Innovation: what is it?

Of all stages of the lifecycle of a software product, innovation is the one that uses to hold the greatest amount of questions. But what is innovation? How to find a problem to be solved? How to find out if this problem is, in fact, an opportunity to be looked for? And how to obtain return with your software product? 

These are the themes that I’ll approach in this and the following articles. 

Innovation is a very common term, but if you ask different people about it, each one will give you a different definition. Some will define it by focusing on creativity, that is, they will say that innovation is something creative, something that didn’t exist before, something different from what you usually find. 

There are many products, not only software products, that are very creative. There are stores specialized in these creative products. In United States, a very well-known store of creative products is Sharper Image.

Without a doubt, this portable air conditioner from Sharper Image is a very creative product.

Another company that sells creative products is SkyMall. The company distributes a catalogue full of different and creative products on local flights in United States. 

However, are these products really innovation? How many people do you know that really need a portable air conditioner? Does it solve a problem or need of a group of people?

Besides people that associate innovation to creativity, others understand innovation as being the latest technology. Quantic computer, wireless electricity transmission, genome editing, virtual reality, augmented reality, nanotechnology and the internet of things are some examples of the latest technologies. 

Whereas, once again, I’ve the same question: Are these really innovations? How many people need these technologies? Do they solve some problem or need of a group of people?  

Defining innovation: Innovating is not just simply being creative or knowing the latest technology. It is necessary to know the available technologies and how to use them to solve a problem or serve a need of a group of people, this has the potential of really producing innovation.

This definition makes clear that innovation – and we can consider creating a new software product as innovation – should start by discovering and understanding problems and needs of a group of people. 

But how can we do this? Do customers know what they want?

Of course customers know what they want!

Customers don’t know what they want.” Unfortunately, it’s common to hear such sentence in conversations about products and customers. At a certain point, someone will utter the famous quote from Henry Ford, the automobile inventor:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” –Henry Ford

Steve Jobs, Apple’s eternal CEO, enjoyed repeating this sentence to exhaustion.

Nevertheless, I disagree. Clients do know what they want. They want a solution for their problems. That’s where Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and us, mere mortals, come in, willing to develop products to solve these problems. 

The first steps to create a good product are:

  • To realize that there are people with a problem or need to be solved;
  • Understand very well what is this problem or need;
  • Understand what motivates people to want this problem or need solved.

When you talk to people with problems or needs, some will even say that this problem could be solved like this or that; however, in this initial moment, the priority is to find out if there really is a necessity to be solved. You must decouple the problem from the suggestion of solution your interlocutor is trying to give. 

People used to take a long time to move. This was the problem to be solved at Henry Ford’s time. No matter how. 

It could be more horses in front of the carts, it could be horses trained to walk on rollerblades, it could be using genetically modified horses that would ride faster, it could be the invention of the car, the invention of the airplane, even the invention of tele-transportation. 

The specific solution for the problem didn’t matter, as long as the problem was solved. Many people probably gave solutions, like the fastest horses from Henry Ford’s quote, but this is just a suggestion. The problem to be solved is that people took too long moving from one place to another. The problem was not that they wanted to move faster. That’s already part of the solution. 

In the following articles, we will approach some techniques that will help us to find out and understand the problems or needs.

Product Management: how to increase the success of your software

In 2015 I wrote a book on Software Product Management in Portuguese. In 2016, Paulo Caroli talked to me about how he enjoyed the book and how this book could be useful to people in the software industry not only in Brazil but anywhere in the world. For this reason, we decided to create an English version of my book.

The book is organized in 5 sections:

  • Definitions and requirements
  • Life cycle of a software product
  • Relationship with other areas
  • Product portfolio management
  • Where to use software product management

This book is suitable for anyone working with software. Even companies that do not have software as its core business use software in their day to day and often have developed some software that interfaces with its customers such as a website or a mobile application. It is important for these companies to understand the software product management role and responsibilities, so they can better manage this software and increase its chances of success.

We are working on the translation but as we progress we are already releasing the content. If you want to see the work in progress, please visit the book page at LeanPub. Still in beta but already with valuable content. Feedbacks are not only welcome, but needed!

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