How the Best Product Managers Discover $1B Ideas

Big ideas are beautiful when you discover them. The process of finding new ideas and significant new product enhancement concepts is invigorating for product managers. But noise from paying customers clamoring for what they want can distract PMs from building what matters most.

This innovator’s dilemma sneaks up on the best of us. I know how tempting it is to rely on intuition or aim to please your product’s biggest fans. I also know how crucial it is for you to not give in.

These shortsighted approaches build blind spots for product teams. Focusing on a handful of customers at the expense of untapped market potential is how too many teams get close to a breakthrough but end up just missing.

So, how can you uncover these risks and discover the next billion-dollar idea for your product?

The three perspectives below are designed to help. Each one will allow you to consider a different point of view — before settling on what to build next.

Outside In 
At this stage, your team’s mindset should be to seek new information from outside your organization. This is likely where the biggest ideas are to be found. Inject new data into your product development cycle. You can accomplish this by reviewing and updating competitive analysis; conducting a fresh round of customer interviews; and reading the latest industry reports and trends. In other words, avoid the navel-gazing that results when you depend only on past material and experiences.

When you introduce this activity to your product team, remember that:

  1. You must do your homework ahead of these discussions. Otherwise, they might be branded as more useless meetings that get in the way of doing “real” work;
  2. Don’t unload volumes of data and flip through slides that are dense with words and numbers. Instead, share surprising new trends and startling insights from your homework to start a broader conversation;
  3. To gain diverse perspectives, your whole product team must challenge their assumptions. For instance, Marketing will likely have different insights than Customer Success. Effectively engaging cross-functional teams ensures that knowledge becomes a shared asset.

Inside Out 
During this stage, your goal should be to take a 360-degree view of your current efforts. There is hidden treasure in there — you just need to look at it with clear eyes. Dig into Customer Success reports to understand what your current users really want. Analyze the positive and negative effects of where your team is spending their time — and understand how these decisions are impacting your key metrics. Most importantly, declare constraints related to resources, skills, and timeframes. As a final step, revisit your product backlog, which is your running to-do list of needs and features.

Teams that always start with their product backlogs rarely get past them. It is far too tempting to start checking off items on that list rather than prioritizing them for future releases. And unless someone frequently deletes outdated content, this list of requirements is often stale. So, set this list aside for last. It is more important to be honest about where you are right now and what you might be missing than to keep plugging away at a list that never seems to get shorter.

In The Weeds
The “Outside In” angle allowed you to zoom out. You validated your prior assumptions and established new hypotheses. Then, the “Inside Out” view helped you look inward to seek terrific, but veiled, internal ideas. Now, your product team has a solid foundation of new information blended with the best thinking from within.

This allows you all to confidently launch into prioritizing what will have the biggest impact and to earnestly ask where the billion-dollar ideas are. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. This is your team’s chance to change the future.

You can accomplish this by assessing the ideas against value and effort. This will result in a feasible set of features that trace back to your bigger product goals and strategy. Complicated solutions might require you to go further and follow up with customers to understand how they would value your “new.”

Product teams must use their collective wisdom to look out and in simultaneously. They must make big and small decisions — and act upon them. Think of your markets and teams as a bank of knowledge; smart deposits of fresh insights and frequent withdrawals yield the most long-term rewards for everyone.

Let’s be clear: you will always run the risk of missing something up front. Even the most thorough analysis cannot always find the truth. Still, teams can reduce this risk by studying their market and product landscape through several diverse lenses.

This is a guest post by Natasha Awasthi. If you are looking to be a great product manager or owner, create brilliant strategy, and build visual product roadmaps — start a free trial of Aha!

Natasha Awasthi is a New York-based product manager and writer. She artfully untangles messy problems by discovering unexpected patterns in behavior, processes, and technology. A self- proclaimed Jedi-in-training, she writes about channeling the force and embracing her creativity. She has written for Fast Company, L.A. Review of Books, Women2.0, General Assembly, and others.

Follow Natasha @natashaawasthi