A Product Manager's Toolkit for Creativity
How to bring fresh, innovative ideas to your role and drive success
As a product manager, it can be frustrating when your role is reduced to merely executing the ideas of others rather than being able to contribute your own creative ideas and solutions. While there are many resources available for product managers on how to be analytical and make objective decisions, there is often a lack of guidance on how to be creative and bring new ideas to the table.
Indeed, when I ask people I manage to think big and come up with new things for their products, usually they don’t know what to do and how to do it. No one teaches you how to be creative in the end…
I have realized how little the need for a Product Manager to be creative is discussed. Thus, in this post, I have collected some tools and processes I have been using through the years.
Creativity 101 for Product Managers
To increase your creativity as a product manager, it's important to adopt the right attitude. This means avoiding the temptation of constantly coming up with new ideas without considering their feasibility or value. You should avoid three things:
Don’t come up with new ideas all the time. Keep your record, write down your ideas, and try to find ways to validate them before bringing them to your manager or your colleagues. Adapting to the culture of your organization, you may need to come up with something more mature or validated, or you may realize you need to quit to make it happen.
Don’t spend resources on your ideas early on. You must find ways to validate your ideas with as few resources as possible. Think about what you would do if you were an entrepreneur with a nice idea. Initially, it’s only you, maybe with some employees that share your passion. The best way to gain traction is to create a story and start pitching it, and you can ask for resources to run some validations.
Don’t expect the ideas to be necessarily yours. You are in a position where you communicate with so many people in the company, you get signals, ideas, and context. It is equally important if you identify a good idea, work on it, and amplify the message; You should be the one knowing how to work on a new idea.
Some general principles to increase your creativity are:
Create slots in your calendar just to think or read.
Try to disconnect from day-to-day things to come up with new ideas,
Look for ways to try and validate your ideas without annoying many people.
Keep a physical notebook with your ideas.
Don’t forget to get into customers’ shoes.
Data, Lack of data, and Product Sense
When you start a new product, you are lucky if you have some data to back you up. Thus, you have to start with qualitative data from customer interviews, form your vision, define deliverables, validate them and iterate; you should study the competition, start with Why and define clearly the problems you want to solve, and then define the segments you start from.
To do that, you need to develop a Product Sense, and a good way to do it is by exposing yourself to a variety of products and experiences, both within and outside your field. Try also to figure out which is the core value of the company and you may define a new experience that highlights and drives users to this core service.
Additionally, collaborating with people from different teams and backgrounds inside your organization can provide valuable insights into your concepts' feasibility and potential risks. You should try to share the problem, not lock them with the solution upfront, and you should ask for early feedback about the feasibility and the risks of your ideas.
Your Business Model is your Product
When you launch something from scratch, the business model is your product. You have to think about the whole experience, including the price, the channels of delivery, the segments, and everything. You should always have in mind two very useful tools, the Business Model Canvas and the Lean Canvas.
You may want to think of a business model innovation (e.g., new financial structure, new marketing channels), but you should also not forget the core product value you will offer. The user experience is something we all love to mention, unfortunately, it is easily copied once you launch, thus you have to think of something unique that will give you a serious head start; do you have access to a network, some unique data, or an algorithm? What’s your Unique Value Proposition and your moat?
Storytelling & Pitching for clarity
And of course, you can study all the great pitches from amazing Product guys. You should learn to tell a story, pitch it verbally and visually, refine it and understand how your audience reacts. Don’t be afraid to pitch your idea, then it will be easier to write it down as well.
Working backwards for alignment
At some point, you have to align many people under your idea, to get funding and approval, find a team, and kick off the development eventually. You have to start moving things around. There are no better tools for that than Amazon’s Six-Pager and Press Release, as explained in Working Backwards. Write down proper documents, circulate them with people you respect their opinion, and at the end pitch your ideas through a Six-Pager. You may need to pitch your idea through a slide deck, but a Six-Pager is some amazing material to follow even in that case.
Working on Iterations
Once you have done a thorough study and worked with your teams, you are ready to execute. Define your upcoming release, find a way to validate it early, and work with your team on iterations. You can define a mock type as explained in Empowered, or work on some prototypes and validations as described in Sprint. When you are ready, you should write a Press Release to be sure that everyone has the same understanding of what will be created.
You should frequently align with your previous work, are you misaligned with your initial hypotheses? Why? Is the whole business model at risk? Is the story you tell validated through your trials? You have to realize that the steps described above should run in iterations. Unless your story is smooth and engaging,
In practice, it’s hard
It's worth noting that being creative doesn't mean that you should ignore data or objective decision-making. It's important to balance creative thinking with analytical thinking and use both to inform your decision-making as a product manager. But what I am missing is more people in product coming up with ideas.
If you think about how many steps and efforts are needed to launch a new product successfully, you understand why people choose not to be creative; it’s so much energy, with a big risk of failure and disappointment.
This is a problem the Lean mentality has tried to fix; it has removed the complexity of launching a new idea by motivating you to break your work into smaller deliverables, while the cost of failure seems smaller. Yes, taking your highest risks and validating them with minimum effort is amazing, if you can do it. But hypothesizing that positive feedback for a prototype from early adopters is also a market fit can create even bigger problems for the organization, in a matter of product, tech debt, and the wrong culture, believing that you can run a business “cheap” without all the necessary components.
Overall, this is not an article sharing the path to success. The execution is much harder, each case is unique, and success cannot be guaranteed. You should start working on your path into more creative Product Management, this is my advice. And through trials, failures, and teamwork you can start becoming more creative; it is a skill you can build and develop.