What Story is Your Product Telling?

What’s the story you’re telling with your new product? Have you got it clearly in your head? Does your team have the same story? Are you developing the product around that story? Building on this central idea that innovation is meeting customer needs in new and unique ways, we need to be diligent in getting the story clear from the very beginning. This story is made up of two pieces: What need are you meeting and how are you meeting it?

Using this story as the starting point, the project has much higher odds of delivering a successful product at the far end of the design process. The story will certainly evolve a bit but it provides needed focus for each step along the way. For the design team, it gives clear decision making criteria: Which option best meets the targeted customer need? For the marketing team, the same story gives them the framework for their work: What need are we solving for our customer?

By the time the product is ready to launch, the final design will be sharply focused on meeting this customer need. And instead of being a shallow afterthought, the marketing message will have the compelling weight of the entire project aligned behind it.

So what story is your product telling?

Innovation Case Study: iPad mini

Around the world, Apple is hailed a premier leader in product design innovation. And while they certainly have their faults, the company continues to knock it out of the park with almost every new product launch. Building on my previous post about focusing on meeting customer needs to innovate, let’s take a quick look at yesterday’s iPad mini launch and Apple’s continued ability to effectively innovate.

“We took the time to design a product that was a concentration of, not a reduction of, the original.” Jony Ive, Senior VP Design, Apple

I think this quote absolutely nails the thinking required to launch great new products. You must understand the real customer needs and desires your product is trying to solve. That understanding is the central framework the entire process hangs on.

When describing the new iPad, they spent a lot of time talking about two things: how capable the device is and how small it is. Clearly those objectives drove Engineering decisions all the way through the development process. With a laundry list of technical innovations, it has always been interesting to me to see they rarely push the boundaries of raw power or capability but instead they find amazing ways to pack the technology into amazingly well thought out packages built around what the end customer actually wants.

At launch time, this approach has given them two vital elements for success: A desirable device from the user’s perspective and a crystal clear marketing message to broadcast to the world.

Will it be a huge success? Probably. Is it deserving of all the superlatives Apple throws at it in their marketing blitz? Maybe … maybe not. But time after time, Apple is continuing to push the boundaries of what it means to deliver innovative products. And for that, they continue to earn my respect.

Focus on Customer Value to Innovate

When we talk about innovation, we’re often talking about coming up with new ideas. Ideas that bring new technology to market, or change our approach to customer service, or introduce a new product category. I’d like to propose that innovation is much more than just coming up with great ideas.

Are you inventing or innovating?

While idea generation is a key part of the innovation process, it’s only one piece of the tool kit. It’s part of the ‘How’ of the process and it needs the context of ‘What’ and ‘Why’ to be effective. Without that context, we often confuse the means with the ends and our results suffer because of it.

How often have you seen projects hit the launch phase only to realize nobody is really interested in buying what’s been created? Pretty painful to say the least. And more than a little expensive when you consider the investment and opportunity costs attached to the project.

From Wikipedia: Innovation is the development of new customer value through solutions that meet new needs, unarticulated needs, or old customer and market needs in new ways.

To build a successful innovation strategy, the core of the process must be centered on delivering new customer value. It establishes the ‘What’ and ‘Why’ for the project. The team can then clearly say “we are creating value for our customers in this way and by building this specific thing”. It becomes the framework that all subsequent design decisions hang on.

Creating ideas outside of this customer-centric focus is better referred to as “invention”. Many great products and services have come out of the raw process of invention but the results are inconsistent at best. Building a new product strategy around invention is a risky approach.

Adding focus to innovate

When you look across the projects and initiatives currently underway in your organization, is there clear customer value being created for each?

One of the quickest and most effective ways to boost the quality of your innovation process’s output is to get clear on the customer value being created. Get that value identified and stated in clear and concrete terms. Make sure the team has this as their overriding objective through every step of the process. It becomes the guiding compass for the entire project and helps ensure you’ve created something of value for your customers.

Today’s Bias for Action: Take a look at your top project and see if you can clearly state the customer value being created. Now ask somebody on the team to do the same. If its not crystal clear, schedule the conversation(s) to get that clarified ASAP.

Use Design Thinking to Manage Project Risk

What’s your organization’s development process look like? Odds are that it’s a pretty linear version of the Phase-Gate methodology. A cookie cutter approach to push projects through a well defined process that tries to keep things simple. Except that projects are rarely simple. And there are usually a lot of unknowns at the front end of the process. Pair those realities with a linear project strategy and you have a recipe for blowing budgets, schedules, and market opportunities. Those unknowns end up being expensive showstoppers at the far end of the project.

So why wait? Go through your product requirements at the very beginning of the project and identify the key elements that hold the most uncertainty and risk. Take that handful of concerns and build little sub-projects around them. This is a great place to apply Design Thinking. Activities to generate ideas and then prototype and test those ideas with a quick and inexpensive design loop. It's an iterative approach that allows you to solve the big questions in parallel, early on in the development process. Focus on learning. Even from the “failed” attempts. Get smarter and make the mistakes early while it’s cheap to do so and the impact to the project is small.

Take a look at one of your big projects running right now. What are the 1–3 areas that really make you nervous? Isolate them and work with the design team to kick through the questions and find better answers. Then you can assemble those individual solutions together into a better final product. Get the risk managed now before it snowballs into something big enough to jeopardize the entire project.

How's Your Creative Confidence?

TEDTalks’ tagline is “Ideas worth spreading”. Here is an instance where I wholeheartedly agree. Earlier this year, David Kelley (of IDEO and Stanford’s d.School fame) put together a remarkable talk about building your “creative confidence”. This is twelve minutes worth of an introduction to the topic of erasing the line drawn between “creative” and “non-creative” people.

Do you have early childhood memories of classmates or teachers slamming your attempts at making something artistic? I sure do. Somehow in the space of just a couple years we went from being a kindergarten class full of budding artists to having most of the class think “I’m not really the creative type…”. By the time we hit the professional world, this viewpoint has become deeply ingrained. Way too many people write themselves off as “non-creative” and in doing so profoundly limit themselves.

We desperately need to remember we are all naturally creative. We can all come up with innovative new solutions to problems. We need those ideas that have been locked away. We need your ideas.

I happen to agree with Kelley. A good process paired with a little coaching can help overcome fear and unlock the ability to start creating again.

Take a couple minutes to check the video out and let me know what you think in the comments.

Via the d.school blog

Recipe for a Successful Day? Go Make Something

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hacking my way through a fresh pass at “career planning” and figuring out what’s next for me professionally. Time to think and retool is one of the upsides to “unplanned career pivots” (i.e. getting laid off). While reading a post from Jonathan Fields’ blog yesterday, I was reminded of something important I tend to forget: Our primary opportunity each day is to create. Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose sight of that and fill our days with meetings and busywork to the exclusion of making time to create.

“… it’s about the work. The pursuit of knowledge, closing the gap between what I’m capable of creating and what I am currently creating. Finding and sharing meaning. Living into the insatiable curiosity, the experiments and conversations and desire to share whatever the process yields.” Jonathan Fields

He talks about going into “Maker” mode and being really intentional about this. Setting aside serious blocks of time, attention, and energy to focus on creating the big things we’re capable of. Cranking out a pile of truly creative and valuable work. But that can only happen if we’re willing to make it a priority.

That’s my goal with this time “off”. How can I dig in and build the body of work necessary to support the dreams and ideas that have been relegated to the “someday / maybe” list for far too long? It starts with choosing to make something. To create. To be intentional about it. It might seem small and inconsequential … but it’s not. It matters a whole lot.

What are you going to make today?

Finding Opportunity in Chaos

Chaos is the New Standard by Hugh MacLeod (gapingvoid.com)
Chaos is the New Standard by Hugh MacLeod (gapingvoid.com)

“This image is for all those folks out there who use the chaos of their industries as an opportunity to re-invent, re-shape and develop new models for making money and changing the world.”

Hugh MacLeod / gapingvoid.com (from his daily cartoon newsletter)

The only constant is change. Tired cliché? Yes. But more true in today’s world than ever before.

In nearly every industry and space I’ve been involved with, this seems like the only viable strategy. Either embrace the chaos or get comfortable with irrelevancy.

Catastrophe in the making? Or the biggest opportunity we’ve ever seen?

I’m going all in on the latter.

Getting Out of Bystander Mode

How do we break through the “bystander effect”? What does it take to get people to act instead of being held captive by the inertia of a passive group? Al Pittampalli[1] picked up a good idea from an effective panhandler tactic:

Some panhandlers have gotten smarter. They work with a partner who pretends to be an ordinary commuter. The partner gives first and we know what happens next…

I constantly fight against this effect when trying to shift ingrained corporate cultures. Too often a team can get stuck in negative attitudes, become passive, and effectively stall out. At which point, the ability to execute successful projects goes out the window.

The more entrenched the (negative) culture is, the more desperate the need for an effective tool to break through and redirect. Leadership by example is an excellent way to do just that. I hadn’t thought of it in quite these terms, but this is exactly what I’ve found to be effective over the years. If I can win over the most difficult person on the team and help them shift their thinking (and actions), they can become a phenomenal asset to helping win over the rest of the team.

As team leaders, it’s our opportunity to focus our leadership efforts on key areas to create tipping points for our teams. We can help shape the culture of our teams and in doing so, significantly help them be more successful. The challenge for me is to keep this strategy front of mind and be more intentional with using it.

Have you used this strategy effectively before? How about other ideas for how to shift a team towards action?

  1. Al’s book “Read This Before Our Next Meeting” is a must read for changing how we approach meetings in the current corporate world.  ↩

A Toolbox Filled With Unused Tools

“Choose your tools, enjoy them, then make something amazing.”

David duChemin

I’ve been stalled with wanting to (re)engage on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and the like. I spent several years chasing all the very latest new toys online to be one of the early adopter cool kids. And then I got sick of it. So I stopped. It all started seeming pretty meaningless and like a colossal time suck.

I think I’m finally getting my head around why I’m so skeptical with all of it.

Back in 2009 I read several pieces by photographer David duChemin pushing for a reality check in the photographic community. His take is well summarized with his slogan of “Gear is good, Vision is better”. One of the downsides to the many online photography communities is that they’ve seriously fueled the shared obsession many photographers have with their gear. Cameras and the associated gear are very cool. But it’s too easy to lose perspective and forget the purpose of all that gear is to make beautiful and compelling images with it.

I realized I’d gotten myself lost on the gear side of things and forgotten to actually take pictures. duChemin provided a much needed wake up call. Now I spend far less time on photography as a hobby, but when I do dig in, the time is spent almost entirely on shooting and processing pictures. The endless surfing and forum browsing are notably absent. I have a similar story from when I stopped obsessing about guitar / music gear and got on with actually practicing more. The results have been similar, I’ve gotten better at my craft and I really don’t miss the noise from all the peripheral activities.

I think this ties directly to the state of things in the internet world right now. For the past few years, everybody has been buzzing about whatever is shiny and new. To the exclusion of figuring out what to actually do with these tools. The result has been a giant echo chamber of meta noise with people on the internet talking about the internet. Personally, I’ve become far more interested in seeing what meaningful work can be done with these tools. How are they impacting the rest of the world? How are they empowering artists of all kinds to do their work and share it with an engaged audience?

Thankfully, there are plenty of examples of interesting people doing amazing work out there. Unfortunately, they can get lost in the noise from the rest of the crowd. So I’m choosing to focus on a couple things: Shutting down the extraneous noise to focus on those artists getting on with doing great work. And secondly, figuring out what I’m personally going to do with these revolutionary tools and the unprecedented level of opportunity they’ve brought along. It’s time to get the tools out of the toolbox, get them dirty, and start making things.

Defining Creativity

What does it mean to be creative? J. Eddie Smith over at ‘Practically Efficient’ nails it with a very thoughtful post on the topic. Head over there and give it a read. (And seriously go add his blog to your RSS reader.) As someone who’s spent a fair amount of time kicking around the concepts of “innovation” and “creativity” in the product development space Eddie’s summary really hit home for me.

Creatives […] have this highly coveted form of social capital. Creative success echoes envy in six words: “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Our current culture seems to be increasingly wanting the recognition of being creative without the hard work up front. Not really surprising I guess … but sort of depressing some days.

The process of creativity isn’t glamorous. It’s simply about hard work, the management of emotions, and delayed showmanship.

Real creativity is the dull and failure-fraught art of giving people things they never asked for.

The “magic” is sitting down and cranking, sweating the details, and seeing where things go from there. And sadly, most of us are unwilling to do this with enough consistency to find that magic. I know I sure need the reminders to sit back down and stay after it.

What’s your take? Is he on target? Oversimplifying? Under this definition, do you still want to be more “creative” day to day?

Aspiring Towards Bigger Goals

“The impossible exists only until we find a way to make it possible” Mike Horn

What can you accomplish in one year? That’s the title of a recent post by photographer Chase Jarvis that got me thinking about setting (and pursuing) bigger goals. And wondering if we’re settling for too little because we get hung up on being “realistic” and only going after what we think is possible.

When I look back at the past five years, I see a lot of good learning experiences but frustratingly little for lasting results (professionally at least). Navigating a major economic downturn, corporate restructuring(s), and the world in general changing and churning at an amazing pace, I feel like I’ve gotten a bit lost in the mix. Survival has taken precedence over pursuing big dreams and that shift has taken a toll. It’s time to shift back.

Jarvis’ post talks about South African born / Swiss based explorer Mike Horn and some of the awesome things he’s accomplished over the same five years. He custom built the Pangaea, a 115 foot yacht they refer to as a “4 x 4 of the seas”, and subsequently launched the four year Pangaea Expedition. The expedition has already covered more than 140,000 miles in its quest for “young adults [to] experience and explore the natural world, learn about its challenges, find possible solutions, and above all, act swiftly to help change things for the better.”

Horn’s passion and commitment have fueled an impressive list on his resumé. And he’s got me wondering why I’m not chasing down bigger things. My initial read is that it’s a combination of a lack of focus, not thinking big enough, and being too passive in accepting the challenges around me as fixed boundaries instead of obstacles to get around.

It’s time to think big, refocus, and get after it. There’s no good reason not to and that clock is ticking.

So what are you going after in the next twelve months? Go big.

It's Time to be Brave

A pass at another Seth Godin riff on what we’re investing into our careers.[1]

If I’m going to invest more into my career (or really any pursuit I want to grow in), it’s worth pausing to figure out what kind of investment that should be. What will give me the best return? What will be sustainable for long enough to have measurable impact?

The default answer has almost always been time. And that answer is certainly supported by theories like the 10,000 hours required for mastery as presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’. Beyond that though, is that really the point for differentiation in a world increasingly crowded with options? Mastery at a given skillset seems increasingly like the entry fee. From there, it would seem that we need something more.

Godin argues that the real option is to “take the intellectual risks and do the emotional labor you’re capable of.” It’s far easier to hide and take the “that’s not my job” route. In fact, that’s what the vast majority of the crowd is currently doing. And we have the results to show for it. The cumulative effects of that choice are terrifying. If we continue to embrace that attitude, our companies and jobs go away. Other people (who are willing to take those risks) will get those opportunities while we fade further into irrelevance.

The frustrating part is that we’re capable of so much more. We could make the choice to actually take those risks, to step out to make a difference. Ironically, those risks are smaller than they seem and smaller still in comparison to the risk of doing nothing and maintaining the status quo. Even small (consistent) steps in this direction make a big difference. Big enough to start creating momentum that can affect large scale change.

And still it comes down to today and today’s choices. Am I willing to do more than talk about this? Am I willing to take the risks and lead? It’s a choice I struggle with nearly every day. But for today, I’m choosing to push on regardless of feeling like I’m headed upstream.

  1. Yes, this is turning into more of a theme here than I expected. But the bottom line is that he writes thought provoking things, and writing helps me process those ideas (and hopefully turn them into action).  ↩


I have read a lot of "personal development" books over the years. And it could be argued that "a lot" could be defined as "too many". Some were really helpful, some a colossal waste of time, and most landed somewhere in between.

In that big pile of books (and so many more out there), there's a never ending stream of how-to's, tips and tricks, and bulleted lists outlining the precise steps you need to take to find success in whatever particular endeavor you're interested in. The more specific the instructions, and the bolder the claims for success, the more books they sell. Everybody seems to want to be told what to do and how to find that failure-proof way to succeed.

Except that it doesn't work that way.

The world keeps changing at an accelerating pace and the terrain around us seems to shift substantially every time we turn around. Which makes someone else's printed map pretty useless. Collecting and trying to use those maps can actually do more harm than good because they give us a false sense of security. Instead of learning to be better at making our own maps we're following a path towards yesterday's success. Meanwhile things keep changing.

So I'm trying to be a lot more picky in where I invest my time and attention. The books, blogs, programs, etc, that provide map-making tools (to help me get better at making my own map) are worth their weight in gold. The ones selling a "guaranteed" map are worthless (except for making money for the author...).

Courage for Problem Solving

From a couple weeks back, Seth Godin talks about “solving problems (vs identifying them”. He talks about how we can be hesitant to identify problems when we might not be able to solve it. And that it can seem easier (or feel better) to avoid the whole mess by ignoring it. That way we don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of not knowing how to solve the problems. 

Another side of this discussion is where we can be all too eager to point out problems … but only to complain about them. To me, that is the bigger (or at least more common) issue. We settle for complaining about things and talking about how someone sure ought be doing something about all these problems.

In both instances we miss the opportunity. We need the courage and discipline to honestly assess the situation, identify the real (and oftentimes big) problems, and then commit ourselves to the hard work of taking real action towards crafting solutions.

Finding the Time

How do you find the time to do things that actually matter? To make real progress on the big projects and goals? This is a subject I’ve been wrestling with a lot recently. It’s startling to see how fast the time goes by and how little progress I’ve made on things that are supposedly important (or at least really interesting) to me. This blog is a prime example.

As I’ve been kicking these ideas around, there have been a couple models that came to mind that have helped provide a framework to work from. The first is Pareto’s 80/20 principle and the second is Steven Covey’s “Four Quadrants”.

80 / 20

If Pareto was right and 80 percent of the results really do come from 20 percent of the effort, there’s a lot of opportunity for cutting out distraction and focusing on doing that 20 percent well. Reading Tim Ferriss’ book “The Four Hour Work Week” was what really got me thinking about applying this principle in this way.

Four Quadrants

In “First Things First”, Covey talks about the evaluating work based on dividing into four quadrants with importance and urgency being the two axis lines. Probably easier to show than explain:

Covey Matrix

The idea here is to focus on the important over just the urgent. My experience has definitely agreed that my days tend to fill up with things from the urgent category and the non-urgent, but still important, tasks often get pushed off to “later”.

“Finding” Time vs “Making” Time

This is where I think the rubber hits the road. Regardless of the approach, it really comes down to taking a hard and honest look at both where your time is being spent and what’s on your calendar and to-do list. What’s actually important and where are you really getting the results you want? At that point some decisions need to be made to prioritize the important things and to cut out (or at least minimize) the unimportant.

If these past years have taught me anything, it’s that you won’t just magically “find” the time. You have to aggressively and proactively go out and “make” the time. Choose your priorities, cut out the useless stuff, and focus.

For me, right now I’m trying to apply these ideas and hit this from multiple angles:

  • Delegating more things that are actually important but don’t require me specifically to do them
  • Eliminating the worthless stuff
  • Using the available hours to focus my efforts on the really important projects

Sample Post


Why Magnetic Headlines Are Crucial for Your Posts

Welcome to Rainmaker. This is a sample post to get you started on your journey. Don’t forget that your headline is the most important aspect of writing a great post, and getting readers to read your opening paragraph. The first four to six sentences of your post are critical, because if you don’t hook your audience, they will get bored and click away. What is the benefit you will provide readers that you promised in the title? Be sure to describe the signs of the problem you will offer a solution to toward the end of your post.

Use subheads to improve readability and gather interest

Here you can begin to describe the underlying causes of the problem you have the solutions to, using persuasive arguments and great storytelling, and readers will have no choice but to read more.

Subheads help readers scan your content quickly

Bullet points are helpful to keep your copy reader-friendly, and a proven standard for making a solid argument:

  • Tell a great story, but don’t over-write it. Be authentic!
  • Use internal cliffhangers to entice readers to read more.
  • Use a great image to make an impression on readers from the start.

Subheads draw readers’ attention to your call to action

When you provide real solutions and insights for your prospects and customers, you build trust and authority that will allow you to deepen the conversation further with an opt-in or call-to-action. Sign up here! This is where a compelling call to action makes it clear to your readers what they need to do next to implement your solution. Good luck!