Radhika Dutt is the author of Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter. An entrepreneur and product leader, she has built products in industries including broadcasting, media, advertising technology, government, consumer, robotics, and wine. Dutt cofounded Radical Product Thinking as a movement of leaders creating vision-driven change and is a frequent speaker at business events and conferences around the world.
In this episode of the Product Science Podcast, we cover Product Diseases with Radhika. We cover how to identify when your organization is suffering from one and how to avoid such problems. We also take a look at companies like Apple, Slack, and Twitter and what people get wrong about their success stories.
Questions We Explore in This Episode
How did Radhika get into product? What is a product disease and how do you identify if your company has one? How early in Radhika’s career did she start to find product diseases? How important is right timing to finding a product market fit? Can a good product idea take you far and how does user research help you get there?
What impact did Steve Jobs have on product & innovation? What mistakes do people make when trying to replicate what Jobs & Apple did? What was the cell phone market like in the early 2000’s? When did Radhika found her first startup? How do you know if the pain points you want to solve are the pain points the user experiences? How do you know the market is ready for your next great idea? How do you know if you’ve addressed a customer’s problem enough? Did Apple know what the customer needed and dictate it to them, or did they have a deep understanding through user research to derive these conclusions?
What was it like working for Avid? How did Radhika & Avid engage the broadcast market and help dominate the market against competitors like Sony? How do you take a specific customer’s need and apply it to a broader audience? Do you need to have a complete picture of a customer’s workflow in order to help them? How do you convince customers to change their workflows? How can trust help you make changes when you don’t have the authority to? When does the status quo become acceptable and when is it ready to be disrupted?
What is Obsessive Sales Disorder or OSD? How does OSD contribute to tech dept? Can OSD and obsessing about growth limit your ability to grow? Does having a product disease spell doom for your company or can it still be successful? Does OSD mean you are more of a professional services company or a product driven company?
What is Pivotitis? How many pivots does a company have before running out of money? How can a company decide when and how to pivot? How can the pivot success stories of other companies mislead us into thinking our success is only one pivot away? Are products built through pivots? What do people get wrong about the success stories of Twitter & Slack? How can the Product Science method help you develop your pivot & vision strategies? How do you pivot with clarity and what happens when the vision is unclear?
What does it take to become a good Product Manager? What is needed to convey the Product vision and how do you know when it is shared by other teams? How do you foster trust among teammates when conveying the shared vision? How do you measure a company’s vision as being successful? How does a product manager shift from making all the decisions to delegating and trusting their teams to?
What is Vision Debt? How do you invest in a vision? How is vision debt different than tech debt? How can vision debt feed into Obsessive Sales Disorder? How do you find the balance between tackling long & short term goals? What are the pitfalls of being iteration lead? What are the limitations of using lean & agile?
How can vision clarity help validate customer feedback? How can customer feedback lead you astray and how can a clear vision help you get back on course? Does customer happiness also measure the success of a business and its goals?
What advice is there for those who are mid-career product managers? How do you develop strategies that advance your career in product? How can you move into strategy making roles? What role do career strategy & expertise play in advancing your career? How do you find more influence in your organization? Is product specific to an industry or is it a philosophy that is industry agnostic ?
Quotes from this episode“As a product person, our goal is to make our role completely redundant. We should have conveyed so much intuition to our product teams that even if you're not there for a whole week, your team should be able to proceed knowing… Click To Tweet “These things that are only helping you survive in the short-term, the reason it's important to actually label it vision debt, is that, if you don't, if you just keep building these features, your whole team starts to think that you… Click To Tweet “Lean and agile and this ability to iterate fast, it's like having this fast car. It's great to have a fast car. I'm not complaining that we have a fast car. But without a vision and strategy, a fast car just isn't that useful. It… Click To Tweet
Holly: I’m your host, Holly Hester-Reilly, Founder and CEO of H2R Product Science. This week on the Product Science Podcast my guest is Radhika Dutt. Radhika is the author of Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter.
Holly: An entrepreneur and products leader, she has built products and industries including broadcasting, media, advertising, technology, government, consumer robotics and wine. Dutt, co-founded Radical Product Thinking as a movement of leaders creating vision driven change and is a frequent speaker at business events and conferences around the world. Welcome.
Radhika: Oh, thank you for having me.
Holly: I’m very excited to talk to you today. So I always like to start by learning a little bit about people’s journeys towards the product world. So can you tell us a little bit about how you came working in the product area?
Radhika: So my path to product was a meandering one, it started from entrepreneurship and then I worked in larger and smaller companies. But the one common theme that I really realized from my experience in product was, I realized product was a way of thinking. It wasn’t really a role. So I’ll give you the example that, in my first startup, was called Lobby 7.
Radhika: This was a company that I founded and we were thinking about how we were going to change the world through wireless and our vision was revolutionizing wireless. And I’ll talk about product diseases that we caught, and that as an example of a product disease. But the next company that I worked at was Avid. And in Avid, we were working on changing how news production organizations really changed how they brought news to the screen.
Radhika: But my role in that next company was, it was called program manager of custom engineering. But what’s funny is whether I was a founder or program manager of custom engineering, this whole product thinking approach was really always consistent, no matter kind of what the job was. And it was that realization that led me to continue to build products, and in the end build this Radical Product Thinking methodology.
Holly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Awesome. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about some pieces of the journey. If you could tell us a little bit about, yeah, how did you start the first startup?
Radhika: So the first startup was right out of our dorm rooms at MIT, it was myself and four other co-founders. We had this idea of, well, what’s really hot in the market? And do you know, by the way, unfortunately, I think a lot of entrepreneurs end up starting their companies by thinking about it in this way. What’s the hottest trend that we’re going to follow, right?
Radhika: And we came up with the idea that, at the time, well, the wireless was just really hot. Every telecom company was spending billions and buying various frequencies. And we realized that, okay, we could be in wireless, we could change kind of how companies are using wireless so that we could build all these mobile applications, et cetera. This was back in 2000, even phones weren’t ready for it. I don’t know if you remember WAP phones.
Radhika: And so that first startup was, we realized the pain point that it was very hard for users to interact with our devices using just text because even you didn’t have touch screen, et cetera, at the time. To type the, you had to hit this one button so many times. Right? And so we built what you would think of now as an early version of Siri, so that you could interact with your device using voice as well as text.
Radhika: And this was something where we built an interesting product, but we were entirely too early to the market. And the interesting entrepreneurial lesson there was, it’s not important just to build a product because you think that this is a hot market. That if we really thought about it, yes, it was a pain that it was hard to interact with devices using text, but how many people really had that pain?
Radhika: I mean, at the time, it was such a niche market, we were just so early. Not very many people had that pain. So that was my entrepreneurial experience and where we built this interesting product and we were acquired for the technology that we built, but it wasn’t a life changing event for us.
Holly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So how do you define whether the customers have that pain? What is the difference between customer in the year 2000 and how they interacted with communicating with their cell phones, whether it’s text or attempting to do voice and not seeing them wanting voice, but them not knowing that voice is necessarily an option?
Holly: How do you differentiate between that and the sort of classic story that people are always saying, well, Steve Jobs didn’t ask if people wanted an iPhone. He said, this people want an iPhone and then, so it became? Tell me more about how you differentiate that.
Radhika: That’s a really interesting question, right. I think we were on the same pain point that Steve Jobs was. Right. It was a question of, well, people are having a hard time interacting with their device. What can we do about it? Sometimes it’s market timing, right? We were entirely too early to the market. This was back in 2000, where just not enough people were even thinking about using their devices in this way.
Radhika: The technology was just not there at that point. When we built this early version of Siri, even the devices didn’t have the amount of memory to be able to who deal with voice. We had to figure out all sorts of hacks to actually make this early version of Siri work on that device. So this idea of really focusing on the pain point and being able to address it, sometimes it’s a matter of market timing.
Radhika: And how many people actually can you address through that approach. In 2007, when Apple did it, there were many more people who would be able to be addressed using a much better user experience. So it was the same pain point, but it was being addressed in a way that was actually making the user interface much more interesting and much more helpful than what we could do back in 2000.
Holly: So would you say that part of it is the feasibility of actually building the solution that you envisioned?
Radhika: Exactly. In our case it was, but I think the point still stands that it has to be a focus on always solving the pain point enough. Right. And that was the piece that I don’t think we really focused on. We were focusing on what is hot as opposed to is this enough to really solve that pain point? Because if you looked at what was available to the user, you had a WAP phone with like a 2G connection, which was truly unusable. Right?
Radhika: And if you look at what was there in 2007, it was a much better connection. You actually could use the internet on your phone. So if we had looked at it from the user’s perspective in 2000 and said, “Well, are we solving this pain point really enough to make this worthwhile?” The answer was, we weren’t.
Holly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I know in your book you talk about product diseases. Is there a product disease that was exemplified by the story of Lobby 7?
Radhika: It was. It was hero syndrome, because our vision was revolutionizing wireless. And it’s so common still because as entrepreneurs, we focus on scale, on go big or go home, this sort of a big broad vision statement. Right?
Radhika: And hero syndrome is where we focus on the scale and being big as opposed to thinking about what’s the pain point that we’re actually working on? What’s the real problem that we’re trying to solve out there? And that’s why I feel like it’s an example of hero syndrome.
Holly: Yeah. I think that’s a good example and something that a lot of our listeners I’m sure have encountered in their jobs or their startups. But to me, the focusing on what is actually the pain point? Like that’s the core of product thinking is to really do that. So you also mentioned, Avid or Evid?
Radhika: Yeah. I’ll tell you the Avid story. It’s fascinating to me because that was one place where we didn’t have these product diseases. And it really showed me the power of being vision driven so that we could avoid these product diseases. So I mentioned, at Avid my title was program manager of custom engineering. Which is about the diametric opposite of being in the product world, right, or having a product.
Radhika: So the story at Avid was, Avid at the time was well known in Hollywood and in all the Hollywood studios, because every movie that was ever made or that had won an Oscar had been edited on an Avid system at that point. So Avid was really well known in Hollywood, but we were the small entrant into the broadcast industry where nobody knew us in broadcast. At the time, Sony dominated the broadcast world. But the head of Avid broadcast was David Heinemeier, and he really had a vision.
Radhika: He felt like, “Oh, there’s something different that we can deliver to newsrooms through digital where if we did it in this way, that gave them an entire workflow that completely changed what they’re doing with tape and with Sony, that they would really buy into our entire system.” And so my role at Avid was to talk to customers, these broadcasters, and figure out what is it that they truly need.
Radhika: So being able to figure out our little product suite, which was just an editor and having some storage tacked onto it. And saying, “Okay. Well, what do you need in your new?” And then understanding that market need and figuring out what was common across broadcasters. But the reason we called it custom engineering was we would often partner with our broadcast customer and say, “Okay. Well, we don’t have that feature right now, but we could build it and you could help pay for it.”
Radhika: And so they would pay for what they called custom engineering, but we were really partnering with the customer in the sense we told them that, “Look, we can’t truly build custom features for you and for all the other customers. Otherwise, honestly, you would be screwed and we would be too. It’s just not scalable.” And so they bought into this vision of what we were trying to deliver in terms of this end-to-end workflow.
Radhika: And they would actually pay for some of this functionality and we were able to continue to build our whole product suite. And so while my role was custom engineering, we basically built out our product suite by taking this approach. So we were essentially doing what was product management. And we grew out this product suite, so that within five years we had won every major broadcaster and Avid became the dominant player in broadcast.
Holly: So what were some communication tools that you used when you were working inside Avid to help the teams see sort of the vision and the strategy for how to get there? Because it sounds like there was a really strong vision and then there was a strong peace wise approach of, okay, we’ll do this thing that meets these customers needs.
Holly: And then this thing that meets these customer needs, and then this thing that meets these customers needs. So how did you communicate that in a way that the team was able to really grasp the vision and the strategy?
Radhika: At the time, what really struck me was David was able to give each of us a really clear picture of the vision. And it was a deep understanding of what is it that the broadcasters needed. And it wasn’t such a peace wise vision really. It was a complete workflow. We had a clear picture of the entire workflow that a broadcaster needed.
Radhika: And yes, maybe smaller broadcasters versus larger ones, they had different needs, but it was that complete picture and him being able to communicate that to all of us. But the second piece of it was he’s really empowering us to build out what was needed. So being able to see a customer needed something and then being able to push for change.
Radhika: So in my role, I didn’t have developers actually reporting to me. There were other engineering teams that were working with product people. And in my role, I actually had to go convince people to do these different things and add features that integrated across our different products, et cetera, without having any authority.
Radhika: And so what I realized was how much our role in product is about influencing teams and getting people to see the world like we do and getting people to understand really what is the need that the customer has so that we can get people to have that empathy and make those changes that are needed, right, without having the authority.
Radhika: But in terms of tools to be able to communicate this, this was just a matter of developing that intuition and kind of watching and learning how David did it at the time. Right? I was in my early 20s. What brought me to Radical Product Thinking was, actually, how do you translate that intuition for communicating the vision and strategy into a set of tools?
Radhika: So at the time, this was back in 2003, I didn’t have those tools. It was just purely learning through trial and error and learning how to communicate that intuition. What we developed as part of Radical Product Thinking was a set of tools that help us translate that intuition into a set of tools that makes it easier to do that communication.
Holly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I know you have available, a vision worksheet of some sort, right? Have you gotten sort of tools that help communicate the vision that you share with clients now?
Radhika: Yeah. Exactly. So in fact, that free toolkit, it’s on radical product.com. There is a toolkit that includes, how to craft a vision. How do you build a strategy? How do you use this to prioritize your everyday opportunities or tasks? And then finally, how do you measure for success?
Radhika: So it’s a toolkit that includes all of that. And we put it out as a free toolkit so that anyone who really wanted to create change could do so. And yes, I do use this vision statement myself. We talked about how, in Lobby 7, our vision was revolutionizing wireless, right? And very often entrepreneurs have these broad vision statements, because that’s what we’ve learned as a good vision.
Radhika: We’ve learned that your vision has to be, in fact, this BHAG or a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. And it just turned out to be completely flawed. Like if I think about our vision for Avid broadcast, there wasn’t a slogan. Avid had the tagline of make, manage, move media, but that wasn’t our vision in broadcast. We had a very clear understanding of what is it that we were trying to solve.
Radhika: And so this vision statement and the Radical Product Thinking approach helps teams arrive at that sort of a deep understanding. So it’s not a slogan, instead it helps you answer five questions. It’s the who, what, why, when and how questions. Meaning, who’s world are we trying to change? What does that world look like?
Radhika: Meaning, what exactly is the problem? Why does that world need changing? Because maybe it doesn’t need changing, let’s face it. Then we can say, well, when will you know that you’ve arrived? And then finally we can ask the how question, which is where we talk about our product. How will we bring that about using our particular product or technology?
Radhika: And in the radical vision statement, what I realized was this who, what, why, when, how questions, even when we know that that’s what you have to answer when you start with a blank sheet of paper, it’s just really hard to arrive at such a vision. You just get stuck in wordsmithing. And so the radical vision statement is a fill in the blank sheet so that you can really focus on answering those profound questions as opposed to just getting stuck in the words.
Holly: Okay. Cool. Well, I know your journey didn’t end at Avid. What came after that?
Radhika: So after Avid, I followed the CFO there to the next startup that he went to which was Starent, that was in the telecom space. So here in lies the thing that you described in my background which is, that every company that I’ve ever worked at has been in a different industry and the realization, therefore, that product is a way of thinking and asking those right questions.
Radhika: So Starent was a telecom company where we built infrastructure for a lot of the telecom providers. So for example, Verizon, et cetera, to be able to deliver mobile internet.
Holly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And were there any product diseases at play there?
Radhika: Definitely. I think a lot of companies where you’re in this growth stage, you run into this disease I call obsessive sales disorder. Obsessive sales disorder is where your sales person says to you, “If we just add this one custom feature, we can win this mega client.” And so we start adding this feature because it sounds, well, mostly harmless.
Radhika: But pretty soon, right, we have the stack of contracts and our entire roadmap is driven by just all these features and contracts that we have to make good on. So yeah, we had a case of obsessive sales disorder there.
Holly: Yeah. I think a lot of us have lived through that especially those of us in B2B. Did you manage to overcome it at all while you were there?
Radhika: We didn’t overcome it actually, but we ended up being acquired by Cisco. What is interesting is very often we catch these product diseases. And I’ve realized that sometimes we are successful despite those product diseases. And we often then don’t realize the danger of those product diseases because of survivor bias. When you succeed, despite a product disease you think, “Well, it’s not that bad. Look, that’s kind of what you need to be successful.” Right? As opposed to realize thing that it could have gone the other way.
Holly: Yeah. So it sounds like at some point in your career, though, you did realize this was a product disease and it could have gone another way. How did you come to that realization?
Radhika: You start to see that as you scale, like the larger you get, you realize that obsessive sales disorder becomes more acute. I’m more working with an organization right now where they have a case of obsessive sales disorder. It’s an acute case. And it’s to the point where teams are so demoralized they feel like, there is no vision.
Radhika: We’re just acting like a professional services company instead of a product company. There’s a lot of attrition in the organization. And yes, their successful, but you can only will see it’s a car that’s driving fast and the wheels are falling off. Things are just parts falling of, but yet the desire is, “Oh, we must keep going. We must go fast.” Right. And you start to see that and you realize, okay, a product disease doesn’t always lead to success.
Radhika: In fact, sometimes parts are falling off. And it’s finding that right balance where it’s not that you can always avoid all of these product diseases altogether, but you have to catch them early enough and start to address them before it becomes like this car where wheels are falling off.
Holly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I know that you have been a part of four exits. So have we covered three of them now? What are the others?
Radhika: Another company was, when I was building an ad tech product, where we then were acquired for the product that I’d built. That was another interesting example of vision statement and a product disease that we had come across there. There I would say our product disease was narcissist complex. Which is where we’re really focused inwards and thinking about, what do we need or what we believe a customer truly needs, without really focusing on the customer and what they are actually need.
Radhika: So it’s this inward focus and this belief that we know what customers need as opposed to really seeing that based on evidence and user research and seeing whether the pain point you’re actually solving is valued. What happened at that company was we were building a product and our vision was that we were going to make it so much easier to be able to plan TV ad campaigns.
Radhika: The vision was great. And we had a very clear vision. But remembering, when I talked about our vision statement, I talk about, well, why is the status quo unacceptable? Because if you cannot answer that for your product, maybe you have no real business in having that product. Right. And so in this particular case, our answer was, well, this product would really make it so much easier to create a TV ad campaign.
Radhika: It would make it much faster to do so. And so if we think about, well, is the status quo completely unacceptable? Yes. Today it takes a long time to create this ad campaign for TV, but is that unacceptable? And it turned out the answer was, no, it wasn’t actually unacceptable. It was okay that it took time. It didn’t really matter. That was the state of the industry.
Radhika: And this was at about seven, eight years ago. I don’t know if the market has changed, but that was the case at the time. It didn’t really matter at that point. And so this is one of the key lessons from building that product, right? We did build successful product, but we had to kind of overcome this issue of is the status quo truly unacceptable. And it wasn’t truly at that time.
Holly: Okay. And when I heard narcissist complex it made me think of Steve Jobs kind of thing where they’re like, I know what the person wants, but it sounds like there’s a bit more to it than that.
Radhika: But you’re exactly right. It was like, we thought we knew what they wanted. That this was the problem that needed to be solved, right? It wasn’t quite that, right? But you’re exactly right. I like that you mentioned Steve Jobs because so often when we talk about the importance of user research and really understanding what is it that the user needs, I often hear that quote as the reason for, “Well, I know what the customer needs. We can’t ask them what they want.”
Radhika: And that is absolutely true. We cannot ask them what they want, but whatever we go build has to be truly grounded in an understanding of that customer, perhaps even more than they understand themselves. But having that deep understanding, because we’ve observed the problem, we see how much they value that problem. And then deciding what is it that we need to build. It wasn’t that Steve Jobs didn’t do user research, he had a deep understanding of that user. And Apple does a tremendous amount of user research after all.
Holly: Yeah. Absolutely. Do you have some stories where things failed? Because it sounds like a lot of the stories, like maybe there were challenges, but it still got acquired or sold. I’m curious if you have any stories where that didn’t happen.
Radhika: Yeah. Absolutely. One example, right, is when we caught the disease privituss. We’ve learned when we build products, that the way you build products is you keep pivoting until you find product market fit and you keep iterating until you find product market fit. The reality is that every startup or even a product team, no matter how much money you have, you have literally two to three pivots before you run out of money or momentum.
Radhika: This product disease privituss is just so common. So I was heading up marketing at a company where we were trying to be the next Visa of the world. We realized that to be this next Visa of the world, it’s just really hard. You have to win customers as well as merchants. And so after some time we pivoted, we became a loyalty solutions provider for merchants.
Radhika: After about a month or so, we realized, no, that’s just a really crowded market. Let’s not do that. After that, we decided to become a credit solutions provider for merchants. And so I was heading up marketing at the time. And I just realized, at some point, I was so confused about what we were doing, I didn’t even know what we were asking people to sign up for in our brochure.
Radhika: And so that is an example of privituss, where we really just ran out of money pivoting from one idea it to another. And what’s interesting to me, right, is when we build companies, we think that pivoting is how we build products. And yet, privituss actually killed so many startups. So why this disconnect? Why do we still think privituss is not a bad thing? It’s often because we see a few successes.
Radhika: We see the example of Twitter or Slack that’s glorified saying, “Well, look, they pivoted and that’s how they found success.” Whereas in reality, again, it’s survivor bias where yes, Slack started out as a gaming company and then became Slack. But it wasn’t exactly a pivot. They realized that their vision wasn’t working and they decided to start a new company. It just had a very small subset of that same team, but it was really a new company altogether.
Radhika: Same thing for Twitter. They started out as a podcasting company and then realized, well, when apple had their iTunes platform that their days were numbered and they became Twitter because of a new idea that they had, but it was essentially starting a new company. And so this whole idea that pivoting is how you build companies, again, the reality is you only have two to three pivots before you run out of money and momentum.
Holly: So how does a product’s leader know or figure out when it’s time to, I guess, in these cases even start a whole new a company, how do they figure out that they need to make such a change?
Radhika: Yeah. So whether it’s starting a new company or pivoting, right, we have to do it with gravitas. So I talked about this vision statement where you have a Mad Libs format where you talk about whose world are we trying to change? What is their problem, et cetera. The who, what, why and how questions. We have to first have a stake in the ground by answering those questions.
Radhika: And then as you start to execute, you’re proving out a lot of these points or disproving them. And so as a product person or an entrepreneur, as you start to do your execution, when you discover the answer to some of those questions is wrong, you then go back to your vision and statement and you talk about, okay, here’s what we realized is wrong. Here is our next hypothesis.
Radhika: And therefore, this is what we’re going to try next. And so now this pivot is driven by a very clear vision. It’s not just this wild set of swings. In the example that I gave you, where I was just left really used as to what I’m even asking people to sign up for on the website and on our brochures.
Radhika: You don’t have that sort of confusion when you pivot so thoughtfully by saying here’s what our vision was, here is what we are doing now. And so it’s not that we should not be pivoting. It’s that every time we pivot it’s with that level of clarity it’s so that everyone is on board and we have our teams with us on the journey.
Holly: So I’m curious if you could describe a little bit more, what was it like inside the companies that you were in? What did it look like if they pivoted without that level of clarity? How did that happen?
Radhika: One thing that happens is you’re not quite sure what you need to build now in terms of features. Very often, the priorities really become unclear. Well, we were working on this set of stuff in the past. Do we work on that now? And so very often with privituss what happens is you keep having to go back to a product leader or more senior leaders to say, “Well, what are we supposed to be working on then?”
Radhika: And so the more communication we have in this level of clarity, the more we build an intuition in our teams for what is that right decision? As a product person, I always say that our goal is to make our role completely redundant.
Radhika: We should have conveyed so much intuition to our product teams that even if you’re there for a whole week, your team should be able to proceed knowing exactly what are the right things to build. They should have this intuition for what’s the right decision, whether it’s a developer, anyone under the organization, right, we should have communicated that idea.
Radhika: I remember in an organization, I had written up a story and a developer came to me and said, “Well, I read your story. This is what it says, but I think what you really mean is this. And I think this is the problem you’re trying to solve. Is that right?” And she was exactly right. She was correcting my story because she had built this deep intuition for what we were trying to do.
Radhika: And so that’s what makes you a good product manager when every person on the team knows the details, or not just the details, but has such a clear intuition for what you’re trying to solve, that they’re able to come in even challenge what you’re saying or make those decisions where you don’t always have to be present. Right.
Holly: Yeah. I love that. I think that’s definitely one of the things that I see, often a difference between an early career product manager and a later career product manager is sometimes those early career ones think that they’re supposed to sort of be the center of all the decisions and not just create that environment where people have the knowledge they need to make the decisions themselves. So how did you get to a place where that engineer was able to come up and tell you that?
Radhika: At the time, again, we didn’t have this kind of a toolkit. But again, it was based on intuition. So every time I was writing a story, we talked about, why do we need to do this? We, again, focused on what was the customer’s pain that we were trying to solve by doing this particular thing. So it was that sort of providing the background and the context for every single feature.
Radhika: What I realized was, this whole idea of having a clear vision for the product, it’s just as relevant for are having a clear vision for every single feature that you build. Being able to know exactly why you’re doing that, and then how will you measure success. Meaning, really understanding, kind of, what is your hypothesis for delivering this feature? If you delivered this feature, what do you expect will happen and why?
Radhika: And then knowing kind of, “Okay, so what does that mean in terms of what metrics you’ll measure?? So being able to communicate this sort of intuition at every step. And I’ll talk about how that translates into the Radical Product Thinking toolkit. So what I realized, right, was when we’re thinking about any feature or kind of our priorities, what we’re intuitively doing is we’re trading off the long-term against the short-term.
Radhika: Let’s think about even if you’re in school and you’re thinking about, “Well, should I be partying tonight or working on studying for an exam?” That decision is, again, long-term versus short-term. So whether it’s features or whatever else, it’s always this vision versus survival, meaning long-term versus short-term.
Radhika: So if you plot that out on two axis where you have, your y-axis is the vision, that’s the long-term. And the short-term is survival, that’s the x-axis. And so things that are good for the vision and for survival, well, that’s, of course, ideal. Those are the easy decisions, very obvious things that, yes, we should be doing that.
Radhika: But if we always only focus on ideal, then we’re still being very myopic and short-term driven. Sometimes we have to invest in the vision, which is where it’s good for the vision, but it’s not good for survival in the short-term. So that’s basically where you’re investing in the vision. An example of that would be when you’re taking three months to just refactor code, that’s investing in the vision.
Radhika: The opposite of investing in the vision is where you’re taking on vision debt. This is kind of taking on tech debt, except that it’s on the vision side. And sometimes it’s much harder even to pay back vision debt than it is to pay back tech debt. We talked about obsessive sales disorder. Those are features where it’s not good for the vision, but hey, it’s helping you survive in the short-term.
Radhika: And so you do that sometimes, it’s okay. But you keep doing that often, and that’s how you catch obsessive sales disorder. And so in terms of communicating your intuition to your team, when you draw up this two-by-two and you talk about features and where they fit on these quadrants, the way you take on features is you do more stuff from ideal quadrant.
Radhika: You take a couple of things from investing in the vision, depending on how much you’re able to invest in the vision. And occasionally, very strategically, you take on some things from vision debt. And so that’s how you do this communications so that people are able to make the same intuitive trade off between long-term and short-term even when you are not in the meeting.
Holly: Okay. I like that two-by-two tool that is interesting to compare the long-term thinking and the short-term thinking as the axis. So I’m curious how often you found that things do fall in that ideal quadrant where it’s both good for the vision and good for the short term thinking.
Radhika: I think, generally, when we are building features we’re focusing on the ideal quadrant for the most part. Actually, I find that generally we do take on more from the ideal quadrant. But the reality is, right, it completely depends on your situation. Let’s say you’re bootstrapping your company.
Radhika: When you’re bootstrapping, you might find that you’re taking on a lot more vision debt because you have to be, let’s say, taking on whatever custom feature you need to be able to get the sale that month to be able to pay the bills and survive. Right?
Radhika: The reason it’s important to actually label these and call it vision debt is that, if you don’t do that, if you just keep building these features, your whole team starts to think that you don’t care about the vision. This is where you start to see a lot of that attrition where people are like, you have no vision. You’re just building kind of whatever comes your way.
Radhika: We’re just a professional services company as opposed to a product company. You want to avoid that sort of top down loss of vision. And so that’s where labeling things is really helpful. But what is that right balance between vision debt, investing in the vision an ideal? That is what you have to discover for your particular company. And it’s based on, how much risk do you have? How desperate are you for survival versus being able to focus on the vision?
Holly: Yeah. Do you find that there are times where you work with companies that think that something is helping their short term gain, but then it turns out that they were wrong and the things they built were not actually needed by the customers?
Radhika: Absolutely. I think that happens too. And I think that boils down to not understanding the pain well enough, where sometimes customers say I want this and they describe a feature, but it turns out that they were trying to address a symptom as opposed to what was the actual problem behind it. And so you often get that, where if we don’t ask the many whys or really understand the real pain point as opposed to just what’s being described, we run into that.
Holly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). One of the things that I know I read from your work is the concept iteration-led getting us to the wrong place. Can you speak a little more about that?
Radhika: Yeah. I think in the last decade, right, as we’ve gotten really good at using lean and agile, it seemed like we can discover our vision along the way. That we can just keep iterating until we find product market fit. Let’s just figure out, what delights customers, will keep getting customer feedback and we’ll keep iterating.
Radhika: And that’s how we’ll build this great product. The problem, your right, and the analogy I like to give is, lean and agile and this ability to iterate fast, it’s like having this fast car. It’s great to have a fast car. I’m not complaining that we have a fast car. But without a vision and strategy, a fast car just isn’t that useful.
Radhika: It doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to get a destination. And when it comes to asking customers what they want, or getting customer feedback, I often think about that as, it’s like sitting in your fast car, rolling down your windows and asking customers. Right? But when you ask for directions, you still need to know where you want to go in the long-term.
Radhika: What is that vision? When you ask customers for feedback you have to, as the driver, have that clear vision. Then you can ask customers, “Am I on that right track to that destination?” And I’ll give you one story on just how customer feedback can drive you astray. There was a startup, and the entrepreneur was Paul.
Radhika: He came to me, and he was telling me by out his startup. So he had built an app with the goal of spreading kindness in the world. He was inspired by the suspended coffee movement, which started in Italy about 100 years ago. And suspended coffee is where you pay for two coffees, one is for yourself. And one is paid forward for someone who could use a random act of kindness.
Radhika: And so he started this app up where you could buy someone a coffee to just brighten their day. And what happened was, his numbers were looking great. He had high net promoter scores. He had high daily set of active users. People were driving long distances for the coffees. All those numbers were great, right? The one thing that was not good was, everyone where going to his app to get free coffee.
Radhika: No one was actually spreading kindness through the coffee by spending their own money on coffee. And so this thing of delighting customers, what they were delighted by was free coffee. And so he was catching obsessive sales disorder because he was even spending his own money in funding these coffees in the app. And yes, it was delighting customers, but it wasn’t really creating the change that he wanted to bring. Right. It wasn’t achieving his vision.
Radhika: So delighting customers can only be a means to an end. It cannot be the end goal in itself. And so how do we change things? So we applied this Radical Product Thinking approach. And what we did was we first realized like, okay, so his vision was to create change in the world by spreading kindness. His product was this app to be able to spread kindness through coffee.
Radhika: And so what it meant in terms of the feature that we built was, we built a feature where you as a user would get two coffees. One is for you to consume. The other was a free coffee that you must gift. So we were basically teaching people to gift coffee without having to spend their own money, because that was the real pain for users.
Radhika: They Were hesitant to just spend their money on doing something that they’ve never done before, which is buy someone a coffee, right? And so that was the pain point. Our solution was to kind of teach them to gift someone a coffee without spending their money. To be able to do that, we got brands on board.
Radhika: This was part of our strategy. The capability that we needed to power of this design, was that brands were sponsoring these coffees. And so we built these partnerships with a brand. And this meant that in terms of our business model, we changed our business model where it was about getting a percentage from these brands to be able to sponsor these coffees.
Radhika: Now, we had a complete product strategy. And by the way, I talk about this in the book and also in the toolkit, this was the product strategy based on the real pain points, what is the design to solve the pain point, the capabilities to power it and then logistics in terms of what’s the business model. So I just described our whole strategy.
Radhika: And so how we measured success was by looking at, what percentage of people were actually spending their own money to be able to spread kindness? And so at the beginning, that percentage was zero. But when we developed this feature, 27% of people who were getting this free coffee to share with others. They were starting to spend their own money now on spreading kindness.
Radhika: And so this is how we can use Radical Product Thinking. It’s not just about delighting customers. It’s systematically creating the change that we want to create by starting with a very clear vision, then having a strategy, then thinking about priorities that I talked about, like vision versus survival. And then measuring success based on what is your vision and strategy.
Holly: Cool. That sounds like a really interesting story. Do you have any favorite sort of lessons that you like to share with mid-career product people that are trying to advance to product leadership?
Radhika: I think, for me, the biggest lesson was the experience that, as a mid-career person, your goal is you want to find a strategic role. And it’s happened to me a couple of times where I joined the company with this idea of having a more strategic role and not just being focused on the tactics.
Radhika: And very often in an organization, depending on the size of the organization, these executives or people above you might feel like, they have the strategy. They really need you to focus on the tactics. Or you come into a situation where the strategy is already all done, and you are expected to deliver on it.
Radhika: And so my realization, and from some of those experiences, was how do you take on this more strategic role and how do you spread intuition? And so a lot of the tools that I’ve been talking about today, about crafting this vision statement using a Mad Lib statement, of having this strategy laid out in terms of real pain points, design capabilities, and logistics, this intuition of vision versus survival.
Radhika: All of those are tools so that you can spread your intuition. And that’s the main advice that I have for people. For us to be able to grow in terms of career and career development what’s really important is to figure out, how can you have more influence in your organization?
Radhika: And that happens by doing a lot of this communication, taking ownership of the vision, the strategy, being able to communicate priorities. And more importantly, it’s not priorities because you dictate them. It’s priorities because you’ve spread your thinking and you’ve scaled your thinking. That’s what helps you really take on this more strategic role. And that’s what you need in mid-career role.
Holly: Awesome. Thank you for that. And how can people find you if they want to learn more?
Radhika: Yeah. So the book is in bookstores, it’s called Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter. You can also get the free toolkit on radicalproduct.com. And then lastly, people can also feel free to message me on LinkedIn. I always love to hear stories of how people are creating change using Radical Product Thinking.
Holly: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Radhika. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Radhika: Likewise, Holly. Thanks a much for having me on.