaged in product development: B2B, B2C, digital products, and tangible products. I met, in no particular order, product managers from Master Lock (the pad lock people), Clorox, Intel, General Motors, Gorilla Glue, PepsiCo, Hill-Rom, and OppenheimerFunds.

One hundred people attended the summit, give or take. The attendees skewed to the senior levels of product management. They tended to work for larger, global organizations.

Figure 1: panel session at the Frost & Sullivan event

Seeking the State of the Art and Diversity

I took it upon myself to ask each person I met what motivated them to attend the multi-day event. The most common response: the attendees sought to gain insight into what elements of the product management practice comprise the state of the art. How should one think of product management in the Digital Age, which, to a person I engaged, is seen as introducing new threats of disruption, along with new possibilities for leverage.

The attendees that I engaged also cited the value of being able to talk shop with their fellow product managers working outside their specific industry segment and customer base. The diversity in attendance Frost was able to achieve represented a selling point for the attendee versus, say, a conference for people working in the medical device manufacturing field.

…they felt their specific industry segments were known quantities and, as a result, incapable of generating the disruptive innovation they sought.

Many of the attendees observed that they felt their specific industry segments were known quantities and, as a result, incapable of generating the disruptive innovation they sought. They sought new hunting grounds, further afield. Cross pollination.

I also asked each attendee that I met the extent to which they were familiar with crowdsourcing as a means of achieving their product management charter. My hypotheses was that there would be great familiarity and adoption, under the assumption that people who decided to attend forward-looking conferences would, by nature, be further up on the adoption curve in embracing new methods in their own practices.

A number of attendees expressed familiarity with the concept, but not many, it seemed, had applied the practice in earnest as a key enabling part of their strategy to remain innovative.

To me, this gap between awareness and purposeful, masterful use seems a missed opportunity, given the stresses the product managers feel to stay ahead of the curve.

Where might the product managers apply the practice of collaborative innovation to their work? Three points of entry come to mnd: sensing, customer engagement, and process improvement around their firm’s go-to-market activities. I elaborate on the three below.

Crowd Sourcing Sensing

One of the reasons why the product managers attended the Frost & Sullivan event was to fulfill part of their charter: sensing what’s happening in the world and making meaning of their observations to how they might improve their offerings to the market. A number of attendees from Intel, Sirius XM, Honda, and others, for example, attended in part to sense from one another what was coming in the world of mobility. The connected, autonomous car, along with all the new business models this technology will engender, is just around the corner for these companies, given the underlying technology cycles run to ten years or more. All have a stake in the disruptive emergence of the new forms of mobility.

“the auto industry today looks nothing like it did even five or six years ago—we’re having to pay attention to what Apple and Google are doing…”

As the gentlemen who I met from Honda told me, “the auto industry today looks nothing like it did even five or six years ago—we’re having to pay attention to what Apple and Google are doing, which is incredible.”

A question to crowd source with the community:

What technology, were we to explore it together, might lead to real breakthroughs for our organization?

The product manager needs the on-going benefit of an extended, diverse, persistent community focused on sensing the future, given the increasing rate of change and the increasing volumes of data to parse. My own sense is that their ability to sense what’s coming and make meaning of their observations will become the critical skill in this field. Collaborative innovation can serve as an enabler.

Crowd Sourcing Customer Engagement

A number of product managers conveyed to me how they engage with customers to gain a better understanding of what products they should be building in what time frames. I was surprised, however, by the hit-or-miss aspect of the engagements, which often tied to the availability, or bandwidth, that the individual product managers had to support them. Engagement carries overhead.

The product manager has a number of day jobs that compete for their time, customer engagement being one of many. Here, the obvious application of collaborative innovation for the product manager would be to establish innovation communities consisting of people in the client organizations who have a shared interest in seeing the product evolve. This sort of approach, done virtually, can serve as an effective complement to customer advisory boards. The boards themselves serve as potent forms of customer engagement. Their drawback, however, is that they meet once or twice a year for a couple of days.

What does effective engagement look like for the other 360 days?

A question to crowd source with the customers:

How might we maximize the value you receive from your use of product X?

Crowd Sourcing Process Improvement

Many of the attendees at the Frost event came to explore how they might optimize their own, internal processes around product management. Each attendee expressed frustration, for example, at the time they needed to conceive of a new product and deliver it to market.

The question to crowd source with colleagues who touch the development and go-to-market processes:

How might we minimize the time we needed to launch a new product once we have established our concept for it? Crowd sourcing offers the product manager an opportunity to get their own house in order.

Closing Thoughts

The product manager wears many hats. Some refer to the product management role as that of the conductor of an orchestra, leading the organization in making meaning of market opportunities, in deciding what to develop to best satisfy demand, and in determining schedules for doing so.

The multi-pronged role becomes increasingly unwieldy in the Digital Age, which has the effect of accelerating change through increased transparency. There is not enough time in the day to wear all the hats that the product manager must wear.

A fine-tuned, measured approach to collaborative innovation as a means of pursuing the tasks of sensing, engagement, and internal improvement is one way forward.

Are you a product manager? If so, then how might the practice of collaborative innovation help you stay ahead of the game and in tune with your multi-faceted charter?

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Fidelity Investments, Johnson & Johnson, Novo Nordisk, and The Procter & Gamble Company navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation.

Doug develops approaches, creates forums, and structures engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the ideas and to the collaboration that result.

As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).

Today, Doug consults with a range of clients as senior practice leader at innovation management company Spigit. He helps clients realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.

Photo: San Diego by