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27 / Product Success Starts with a Clear Vision

Hosted by Sean Flaherty & Paul Gebel



Radhika Dutt Portrait

Radhika Dutt

Radical Product Thinking

Radhika Dutt is an entrepreneur and product leader who has participated in four acquisitions as a result of the products she built; two of these were companies she founded.

She advises organizations from high-tech startups to government agencies on building game-changing products. She co-founded Radical Product Thinking as a movement of leaders creating vision-driven change.

Radhika graduated from MIT with SB and M.Eng degrees in Electrical Engineering. She speaks nine languages and is learning her tenth.

You can follow her on her Medium publication, Radical Product or LinkedIn.

A product’s vision communicates the change we want to bring to the world, Radhika Dutt says. It starts with why, but in the same breath also answers for whom. That’s why a great vision statement is outwardly focused. Product teams craft them not to declare our own goals and aspirations, but to focus attention and energy around the problems we want to solve for our users.

In this episode of the Product Momentum Podcast, Radhika Dutt sits down with Sean and Paul to explain how vision-driven products not only clarify the why and for whom. But they also resist the common diseases that afflict product success. In the absence of a clear vision statement that is uniquely our own, we work without direction. We confuse activity with purposeful effort. And we deliver solutions to problems our users don’t have.

But bringing vision and strategy isn’t enough. Product leaders and their teams need to translate vision and strategy into action. Radical Product Thinking, a movement co-founded by Radhika, provides a step-by-step approach to help teams build game-changing products. It guides teams through a process of applying sound vision, actionable strategy, and effective prioritization to prevent the ailments that end up killing products.

What to listen for:

[01:09]  Maintaining momentum through iteration. The right way to build products is through iteration, but we also need to limit the number of iterations by eliminating the unnecessary ones.

[03:29]  The 2 extremes of Vision statements. One aims to disrupt, reinvent, or revolutionize. The other is focused on business objectives.

[05:03]  Vision statements must be outwardly focused. Users don’t care about a company’s “best in class” aspirations.

[05:36]  3 product diseases. Strategic swelling, obsessive sales disorder, pivotitis.

[06:21]  Radical Product Thinking. It’s a response to repeatedly running into these same diseases no matter the size of the company or the industry you’re in.

[07:58]  Follow your North Star. But don’t be afraid to step back and say, “Wait a minute; we’re following the wrong star.”

[10:34]  Is there risk in being too tied to a vision?

[13:00]  Use your vision as a filter. Does this feature I’m working on align with my vision?

[14:07]  A strategy has to be flexible enough to allow you to adapt in the face of market realities.

[16:25]  Anything can be a product. Based on the commonalities, even a government policy can be a product.

[21:05]  Align your vision to where people want to go anyway. That way, the product isn’t forcing people to change. It’s adapting to what is going to be.

[22:41]  Serving multiple personas in 2-sided markets. Use your North Star to determine where your true loyalty lies.

[25:19]  How to prioritize a feature. A balance between helping me survive the quarter and fulfilling my vision.

[27:37]  Business KPIs and Product KPIs. The Ying and Yang that helps you progress toward the vision while tracking your business success.

[31:14]  Innovation. Changing people’s lives for the better.

[32:00]  Accidental Villains. As you change one person’s life for the better, you’re changing someone else’s for the worse.

[33:36]  Empathy. It’s not just about product managers showing empathy for their users. It has to happen across the whole organization.

[34:05]  Organizational cactus. The internal friction that leads to the accumulation of vision debt.

Sean [00:00:01] Hi, welcome to the Product Momentum podcast, a podcast about how to use technology to solve challenging technology problems for your organization.

Paul [00:00:29] Hello everybody, we’re super excited to be joined by Radhika Dutt. She is an entrepreneur and product leader who has participated in four acquisitions and as a result of the products she’s built, she’s founded two companies. She advises organizations from high tech startups to government agencies building game-changing products. She’s co-founded Radical Product Thinking as a movement of leaders creating vision-driven change. You can find her on Medium and LinkedIn, where she blogs. Welcome, Radhika. Thank you.

Radhika [00:00:57] Thank you for having me on the show, Paul.

Sean [00:00:49] I think it’s worth mentioning that you’re calling in from Singapore as well, which is very cool.

Radhika [00:01:05] Well, you know, it’s always been my dream to be on a tropical island and working for a tropical island, so here we are, I guess.

Sean [00:01:11] Well, that counts. It’s a beautiful place. Very cool.

Paul [00:01:16] So just to jump right in, I wanted to focus on one article that you’ve been talking about that is near and dear to our hearts. You talked about product momentum and the loss of product momentum and how you can diagnose it. Can you, just for sharing your vision and thoughts on products and the state of the product today, what is product momentum and why is it so important?

Radhika [00:01:37] Yeah. So you know, that article on product momentum that I wrote was sparked by the fact that you know, I’ve often seen and also experienced the fact that, you know, we start a project sometimes with so much excitement, and we’ve all learned, right, that the right way to build products is by iterating. And sometimes when you don’t always catch the right iterations, it does suck product momentum. And that’s why sometimes getting the right iterations is so important. So, yes, iteration is important, but how do you try and have fewer iterations, eliminate the unnecessary ones? So that’s what really sparked that blog post for me. My particular experience was, you know, I had joined a company where they wanted me to lead a product and they’d had a few false starts, actually. And so the question was, you know, the team feels kind of disillusioned, how do you get in there and deliver on the promise that, yes, we’re going to build the product right this time, like what makes it different and how do you sustain that momentum and how do you, one reduce iterations, but even when you do make wrong iterations, how do you keep up that momentum so you don’t create that same disillusionment in teams after taking missteps?

Paul [00:03:02] That’s great. I think one of the things that you talked about a lot in that thought of iterating and shortening cycle times and getting the vision of the product into the world as efficiently and effectively as possible is the vision. And I think the way that you put it, obviously there’s been tons of ink spilled on mission and vision and how that applies to products today, but the way that you described it was really, I think, it clicked for me in a different way. It was a new way of thinking. The vision of a product is: whose world you want to change, what their world looks like today, why that’s unacceptable, and I thought that was key, why that’s unacceptable, and how you communicate a change in their world. And just that language was out of the world of features and backlogs and roadmaps and contracts and everything that goes into the logistics and it just elevated the thought process for me. And I thought that was really special.

Radhika [00:03:57] Thank you. Yeah, I think where that came from and the need that we saw for creating a new format for a vision, right, was that I’ve seen two extremes of vision statements. One type of a vision statement that I often see, right, is where we say we want to disrupt something or reinvent or revolutionize something, right, and the second kind of vision statement that I see is where it’s about business objectives. Like for G.E., it was being number one or number two in every market or many startups describe their vision as, you know, “to do blah while becoming a billion-dollar company.” And so, you know, the way I look at it, right, our vision has to be driven by what’s the change we want to bring to the world. And you know, when I say the world, it can be just even a small group of users that you really want to target and you want to change their world. It can be a small niche even, but you’re very clear about whose world you want to change. And there is a very specific reason you want to change their world and that’s how we kind of arrived at this vision statement that answers four questions, which is, you know, exactly like you said, the who, what, why and the how. The other thing about the vision statement that we did was we it a Mad Libs style statement so that you can just do this as a fill-in-the-blanks group exercise and it makes it so much easier to start versus, you know, having to start from a blank sheet of paper. That’s just really intimidating, right?

Paul [00:05:31] Yeah. And a last thought on that is the what you said before about G.E. and sort of first-to-market or best in class or those aspirational business vision statements. Users don’t care about that. They don’t care if your business is number one. They don’t care if your product is first-market, they care if their problems are getting solved.

Radhika [00:05:50] Exactly. Exactly. And that’s why a good vision statement really isn’t about yourself, right? It’s not about your own goals and aspirations. It’s centered on what’s the problem you want to solve in the world.

Sean [00:06:04] I love it. Talking our language. Along these lines, you talk about the three diseases of product management, and I think they are strategic swelling, which again, as deviation from the vision, right, some context. It’s obsessive sales disorder, which is a high focus on revenue taking away from the actual vision of the product, which is how it’s solving problems for the world. And then the third one that you talk about is pivotitis also, also referred to as like iterative-itis, right. So just pivoting because we can and we’ve found that we can drive this metric up for this metric up if we pivot in this way. Another thing you talk a lot about is the north star and having a north star for your product. So you want to talk about those three sicknesses and what your thoughts are on that and how it relates to the north star?

Radhika [00:06:49] Yeah, perfect. You know, actually, the very genesis of radical product thinking was because I kept running into these same diseases over and over, right. And these diseases are common no matter what size company you’re looking at or even what industry. And I’m not even talking for my high horse of, you know, others catch these diseases. These are definitely diseases that I’ve caught myself. I’ll share examples of these diseases. You mentioned pivotitis, right, and this is very common in startups where, you know, my example was we were a company that started out trying to be the next Visa and those big lofty goals. But we realized that you know what, being a Visa is really hard because you have to acquire both merchants and you have to acquire consumers.

Radhika [00:07:40] So after some time, we said, “you know what, we’re not gonna be the Visa anymore.” We decided that we’re going to be a loyalty platform for merchants. But then we realized, “you know what, actually, it’s a really crowded market.” So after a few months, we decided that we were going to be a credit solutions company for merchants. And the thing is, you know, the idea that pivots, like you try one thing, if it doesn’t work, you try something else. The idea that that’s okay is really propagated by the success of companies like Twitter and Slack, right. Because they started off as one thing and then they became successful because they pivoted. And so we think that pivoting, for example, is okay. And yes, if we have really figured out that our vision is not right.

Radhika [00:08:26] And this is where the importance of our vision comes in. When you have a really clear North Star, you’re working on navigating towards that North Star, and you may discover that “you know what, we’re following the wrong star, it actually turned out not to be the north star it just was some satellite,” right. And so you actually would stop, pause, and say, “OK, we had our North Star wrong; we’re going to redefine our North Star, and here’s what it actually is.” But that’s a really important step that actually prevents pivotitis because it’s an acknowledgment that, “you know what, we’re going to change our North Star.” So we don’t do it lightly. It’s not something where you try one thing then you try something else. It’s a really grave decision that “you know what, we’re going to change our North Star, this is our new North Star and this is what we’re following.” And so you don’t do that as often. And so that in itself prevents diseases like pivotitis. You know, some of the other diseases you mentioned: strategic swelling, obsessive sales disorder; all of radical product thinking was a systematic step-by-step approach that we developed so that we can build game-changing products very systematically and it takes us through a process of how do you build a good vision, a strategy, how do you prioritize things effectively? And that’s what helps prevent all of these diseases that often end up pulling product.

Paul [00:09:54] That is exactly what we’ve found. I think we’ve been discovering this along parallel paths.

Sean [00:09:59] For sure.

Paul [00:11:00] The model that we’ve been putting together internally for the products that we’ve been building for clients and users around the world is very similar. It’s striking me as profound as just so you can stumble on truth and we use different language but mean very much the same thing. I’m curious, this is a risky question, but one of the things that I’ve been thinking about in reading your work and thinking through some of the things I’ve learned from even other guests on the pod, and I’ve actually tried to avoid language like the North Star analogy deliberately because it is so fixed, because it is so unchangeable. And I do realize that pivotitis is a real risk, and I think not having clarity of vision is a real stumbling block for some products, but do you ever feel like the North Star or the unchangeable vision can create inflexibility? Is there a risk to teams being too tied to a vision. And I know that that’s a risky question in the sense that, of course, you need a vision, and of course, I acknowledge that there is an incredible importance placed in that. But is there ever a risk of being too fixed on a vision that you don’t realize that there’s an opportunity for change or pivot?

Radhika [00:11:62] Yeah, that’s a really good question. So there are two parts to this. The first, I think, is how do you even set your North Star? Right. And I think you’re exactly right that there is a lot of fear people have in setting your North Star. People are worried that, “you know what, because I can never change my North Star, I’m going to keep it high-level enough that it never needs changing.” That’s strategy number one that I’ve seen. The second is that we often set a North Star where it’s aspirational, but we don’t know, is that actually the true North Star? And those are the two things that may make us later go back and change what our North Star is, right.

Radhika [00:11:46] So let’s tackle the first one, which is that we often set a very high-level North Star because we’re afraid that, what if we ever need to change it? So an example I’ll give of that is if we look at the vision statement, and I’m going to actually let you guess whose vision this is, but there is a public company whose vision is “contributing to human progress by empowering people to express themselves.” So that sounds like a really lofty, big, big vision, right. What we called BHAG, the big, hairy, audacious goal. Any guesses as to whose vision this is?

Paul [00:12:23] Allowing people to express themselves… I’d guess, I haven’t ever read Twitter’s vision statement, but that’s the first thing that came to my mind.

Radhika [00:12:31] Close, close. It’s actually Snapchat’s vision.

Paul [00:12:37] Okay.

Radhika [00:12:37] But here’s the problem with it. Now I was working for a nonprofit once and they were working on public art installations. That’s empowering people to express themselves, right. If I’m working on a company that does language learning tools, that’s empowering people to express themselves. So the problem with the vision statement like that, “contributing to human progress by allowing people to express themselves,” is that it’s not uniquely any one company’s, right. It can be so many different companies who could have that vision statement. So when you have something like that, because you don’t own it, it’s harder to really know, “how does that translate into my everyday work?” And this is where, you know, you need a much more detailed vision so that you actually know, “am I making progress towards this vision?” And to be able to align people that’s why we need that detailed vision that answers those questions of who what, why, and how. Because your vision acts like a filter where you should be able to hold up any feature that you’re working on against this and say, “does this match my vision or not?” And so if your vision is so broad, the answer to any question is going to be “yes, it’s definitely a yes, you know, of course, it makes progress towards this vision, right.” And so that’s why we need a detailed vision so that it can actually act like a filter.

Sean [00:14:03] Yeah, I would argue that a really clear vision articulates, first and foremost, before you even talk about what problems you’re solving in the world, who you’re solving those problems for.

Radhika [00:14:04] Yeah.

Sean [00:14:05] Because when you do that, well, you’ve also articulated who you’re not solving problems for. You know, in a vision that solves problems for everybody on the planet, it’s big. And you know, there’s a place for that. But certainly, in the tactical world of building products that change the world in micro ways, you’ve got to draw a boundary somewhere. I believe that.

Radhika [00:14:34] Exactly.

Sean [00:14:35] Yeah. And the purpose of a strategy… So let’s define strategy because it’s one of those words that, I think, is abused in all businesses and in all product teams. A strategy is something that makes sure, it makes certain, that you’re adaptable in the face of market realities. So if you have a strategy that doesn’t allow you to adapt, it’s not really a strategy. It’s too fixed to be a strategy. So in my opinion, a strategy is a combination of having a crystal clear vision with all of those things that you said very articulately. We know who we’re serving and who we’re not serving, what problems we’re solving, and what problems we’re not solving. You know, why we’re better than other solutions in the market and a good understanding of how we’re going to measure our success. So I think if you have those things, that’s a vision that meets the need. Like you said, if you have all of those things that will ensure that you’re adaptable enough that you can make the micro pivots, you know, take the iterative steps you need to find success, while learning along the way. And that’s the key, right?

Radhika [00:15:34] Exactly. Exactly. And that’s where I think, you know, even in answering those questions of who what, why, and the how; you end up having to think so deeply and think through your strategy and iteratively come up with this vision where, you know, you’ve had to answer some really hard questions and possibly test things, even, to be able to come up with that vision, right. And then you’ve created this vision having done that testing and you know that, OK, it is adaptable that, you know, if you really discover that it’s wrong a year or two down the line, it’s OK to go back and revise it but you always have something at that level of depth. And you’re exactly right. To your point, Sean, it’s about being adaptable and it’s OK to make those changes to your vision as long as it’s not often like in pivotitis.

Paul [00:16:25] So Radhika, that reminds me of a chat that we had prior to the show. You’ve got a current initiative there in Singapore where you’re bringing thoughts and strategies to the public products, government products there, in addition to a long track record of commercial initiatives as well. Can you share just a few high-level thoughts and experiences that you’ve had? What are the differences in approaching those government or public works initiatives that might contrast with the experiences you’ve had in the private sector?

Radhika [00:16:51] Yeah, you know, I think working in government has been really interesting for me. Let me start maybe with the commonality. The commonality is that you know, anything can be a product. So, you know, in the case of government, your policy could be a product. So when we define our vision by, you know, whose world are you trying to change, what does their world look like, et cetera? Right. Your policy is designed with a vision to change someone’s world. Maybe you want to bring certain changes to the financial markets and so how you create your policy is to create that change. Your UX for that policy might be how people comply with that policy, et cetera. And so you’re designing a product. And so what is, I think, common across any industry, including government or corporate is that your product is your vehicle to deliver the change that you envision in the world.

Radhika [00:17:51] And I think the most inspiring example that I’ve seen of product thinking applied on a large scale is the Singaporean government. So I’ll share a little story with you, and you know, I didn’t know all that much about Singaporean history when I first moved here. And I did a lot of research because you see just amazing product thinking in so many parts of the government that it made me look up this history. So here’s what I learned. So back in the 1950s, right, in Singapore, most houses didn’t have running water or proper sanitation. And you think about that from the 1950s and to today, like now when you look around you in Singapore that sounds just unimaginable. But all this progress and the fact that Singapore is an economic powerhouse is driven by product thinking. And so here is kind of how it all started. So Singapore became independent as a country in 1965 when it split from Malaysia. And, you know, it was a poor struggling island, actually, nobody thought that it could even survive as an island. And the first prime minister here, Lee Kuan Yew, so even he in his first speech said, you know, all his life, he’d thought that Singapore’s place belonged with Malaysia. So how did it survive and thrive? It was because it started with a very clear vision that the first prime minister described. He described the vision as, you know, him wanting to create a better life for Singaporeans and his vehicle to create this better life was he wanted to create a first-world oasis in a third-world region. That’s how he described Singapore as a product, this first-world oasis.

Radhika [00:19:31] And so from there, you know, he had a product strategy, right. Just like you were saying, Sean, like, you know, your product strategy is about, “what are the pain points, how am I going to deliver this solution to the market?” Right, and so his pain points were, he thought about, what do businesses want on this first world oasis? Businesses want a place where it’s easy to communicate, right, and so English needed to be the first language. These businesses wanted a place where it looked and felt like home, which meant Singapore had to be really clean where you can drink tap water. And so they went about designing each of these things very systematically. Just to give you one example of English as the business language, right. That wasn’t easy. Let’s think about other countries, you know, where they picked one language as the official language. Sri Lanka, for instance. They picked Sinhalese as the language and it led to decades of civil war because they had such a diverse population. Instead, you know, in Singapore, they engineered this change where you have a very diverse population and so they have four national languages: Malay, Tamil, Chinese, and English. And English just happens to be the business language, very carefully picked words, and everyone here also learns their mother tongue in school.

Radhika [00:20:54] So those are just a few examples where, you know, product thinking means very systematically translating your vision into a strategy and then that translates into, you know, measurement and execution. And you do this iteratively where you make mistakes, you then make changes afterward. But it was this very systematic product thinking that was applied over, you know, this 50-year stretch to bring Singapore to where it is. And even today, when you walk into government offices, every government office has its vision and mission described very clearly for everyone to see.

Paul [00:21:33] So when the vision is aligned with the path the product is going to take with the change that you want it to be in the world. There is no tension between what that vision is and what it ends up becoming. I’m reminded of that sort of apocryphal image of the desired path in UX that goes around product management and UX circles on social media of the perfectly laid out sidewalk with the trod grass path where people want to walk. If you align your vision to where people want to go anyway, then the product isn’t forcing people to change. It’s adapting to what it is going to be. The business language the Singh government decided on now, 40 or 50 years ago. That’s an amazing foresight; that’s an amazing leader. That’s a vision that I’m going to take for homework and read up on. It’s a great way to, I think, describe the way that we want to build products. Even though it’s not a digital product, it’s definitely a change in the world. It’s an impact on people’s lives and it’s really making the world a better place. I think that’s a great anecdote that I’m going to use and take.

Radhika [00:22:34] Cool. Thank you.

Sean [00:22:35] All right. Well, let’s get back to Earth here. We’re not running countries we’re just building software products. Awesome stuff, though. Single north stars versus multiple north stars, you talk about that a little bit. Every software product, let’s be honest, serves multiple sets of personas. Right, there’s ecosystems of human beings that are impacted by the software product. There’s the people that have to support it, there’s the people that use it, you know, in two-sided markets you have multiple sets of personas that have to use the product. So how do you handle that in terms of your concept of a North Star?

Radhika [00:23:09] I love this question. And the way I handle that is that I forced you to choose. There can be only one. No, the reality is, right in your products, you always really do have to choose because you’re constantly going to have to make these tradeoffs anyway. And so you might as well know what’s the right trade-off for you, right. So let me explain what I mean. If we look at the example of Amazon. They have a marketplace; they serve customers and they serve merchants. They have a very clear priority. For them, the customer is whose world they’re trying to change. The merchants make that possible, so the merchants are important. You can’t ignore them, right. And so to be able to serve customers better, you can’t completely ignore merchants, otherwise, merchants are going to flee and there’ll be someone else who comes along and offers a better marketplace. And so you do these tradeoffs. But you know that your loyalty lies with one party. And so that’s kind of the question that you’re really answering in your North Star, whose world are you really setting up to change? And so this way, you know where your loyalty lies. And then over time, when you make tradeoffs, you know, you may sometimes make merchants happy too, but it’s still always based on a clear sense of priority.

Sean [00:24:29] I love that. We actually force our product teams to actually stack rank their personas. So it’s the same sort of thing, like, someone’s got to be number one.

Radhika [00:24:37] Yeah, exactly.

Sean [00:24:39] You know, and the clearer you are about that, the better your product will be. I believe that. Like so if you have a clear stack rank, and you do serve multiple personas, you don’t have any choice in that matter like you said. I even like to say each sprint for each product team should be focused on one persona and one persona only, that way you ensure that the entire product team has that product’s mindset for that entire two week period while they’re just heads down working on that problem set.

Radhika [00:25:05] I like that.

Sean [00:25:06] You’re gonna get a better product.

Radhika [00:25:07] Because it’s more important for you to really put yourself in that mindset where you’re empathizing with that user.

Sean [00:24:44] Absolutely. This whole game is about empathy.

Radhika [00:25:12] Yeah. That’s a really interesting angle. The other approach that I take often to prioritization is where, you know, we’ve talked so much about a vision. And Sean, you were joking how you know, “let’s get back to Earth,” kind of thing. And often this vision statement sounds like, “yeah, but how do I use in the reality of my business and I have business goals, you know, for as much as I want to change people’s world, et cetera, I have numbers to hit this quarter,” right, and so how do you balance it with the reality of your business objectives?

Radhika [00:25:47] And so the way I look at that is, you know, your vision can continue to be more based on what change you are inspired to bring, but where you bring in the reality is how you prioritize. And so your prioritization is where, you know, you look at a 2 by 2 rubric where your y-axis is your vision fit and your x-axis is survival. So basically your revenue goals, let’s say that’s kind of what’s driving your business, your revenues as your x-axis, or financial risk, right. And so every time you’re evaluating a feature, you’re basically saying, OK, is it helping me make progress towards my vision? Well, good if it is. Is it helping me reduce my financial risk or make more revenues? Well, in that case, right, it’s ideal, like, OK, of course, you want to do something like that. But generally, the harder decisions are the ones where it’s not helping you survive today, but it’s helping you with your vision. Like an example is, let’s say you’re going to have to spend the next three months refactoring your code. In that case, you’re investing in your vision. That’s something where you can’t keep doing a ton of things in your sprints that are all investing in the vision, maybe you doing one thing that’s of that sort and most of your other features are in the ideal quadrant, right. And the opposite of investing in the vision is what I call vision debt, which is kind of like technical debt, except it’s in the vision side, so meaning that it’s actually taking you away from your vision, but it’s helping you survive another quarter.

Radhika [00:27:27] So, for instance, you know, let’s say your customer really wants you to do this one custom feature just for them. And if you do that, you’re going to win this big marquee client, right. Well, of course, that’s helping you survive, but maybe in the long run it’s not so good for your vision. So then you’re taking on vision debt. And basically in your sprint, the way I look at it, you’re taking on these different quadrants, which is rarely investing in the vision and rarely you’re taking on vision debt. As much as possible, you’re doing things that are ideal, which is both helping you make progress towards your vision and it’s helping you make progress on your financial risk.

Paul [00:28:05] Yeah, you know what? I think that the concept of vision that is key here. I’ve heard tech debt, obviously, and I’ve heard UX debt, where we need do some catch-up and clean up down the road but we need to get this feature out the door now, but vision debt, I think is something that’s really worth keying in on for project managers and I think the way that you have to do that is you have to track things, right. The vision is the roadmap ahead of you and there is a clear path that you’ve articulated, but you don’t know how close you are to it unless you’re measuring things. One of the ways that we’ve differentiated that here at ITX is through the language of business KPIs versus product KPIs. Business KPIs being that sustainability that you talked about on the x-axis, like the thing that keeps the lights on, the thing that keeps the oxygen in the system so that the product can breathe, but the vision fit being the P-KPIs where you need to ensure that what you’re building is aligned towards the vision but the tracking, the measuring, I think is probably, I would argue, one of or possibly the hardest jobs of a product manager today. Because if you don’t have that system of feedback built-in, those loops, whether it’s analytics or metrics or measures or surveys or however the tool is designed, if you don’t have that information, you have no idea where you are on your course towards that North Star.

Radhika [00:29:21] Right, exactly. I love this idea of, you know, your business KPI versus your product KPI and differentiating in that way. That’s a really good way of tracking what you need to achieve. This is the Ying and Yang of what really helps you make progress towards the vision versus things you really need to do for your business. That’s great.

Sean [00:29:40] I want to pull on this concept of empathy that you’ve brought up a couple of times now because this concept that’s near and dear to my heart. So what are your thoughts on products and empathy and how it all kind of fits together?

Radhika [00:29:53] Yeah, I think the core part of strategy that we laid out in Radical Product Thinking, we talked about, you know, empathy in the sense that you have to understand, what are the real pain points? And we very specifically said, you know, real, because very often we don’t really know if pain points are real. We kind of think that they are. And when I say real, it’s because you have empathy that’s based on actually observing people and you’ve felt their pain, and not only that, you’ve felt their pain, you’ve actually seen that they’re willing to give up something in exchange for having this pain solved. And that’s the amount of empathy that you need to have developed for your users that you understand them well enough that you can actually stack rank their pain points. And when you get to that point, that’s where you feel like, okay, now I can build a good strategy. And that’s kind of a different level of empathy beyond just, you know, feeling their pain. It’s like understanding it better.

Paul [00:30:52] Yeah. I think one of the things that gets lost often in product conversations is, you know, you have this thought of pain and frustration and it’s easy to just assume that nobody’s dying because of a workflow. Nobody’s getting hurt because of my products, but you have to realize that the pain that we’re talking about is registered in our users’ minds and the way that they feel as real pain. When you’re frustrated with a product, digital, physical or otherwise, you can only move a user in one of two directions. You’re either making their lives better or you’re making their lives worse. I don’t think that there’s any such thing as a net neutral product where it is just a benign thing. You’re either improving somebody’s life, even if just in a small way, or you’re not. One of the words that we’ve used throughout this whole conversation is this thought of innovation. If you could just share, what is your definition of innovation?

Radhika [00:31:42] That’s a very good question. And there’s so many points that you’ve mentioned there, Paul, that I want to get back to. To me, innovation is about changing people’s lives for the better. And when I say changing people’s lives, I think, no matter kind of how technical your product is, in the end, it always boils down to changing a person’s life, someone’s life, right. And you know, this is all the way from research into quantum, like if you’re figuring out how the world works, it’s so that you’re giving humanity a better understanding of how their world is working, right. So that to me is what innovation is about. It’s about building things to change people’s world. And you know, Paul, what you said was just so important to me about, you’re either making people’s lives better or you’re making it worse. You know, it’s so true, and when we’re not thinking about that human element, that, “I’m changing someone’s world and how do I want to change their world,” it’s so easy to just accidentally make changes that are for the worse. And what I’ve realized over time is that there are very few villains like in comic books who are setting out to do bad things, you know, it can be just that we become accidental villains to our users and that’s what we don’t want to be.

Paul [00:32:59] Oh, man. I think that’s a can of worms that we might spend another hour talking about if we jumped into it. I love that thought. I realize that I’ve used a bunch of astronomical language but, you know, you have sins of omission and sins of commission. There’s things that you do that are deliberately wrong which are often, in product speak, not the case. We don’t set out to hurt people but oftentimes we lose sight of our users, we lose sight of the vision, and we end up hurting them accidentally. That does tie back, I think, to the whole concept of innovation. There are thoughts of, innovation is only something huge, innovation is only something in the next iteration of JavaScript or the newest quantum computer that we want to rely on. But I think innovation comes in small pieces, in micro pieces even. I think every feature, every font, every color choice that we make is innovation. It’s just like nutrition. There’s no such thing as something you put in your body that’s either not going to help it or hurt it in some way. I think there’s a great, great story to tell there. I think if you get into comic book villains we might go down a whole path of thinking that we might be off-topic on.

Radhika [00:34:04] You know, one thing I wanted to go back to is something that you said about empathy. I’m realizing that empathy is not just about product managers showing empathy for their users. I’m realizing that it’s more of something that has to happen across the whole organization. So just as product managers show empathy for their users, sometimes it’s about management as well showing empathy for their product function. There is this concept of organizational cactus. So in every company, there is organizational friction. Like when you have to do your expense report and, “uh, that’s such a pain,” that’s emotional bandwidth you’re spending on something that makes you useful work feel less meaningful. And typically it’s a little bit of friction here and there, but sometimes when there is a lot of organizational friction, then it feels like cactus, right? There’s just pain in moving about your organization in every way. And where it comes into contact with product, meaning that, you know, as a product manager, right, I try to fight against vision debt accumulating. So if we are accumulating vision debt, I say, “no, let’s not do that.” So each of these are fights that, once you start to see organizational cactus, you end up saying, “I want to pick my battles, so, you know, in this case, maybe there’s vision debt, but oh, whatever, I’m just going to not worry too much about it.” And it starts to affect your product. Slowly over time, you tend to get more and more vision debt only because people don’t want to fight against every little bit of vision debt that accumulates. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the industry.

Sean [00:35:41] I’ll give you my thoughts on it. So if our inputs are the people that are building the products, motivation is critical to our success. The capabilities that they have and their ability to grow and adapt and have mastery. So you have to start from a point of empathy. The whole point of building a vision is so that you can create better empathy amongst your team around what you’re trying to accomplish. So that’s my short answer to your question.

Radhika [00:36:03] Yeah, I agree.

Sean [00:36:05] OK. So we have one last question we ask all of our guests. What are you reading?

Radhika [00:36:10] I think you’re going to be amused by the answer to this one. At the moment, I’m rereading Lean Startup. And my reason for that is, you know, I’ve been talking about this iteration epidemic that I see, and I was wondering kind of, you know, how did we get here? So it made me want to reread Lean Startup just to say, you know, what does Eric Ries say about vision and strategy? And interestingly, he talks about that as well, having vision and strategy and then that leading into execution. And that’s making me realize how a lot of the iteration epidemic has come on because these execution methodologies work so well that it makes us very comfortable in staying in execution mode and sometimes we just need to pull ourselves out of execution to be able to really rethink our product and rethink our vision and strategy, et cetera, to then translate it into execution. But yes, to answer your question, yeah, Lean Startup is what I was rereading at the moment.

Sean [00:37:07] Excellent. I think we’ve got a lot of great nuggets to share. Thank you for giving us so much of your time, Radhika, and I understand you’re moving to Boston soon, so good luck with that move.

Radhika [00:37:07] Thank you. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll be back at the end of June.

Sean [00:38:31] All right.

Paul [00:38:31] Radhika, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for sharing your time with us.

Radhika [00:37:84] Thanks so much, Paul and Sean. It was awesome.

Paul [00:37:30] Well, that’s it for today. In line with our goals of transparency in listening, we really want to hear from you. Sean and I are committed to reading every piece of feedback that we get. So please leave a comment or a rating wherever you’re listening to this podcast. Not only does it help us continue to improve, but it also helps the show climb up the rankings so that we can help other listeners move, touch and inspire the world, just like you’re doing. Thanks, everyone. We’ll see you next episode.

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