In a job interview when you talk about yourself, you’re using your sales skills; sales isn’t just a job title or a function. Similarly, product thinking is also an important life skill.
To build a product, you observe a problem you see in the world and you design your product to solve it - you change the world through your product. As you become adept at building radically transformative products, you get better at creating the change you want to see in the world.
Some people have a natural gift for selling, while some others are born with an innate skill for product thinking (think of Steve Jobs or Elon Musk in how they have created change). The good news is that like any skill, you can develop it systematically. Here’s how:
Step 1: Think of your product as your vehicle to create change:
The change you are working to bring to the world isn’t necessarily through a high tech product. It could be through the work of your non-profit, the research you’re conducting, or through freelance services you’re offering. When you think this way, you can engineer change methodically (just as you would engineer a product).
Radical Product Thinking is a methodology for building world-changing products repeatably and defines product as follows:
A radical product is a constantly improving mechanism to bring about the change you envision.
Here’s an example of a radical product in an industry that you typically wouldn’t associate with those words. Berrett Koehler, the publisher of my upcoming book Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter, is applying this radical new mindset to publishing.
BK is an independent publisher with the mission of “Connecting people and ideas to create a world that works for ALL.” It publishes content that helps create systemic change. After seeing my presentation on Radical Product Thinking, the BK team recognized their books, online events, and training as radical products that are designed to create a world that works for all.
Step 2: Envision the change you want to bring to the world
Most organizations have a vision or mission statement - the problem, however, is that it’s typically too broad. Only when you’re able to clearly visualize the end state can you build the right product and evaluate if it’s working the way you intended.
The management team at BK realized that the mission of creating a world that works for all was broad, and as a result, BK was at risk of catching product diseases. BK’s staff, authors, shareholders, board, and partners would all have different views of what a “world that works for all” should look like. It would be easy for BK to catch Strategic Swelling in trying to address the expectations of every stakeholder.
To prevent Strategic Swelling, BK needed to align its staff and stakeholders on a clear and detailed vision of the change BK wanted to bring about.
Through a facilitated group exercise, the BK team used the fill-in-the-blanks Radical Vision Statement to craft a detailed and inspiring vision. The first part of the vision describes the problem BK is setting out to solve in the world:
Today, when [change leaders want to drive positive systemic transformations in organizations and society, they [often struggle to make an impact]. This is unacceptable because [the way we organize businesses and society needs to change — before it’s too late. But it is hard to create momentum for systemic change without both revolutionary frameworks and practical solutions. For these leaders, it can feel like moving a boulder up the mountain of institutional thinking, and it’s all too common to burn out].
The second part of the Radical Vision Statement helped BK describe the solution and what the world would look like when the problem is solved:
We envision a future where [change leaders have the momentum, know-how, and community support they need to create a world that shares resources and power equitably]. We’re bringing about this world by [amplifying the voices and vision of these leaders. We highlight their deep analyses of institutional thinking and offer practical solutions through books and digital tools that accelerate change at every level: personal, organizational, societal. Our authors are the source and conduits for this amplification, and they are our partners in this movement. We also model the change ourselves, through how we run BK and partner with all our stakeholders].
BK and its stakeholders can accomplish more together if everyone is aligned on the vision. To solicit stakeholders’ input and get buy-in, the BK team presented the vision at the Champions for Change Lab, a two-day gathering of staff, authors, shareholders, board members, and partners.
Step 3: Connect your vision to your everyday activities
The vision is an important first step but product thinking can only become a life skill if your vision is reflected in your everyday decision-making. Even when you have a clear vision, you need to balance progress towards the vision against the reality of short-term business needs.
In the process of achieving its vision, BK would need to be mindful of its financial constraints as an independent publisher. For example, to make progress towards its vision, BK could publish a new idea that is still a long way from becoming mainstream. The short-term risk, however, is that if an idea is too new, the book may not sell well enough to provide a return on investment.
Product thinking as a life skill means making the right trade-offs by evaluating how much risk you can afford to take as you work towards your vision. You can use the Radical Product Thinking approach to prioritization to evaluate these trade-offs and communicate your rationale to your team.
While there’s no right formula for trade-offs, this simple 2x2 rubric helps you visualize these trade-offs so you can see how often you’re giving up on your vision in exchange for short-term gains. Doing this occasionally is reasonable, but if you’re doing it too often, you may be catching Obsessive Sales Disorder.
The tools of vision and prioritization described in this post are designed to help you develop muscle memory for thinking this way. As you level up in your ability to build radical products, you’ll find that it helps you take on a more strategic role as a leader and spread your influence in your organization. Over time you’ll develop an intuition for engineering change wherever you see the need for it.