Founder of Radical Product Thinking
She is a product leader and entrepreneur who has participated in 4 exits, 2 of which were companies she founded. She is currently working on a book about Radical Product Thinking that’s launching in September 2021. She is a global citizen, having lived or worked on 4 continents and a polyglot, speaking 9 different languages.
Please join me in welcoming Radhika Dutt to The Innovation Series, Welcome Radhika! It’s very nice to meet you and thank you very much for your time.
Radhika: Thanks, Randy. Great to meet you and I love the well-researched questions you ask on this series.
Randy: Thank you very much! I am excited to get right into it. In your talk from UX fest you go into great detail on the Iteration Epidemic and introduce the concept of radical product thinking. So for all of our product makers out there, what exactly is radical product thinking and why do we need it?
Radhika: Methodologies such as Lean and Agile promised to democratize innovation. We all learned to test ideas in the market to discover what customers want, and then to refine our products iteratively. But at some point, for many companies iteration evolved into an overused crutch driven by the belief that if we iterate long enough, we can build successful products. Lean and Agile are great for getting to where we want to go faster - they give us speed. They don’t, however, tell us where we need to go. When we use Lean and Agile in the absence of a clear vision and strategy, good products become bloated, fragmented, directionless, and driven by irrelevant metrics. They catch “product diseases” which get in the way of building successful products.
In the last decade, a second problem with the overuse of iteration has emerged - it has created a dichotomy in the tech industry. We’ve accepted that you can either build successful products or you can do good in the world. Why does this dichotomy exist when we don’t design products with malicious intent? When we over-rely on iteration without a clear vision for the world we want to create, our iterations move financial KPI up and to the right but in the process, our products create collateral damage in society through what I’ve started calling digital pollution.
Radical Product Thinking is a big idea and a methodology that organizations can use to build successful products without creating collateral damage in the world through digital pollution. We can build successful products that do good AND do well.
Randy: I noticed that radical product thinking begins with having a clear, well-defined vision. In a previous interview with Brittni Bowering, she and I discussed the important qualities of a good leader, and one of the main takeaways from that conversation is that good leaders always set a clear vision. This might seem obvious, but from my experience working with organizations of all shapes and sizes, many of them don’t seem to understand exactly what a clear vision is...so what are the defining characteristics of a clear product vision?
Radhika: Exactly! Even when we know that we need a clear vision, crafting such a clear vision is still tricky. A lot of the conventional wisdom about a good vision turns out to be flawed and leads to confusion between a brand tagline and a real vision. For example, we’ve learned that a good vision should be aspirational, a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), and short (to keep it memorable). The first step in crafting a good vision is to unlearn these practices.
Instead, your vision should be detailed enough to help you and your team visualize what the world looks like when you bring about the change you’re setting out to. Your product is only a mechanism to create the change you envision — it’s not the end goal in itself. Clear signposts are needed to judge a product’s success — that is, whether it’s creating the change you set out to achieve in the first place. To serve as a signpost, a good vision answers 4 hard questions: Whose world are you setting out to change? What does their world look like today? Why does it need changing (perhaps it doesn’t)? How will you bring about this change? It’s invaluable to answer these questions through a team visioning exercise because it uncovers where there are misalignments. But a team exercise to craft a vision can easily devolve into a wordsmithing exercise when we start with a blank sheet of paper. To get around this problem, you can use the “Mad-Lib” format for a Radical Vision Statement from the Radical Product Thinking methodology.
Randy: The COVID-19 global pandemic has definitely changed the way we work forever. In fact, it’s changed the way the whole world works. How do you think the way we bring digital products to market will evolve as a result of this new economy?
Radhika: In the last decade, the booming economy and abundant access to capital often masked the problems with over-reliance on iteration. For example, a company that had caught the disease Pivotitis often had the luxury of trying one idea after another in the market. In the post-pandemic economy, we all have less margin for error – we’ll need to take a more disciplined and systematic approach to iterate less and achieve more. We’ll need to hone our visionary skills when we can’t overuse iteration as a crutch.
Second, we’re starting to see the effects of digital pollution fraying the fabric of society. In optimizing for financial KPI, our tech industry has created products that make it harder to distinguish fact from fiction, increased both wealth and ideological polarization and we’ve created platforms that make it easy to manipulate people en masse. Employees in the tech industry are coming to the realization that wants to feel like they’re creating positive change in the world through their work. We’re going to see this awareness amplifying over the next few years. They’re going to demand a more thoughtful approach to building digital products.
Randy: In your article, Start with Pain Points, not Use Cases you state, “Starting with a solution, rather than with a problem, will inevitably bias your customer discovery process.” As a consultant focused on digital products, this statement really resonated with me. I find that companies often believe they have the answer, but under a little scrutiny, they find out that they have the right answer to the wrong question. How can digital product teams do their best to be aimed at the right target from the beginning?
Radhika: At the time I wrote the article, the trend I was seeing was that teams often focused on use cases - we’d often have engineering solutions and the role of the product manager was to “find use cases for the solutions”. We’re moving away from this and the idea of focusing on pain points rather than use cases has caught on. But we still have more work to do.
We don’t just want to address our customers’ pain points, we want to address their Real pain points. To be validated, a pain point must be both verified and valued. I use this formula to introduce a culture of user research in companies:
Validated = Verified + Valued
For each pain point the team identifies, we share how we have Verified it by observing this pain in our users through user research. Verifying pain points ensures we’re not scratching our own itch.
For a pain point to be Valued, users must be willing to invest something to have their problem solved. For example, if you use Photoshop, you invested not only by buying a license but also by spending time on learning to use the product. Even free products must be valued to have a viable business model - in the case of Facebook, users are giving up privacy and time in exchange for connecting with others.
Randy: I have seen in more than one place that you introduce this idea of Vision Debt. I love it, I’m a “debt” believer. Most people in the digital product world are familiar with the concept of Technical Debt, and I myself have been speaking recently about Design Debt:
What exactly is Vision Debt, how can we identify it in advance, and what should we do if we see it coming?
Radhika: We incur Vision Debt when we put progress toward our product vision on hold in order to satisfy more immediate financial constraints. Just as accumulating an excess of technical debt leads to bugs or brittle code, excess vision debt leads to confused customers, demotivated teams, and a directionless product. Examples of Vision Debt include adding one-off features and integrations to your product just to close a sale or using a competitor’s technology at the core of your product.
These activities may help you get to market faster and close deals, but they move you further from achieving your vision. If you need the cash, however, you may not have a choice. The important thing with vision debt (just as with technical debt) is to keep track of vision debt and make a plan to pay it down later in your strategic roadmap. But as we all know, paying back this debt is easier said than done so it’s important to be very selective in taking on vision debt.
Acknowledging vision debt, and explaining the plan to pay it back, helps you mitigate any short-term damage to your team’s alignment and commitment to the vision.
Randy: The model of freeconomics says you should give away your best content for free. I recently downloaded the Radical Product Toolkit and I am test driving it on a product. So far it has been really intuitive and has helped clarify the vision. This toolkit is available for free, what’s in there and how can product managers and designers benefit from using it?
Radhika: Thanks Randy, glad you’ve found it helpful. I’m working on a book that will be published in September next year, but in the meanwhile, we designed the toolkit to be a step-by-step guide to help Radical Product Thinkers apply the methodology. It includes vision worksheets to help you craft a vision as a group exercise, a worksheet to craft a comprehensive RDCL Strategy (pronounced ‘radical’), a prioritization rubric to help you decide in what order you’ll deliver your strategy, a template for a cross-functional strategic roadmap to layout your plan over time, and an execution and measurement worksheet for hypothesis-driven execution that aligns with the direction you’ve defined in the previous steps.
In effect, the toolkit helps you translate your vision into everyday activities.
Randy: What top-secret project are you working on, that you have been waiting for this very special opportunity on The Innovation Series to unveil?
Radhika: I’m thrilled to share that I’m joining the teaching faculty at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business. My workshops to date have been designed for corporate or startup teams, and I’m excited to bring these practical learnings to business school students this coming semester. One reason this excites me is that I’ll be introducing the concept of responsible entrepreneurship to people early in their careers. I recently wrote an article, Ending the Arms Race in the Tech Industry that explains why responsible entrepreneurship is important - we have learned to build products faster than ever before, but our products don’t always make the world a better place.
I wanted to unveil this with The Innovation Series both to share my excitement and also to plant the seed with readers on responsible innovation.
Randy: Good luck and thank you again for sharing your experiences on The Innovation Series. It's been great to have you!
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Daniel BurkaResolve to Save Lives, GV
Carie DavisYour Ideas are Terrible, Coca-Cola
Sean AmmiratiDirector, Corporate Startup Lab at Carnegie Mellon
Aaron LerchWhy designers and developers need to invest in being equal partners
Alex BillingsleyHow to get designers and developers on the same page