A chief product officer’s (CPO) job description often contains two tall tasks: Drive innovation, and create a compelling product roadmap that delivers business value.

The two activities are closely related. A good product roadmap doesn’t just detail iterations on a company’s existing solutions. It offers a vision of what these products can be, as well as other products a company might launch that support its core mission. Without innovation, this vision of the future will be uncompelling at best, and nonexistent at worst.

Having spent nearly two decades doing everything from leading product development teams to working as a software engineer, I’ve found that CPOs who follow the five steps below are able to effectively foster innovation at their companies.

1: Create a work environment that makes sure people have room to think about innovation

One critical element of innovation is making sure that new ideas don’t go unnoticed.

Creating processes for capturing ideas that come through product, marketing, and sales channels is certainly important, and every company should take the time to make sure that this process is in place for capturing feedback from customers and employees. But I’ve found that these processes are best for helping companies build better, cleaner products. They rarely produce bold, innovative ideas.

Brilliant ideas generally come out of left field—outside of the normal channels. They are born from someone, or a group of people, who went off and built something that’s beyond their normal job responsibilities.

As a CPO, you should focus on creating an environment that allows for things to happen outside of normal routines. Consider making time regularly for hackathons, and putting in place a work structure that makes sure people aren’t spending 110% of their time on fulfilling their core duties.

2: Encourage face-to-face interactions between people on different teams

Another reason hackathons help inspire innovative ideas, in addition to giving people a chance to explore a project unrelated to their normal work, is that they give colleagues who might not normally work together an opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas face-to-face.

A second way you can to get everyone together to share new ideas and discuss challenges is holding regular all-hands meetings. Too many CPOs only invite senior-level employees to meetings about product discussions and decisions. You want to make sure that everyone who is involved with product development has the opportunity to talk through things they want to do.

A third option is holding regular team lunches. I’ve found these types of less-formal gatherings are great for getting people to connect with each other about what they’re building.

While collaboration technologies can help product teams work better together, these tools are most effective for building and refining existing products. They do not help spark innovative ideas in the same way as face-to-face interactions.

3: Send a clear message about culture during hiring

Creating a culture that encourages people to explore new ideas starts with how you talk to candidates during the hiring process. For instance, do you say in an interview with an engineer that their job is to write code, or to help the company?

When you say the latter, it helps prospective employees think about their role in the organization in a completely different way. It also helps you see which people are more excited to work in an environment where they’ll have the freedom to explore ideas.

4: Put in the extra effort to make yourself available to employees

If you want to help surface and support new and innovative ideas amongst your product development teams, you must be open to entertaining all ideas from every member of your product team.

This means holding regular one-on-ones with members of your product development team, and being willing to take a meeting with any member of your staff who requests one. I’ve even gone so far as to not have an office, and I make very clear to everyone on my team that I’m only one text away.

5: Adopt a venture capital approach to innovation

Following the four steps above only gets you part of the way towards fostering innovation. As a CPO, you have to be comfortable with putting resources behind teams who want to pursue a new idea, knowing full well that many of them will fail.

The CPOs I’ve worked with who have been most successful in fostering innovation have adopted a venture capital (VC) portfolio approach, which involves resourcing a number of ideas, knowing that only a small number will succeed.

If someone on your team is passionate about building a new product, for example, you can give them the necessary engineering and product resources to build out a prototype. From there, you can start soliciting feedback from peers and prospective customers. While nine out of ten ideas will not make it past the prototype phase, just one standout idea could completely transform your business.

Chief product officers have to think about the process of pursuing many ideas to find the truly breakthrough ones.

About the author

Dejan Deklich is chief product officer of 8×8, a cloud provider of voice, video, collaboration and contact center solutions for over one million users worldwide. As chief product officer, he is responsible for 8×8’s global infrastructure, product vision and roadmap.

Prior to 8×8, Dejan served as the vice president of platform and cloud at Splunk, where he was in charge of engineering for the core Splunk Enterprise product as well as the company’s next-generation architecture effort. Dejan also served as the chief technology officer of Merced Systems, which was acquired by NICE Systems in 2011, and the chief technology officer of Attributor, acquired by DigiMarc. He has also held positions at Yahoo! and IBM.



Featured image via Yayimages.