This is the first post in a two+ part series. I have content in mind beyond the first two parts, but want to gauge interest before deciding whether or not to continue. These first two parts are sections of a paper I wrote in a class called, “Creating and Sharing Knowledge” at Northwestern University. As a result, it’s a little more formal than my previous posts and includes citations to referenced material. I do think the material is very relevant to the world of product management and if you agree, I’ll continue to experiment with similar posts.
In order for a company to launch a successful product, it must build a product that customers actually want. It has to fill a specific need, work within the context in which the customer has the need, and work in such a way that the customer can understand it. This requires that the company have knowledge of all of these factors before they decide what to build. How does this happen?
Hislop defines innovation as “the deliberate modification, or transformation, by an organization of its products / services, processes or structures” (2009, pg. 114). He argues that innovation is primarily a knowledge creation process, but also includes the ability to search for external knowledge, the ability to apply existing knowledge to new contexts and the ability to combine knowledge in new ways. In the product discovery process, product teams may engage in any or all of these activities.
Customers rarely know what they want. They aren’t product experts. They don’t know the market. They may not even be clear on the specifics about the problem they are experiencing. A product team does two things during the product discovery phase. First, it clearly defines a problem that the customer is experiencing. Second, it identifies a suitable solution to that problem. In order for a product team to accomplish this, they must cultivate strong relationships with their customers. Cross, Parker, Prusak, Borgatti (2001) discuss four attributes of an effective relationship for sharing knowledge: knowing what another person knows, being able to gain timely access to them, willingness of the person to engage in joint problem solving and the degree of safety in the relationship.
Product teams must be aware that while customers do have some explicit knowledge about their problem and potential solutions, they just as often may be limited in their ability to define the problem, and quite often lack the product expertise to explore possible solutions. Product teams must combine customer knowledge with knowledge acquired through observation of the customer experiencing the problem. The team must combine these two sources of knowledge with broader market knowledge before exploring solutions. If the team doesn’t have access to customers, or the customers aren’t willing to engage with the team in problem solving, or either the team or the customer doesn’t feel safe sharing what they know or don’t know, this process will be hindered.
Similarly, Newell, David and Chand (2007) outline three different levels of trust: commitment trust, competence trust and companion trust. Commitment trust is trust that both parties will follow through on an agreed upon contract. Competence trust is trust in a person’s ability to complete a necessary task. Companion trust is the trust that develops over time as the result of a personal friendship. If a customer does not have competence trust in a vendor, they won’t be willing to spend the time required with the product team to help in the product discovery process. Similarly, the product team has to trust that the customer will honor their commitment to devote the time to this process. In situations where the product team has companion trust with a customer and both parties approach the product discovery phase as a partnership, the process works best.
In the next post, we’ll look at the flow of knowledge from product managers to engineers. Stay tuned. Was this helpful? Too formal? Please let me know what you think in the comments.
- Cross, Parker, Prusak, Borgatti (2001) “Knowing what we know: Supporting Knowledge Creation and Sharing in Social Networks,” Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 30 No. 2 pp 100-120
- Hislop, D. (2009). Knowledge Management in Organizations. New York: Oxford University Press
- Newell, David, Chand, (2007) “An Analysis of Trust Among Globally Distributed Work Teams in an Organizational Setting,” Knowledge and Process Management, Vol. 14, No. 3, pp 158-168