Jeffrey LiggettBy Jeffrey Liggett
Vice President of Product Development
UnitedHealth Group
 

 

Notes from New Product Innovation Workshop at MIT InnovationHQ, May 4, 2022

Introduction

There are a lot of ways to effectively align resources with your product innovation portfolio. This presentation will not cover all of them. It will cover three that are very important. But remember that they are three among many. Think of these three lessons as three tools in your toolbox: be sure to have a wide variety of them and pull out the right one when you need it.

Lesson 1: Get the Right People

Bring in experts from outside of your organization. No organization can truly innovate their product portfolio without occasionally bringing in people who are new to the organization. New people bring fresh ideas, fresh energy, and most importantly a new perspective. People from outside of your organization will have fewer built‐in biases. They will ask questions that have not been asked for a long time (maybe ever!) about what products your organization offers and why (or why not).

Partner these outside experts with experts from inside your organization. No organization can truly innovate their product portfolio without people who are also already within the organization. Expertise inherent to your company and perhaps your industry is not something you can buy off the street and not something you can recreate overnight. Current employees know where the bodies are buried. They are familiar with company politics, organizational practices, and how things REALLY get done in a company. Critically important, of course, is to get the right kind of internal employees. These must be folks willing to change and to continually challenge the status quo.

This is a little bit of art and a little bit of science. At first glance this notion – how it’s essential to bring in outside resources but also essential to have internal resources – may seem contradictory. You may also wonder about how much of each “kind” of resource to bring in – should be this be a 50/50 split or 80/20, and if the latter than in which direction? There is no magic formula or hard and fast rule here. It all depends on your specific situation – the mix of people you have, how drastically you need to innovate, and how large of a team you have. It will require some trial and error. You may not get the mix right the first time.

Culture is key. This is by far the most important element of getting the right people and forming the right product innovation team. Bringing in new people can often feel threatening to your existing team. They may unconsciously (or consciously) put up barriers to collaboration. An “us versus them” mentality will almost certainly begin to form even before you begin. There are many ways to combat this. Here are three: 1. make sure that the team members get to know each other as people first. 2. acknowledge – out loud and often – the different perspectives that individuals bring and how this is a strength to be embraced and not a weakness to be ignored; 3. set a common goal or goals from day 1.

Lesson 2: Build a Sticky Team

The term “sticky team” is a relatively new one to some of us, but the concept is not new. Think of it as a container of peanut‐butter‐covered pretzels that has been left in the car on a hot day. There are still individual units with individual talents and needs but they have been forged into a larger single until. They are tough to pull apart. This is a good thing.

Make it a REAL TEAM. We are not talking about a group of individuals with individual goals who happen to work on similar products. We are talking about a real team. Some of the elements of a real team include having a diverse but complimentary set of talents, a common purpose and goal, and (over time) informal methods of communication and collaboration.

Protect the team at all costs. Most organizations (especially larger ones) will have multiple product development initiatives objectives and goals occurring simultaneously. This is OK and even necessary. But it’s critical that your team members do not get pulled in multiple directions at once. This can very easily happen, particularly if certain members of your team are particularly talented or valuable. Do everything you can to keep your team focused on as few priorities as possible – hopefully just one. A diluted team is not really a team at all.

Co‐locate the team (if you can). This may be the hardest recommendation to implement and even sound a bit old fashioned. The world has changed, especially in the past two years. But having individuals in the same place is (by far) the best way to ensure effective collaboration on innovative product development. If you are not able to do this, think of ways you can achieve at least some of the benefits of co‐location: bring folks together in person once a week, once a month, or once a quarter. Encourage (or require) the use of video on team calls. Set up virtual “water cooler” meetings with no explicit purpose or agenda to encourage informal dialog that can often spark the best ideas and help to deepen relationships.

Measure Your Team’s Success the Right Way (Or Prepare to Lose Your Team)

Successful companies focus on the bottom line (and they should). But your innovative product portfolio can’t be measured by pure dollars and cents – at least not at first. Be sure to set the right goals up front. Get senior leaders to agree to these goals, or these very same senior leaders will very soon come calling with requests to chop up your new team and move them on to new projects.

Ask the right questions. It’s critical to measure the value of the innovative products that your new team produces. But be sure to measure that value the right way. It’s NOT the same as measuring the value of the tried‐and‐true products that have been a part of your portfolio for many years. Instead of asking questions like “how much revenue is this product bringing in?” ask questions like “how are the users of the product responding to it in our feedback surveys” or “is this new product allowing our sales teams to present to previously unavailable prospects”? Make sure you put your methods of measurement and reporting in place BEFORE you start selling your product. If you wait until after it will almost certainly never get done.

Be careful of absolute comparisons. Even if you agree to using the same units of measurement to measure your existing product portfolio and your new product portfolio, when reporting out numbers you should always – always – put in place the appropriate caveats about the size of your target market. It is almost certain that the products in your innovation product portfolio will never match products in your mature product portfolio in terms of raw numbers.

Remember the goal of innovation. The goal of innovation is to not to generate billions of dollars of revenue for your company. The goal of innovation is to learn. The learnings that come from innovation will lead to the building of amazing products that WILL generate those billions of dollars.

Be patient (but not too patient). This lesson applies to your innovative products but also to your innovative product team. You need to protect your team and you need to measure your innovative products differently, but that does not mean you can keep your head in the sand. At some point if the team isn’t working or the product isn’t catching on (or if you are not learning anything from the product), it will be time to pull the plug. This is another item that falls into the “art more than science” category and usually comes with experience.

Jeff has been successfully building, selling, and delivering innovative products for more than two decades. His experience in a broad range of industries with a wide variety of products gives him a unique perspective on what it takes to ensure that your company’s product portfolio becomes – and remains – innovative.