3 Steps to Calibrate Your Product Before Liftoff

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If you shift the nose of an airplane by a few degrees, a plane leaving Los Angeles for New York 🗽 will end up in Washington D.C. 🏛️

You probably won’t notice it on the runway. You might not even notice it until you’re in the air. Seemingly small mistakes early on make a big impact on the long-term.

It’s the same with product development.

If you’re not testing and validating your ideas, you’re putting your product and your business at risk. If the average development cost for a quality app ranges between $100,000 to $1,000,000 dollars, that’s a significant investment in resources. Not only that, if you consider the opportunity cost, the true cost of building the wrong product could be much higher in lost revenue.

The good news is that you have the tools to calibrate the direction of your product. It requires more upfront work but it’s better than having to course correct midway, or worse, after you’ve launched your product.

1️⃣ Identify and understand your “best-fit” customers.

If you already have raving fans, spend time with them and have them tell you why they love your product. These “best-fit” customers are who you should be building your product for.

If you don’t have an established customer base, it’s too early to commit to a big build and launch. Take the time to speak with the people you want to serve and seek to understand their challenges intimately as you get ready for the next step.

2️⃣ Prototype and test with real customers.

Spend a week to quickly prototype your idea. The prototype doesn’t have to be a finished or polished version. It just needs to look “real enough” so you can collect meaningful feedback from prospective customers.

3️⃣ Iterate until you’ve met customer needs.

Be prepared to accept that v1 of your prototype might not hit the mark. You’ll need to keep on iterating until you’re able to satisfy your customer’s needs. Make sure you have a process for iteration so you can be consistent with the way you incorporate customer feedback.

You’ve now spent your time understanding your “best-fit” customers, you’ve prototyped multiple times with real customers, you’ve incorporated feedback into your product. Now it’s time to launch with confidence.

Of course, this isn’t the end of it. The product build itself will require adjustments that will involve your product, marketing, and sales team as new information comes in. If building a product that customers love and is like building, flying, and landing a plane, we need all hands on deck.

Write to me in the comments below what challenges you’re facing with building your product, and I’ll send you some suggestions for how you can point it in the right direction.

The 4 Core Principles of the Design Sprint Process

And how it drives more innovation than meetings.

When it comes to innovation, meetings don’t have a great reputation. Research compiled by TED shows that “50% of people find meetings to be unproductive” and “25% of meetings are spent discussing irrelevant issues.”

There’s real economic impact for bad meetings too. According to the same research from TED, “executives average 23 hours per week in meetings where 7.8 of those hours are unnecessary and poorly run, which is equal to 2 months per year wasted.”

Take a moment to imagine the cumulative impact of wasting 2 months for your team and business (!!)

Underlying the symptoms of ineffective meetings are cognitive biases that are inherent in collaborative work. In particular, I consider the below biases the Four Horsemen of innovation failure:

  1. Confirmation bias – we seek out information that supports what we already believe.
  2. Anchoring bias – we rely too heavily on the first piece of information we receive.
  3. The halo effect – we allow our impression of a person in one domain to influence our overall impression of the person.
  4. Optimism/pessimism bias – we estimate a positive/negative outcome based on our mood.

So how do we organize better meetings that develop better ideas?

Enter the Design Sprint process

The Design Sprint was developed by Google Ventures to prototype and test any idea in just 5 days. Instead of spending weeks or months building something in a vacuum, you validate an idea with real customers within a week. It essentially allows you to fast forward into the future so you don’t waste time and money going down the wrong path.

What’s beautiful about the Design Sprint is that it neutralizes much of the impact of the Four Horsemen by, ahem, design (no pun intended). The creators of the sprint, Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky, thought carefully about the ways to remove biases by creating a process that allows for innovative ideas to emerge.

Without furtherado, here are the 4 core principles of a Design Sprint:

1. Together, Alone

The biggest misconception of innovation is that “group discussions = great ideas.” While group discussions are valuable, they often lead to the most outspoken or senior person – sometimes both – influencing the opinions in the room. 

The biggest misconception of innovation is that “group discussions = great ideas.”

Both of these situations have a chance of triggering cognitive biases such as the anchoring bias (e.g. the first person that speaks steers the discussion in a certain direction) or the halo effect (e.g we allow a senior leader’s expertise in one area to influence our thinking on an area they might not have experience in).

In constrast, when we create time for individual thinking during an innovative process, we level the playing field. It allows introverts to collect their thoughts without being distracted and extroverts to refine their ideas before they share them.

In a famous example, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is known for providing everyone time to read a memo at the start of a meeting before discussing it. He understands that many on his executive team don’t get a chance to read the memo let alone think deeply about it.

Meanwhile, in a sprint, everyone is given time to brainstorm their own ideas prior to a group conversation. In fact, much of thinking in a sprint is done alone to avoid biases that may arise from sharing ideas too early. Even voting on the best idea is done anonymously.

While it may feel unnatural to be together, yet alone in a group setting, it’s important that everyone gets time to formulate their own ideas and opinions.

2. Tangible > Discussion

Many of us have sat in on meetings where we seemingly get agreement from everyone only to discover that days or weeks later, we need another meeting to clarify what we originally agreed upon! This can be a frustrating time suck and increase tensions within the team.

The second principle, Tangible > Discussion, is to use visuals to help people express and assess ideas. Visuals do three things:

A) It forces the presenter to clarify their idea;

B) It reduces the chance of confusion or miscomunication; and

C) It provides the team an opportunity to build on the original idea and provide tangible feedback.

You don’t have to be an artist to leverage visuals. It can be as simple as a few boxes, circles, stick figures, and/or arrows.

In a sprint, we use exercies such as a Four-Step Sketch or Storyboarding to clarify ideas and share them with the team. These activities create space for participants to flesh out their ideas and visualize them without feeling intimidated about sketching.

So, if you’re sharing an idea or concept in your meeting, try to make it tangible. For example, if there’s a key idea you’d like to walk the team through, sketch it out and share it with the team. If you’re working remoately, you can leverage online whiteboards like Miro or Mural to help you capture key ideas or sketch out a concept for the team.

3. Getting Started > Being Right

I can almost guarantee this is where you’ll get the strongest resistance from your team. As human beings, we seek out information that matches our beliefs. The confirmation bias is real folks!

The challenge for any creative process is how we can solve a problem we’ve never solved before. Relying exclusively on our past experiences or knowledge won’t be enough.

In a sprint, the goal is to move fast and gain momentum. The point isn’t to come up with the perfect prototype but something good enough to test and learn from. We’re essentially placing an educated bet on what we think might work.

[In a Design Sprint], we’re essentially placing an educated bet on what we think might work.

This is where having a reliable process to generate and select the best ideas truly matters. If you have a structured process that allows for unbiased idea generation and selection, your team will likely be more comfortable trusting the best idea to emerge.

The good news is that with a sprint, you’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work within 1-2 weeks. So having your own process that provides a rapid feedback loop from idea to testing will give your team more confidence that they’re going in the right direction.

As Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, wrote, “the only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.”

4. Don’t rely on creativity!

The final principle is a little provocative. After all, isn’t innovation all about unleashing people’s creativity?

Yes and no – the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Creativity is a fickle thing. Some days we’re in the mood where inspiration strikes like lightning and some days we’d rather be tucked comfortably under the warm covers of our beds.

Don’t rely on creativity is a reminder that we can’t afford to wait for our creative muse to appear in order to do great work. The best way to innovative is by testing and learning then testing and learning some more.

A process like the Design Sprint helps us avoid the optimism and pessimism bias because we’re not relying on our daily mood for inspiration. As a team, we commit to a process that will help us clarify our direction forward.

What’s next?

If there’s one thing I hope you takeaway from this post, it’s that process matters when it comes to designing your collaborative meetings.

As a leader, your role is to orchestrate innovation by providing your team with the space to generate new ideas and synthesize them into an actionable plan. By having clear principles and a process for innovation, you give your team the best chance to innovate.

Whether you’re running an actual Design Sprint or looking to design better meetings, I hope the 4 principles will help you create the space for better ideas to emerge.

If you’re interested in learning more about a Design Sprint, I encourage you to reach out to me for a 25-minute virtual coffee or come out to one of my future workshops to preview a sprint experience.

Start With Fun When You’re Choosing Your Target Customer

One of the most important things you’ll do early on when you’re designing a go-to-market strategy or launching a new offering is deciding on your target customer.

It’s an important first step because the customer you choose will also dictate how you build your product or service, and the way you market it.

At the same time, I know it can be a challenge to settle down on an ideal customer profile to work with!

If you’re launching something new, you might not have enough information about potential customer needs or you might not want to pigeon hole yourself to the wrong target audience too early.

That said, it’s important to start somewhere and have a hypothesis you’re willing to test. “Spraying and praying” your sales & marketing effort doesn’t work — especially when you’re limited in time, money, and energy.

If you’re having this type of challenge, take a moment and open up your favourite writing tool. I’ve outlined four key questions below to help you get closer to finding your target audience. This activity should take about 30-60 minutes of initial reflection.

1. Who will you have the most fun working with?

You might be wondering why “fun” is at the top of this list. After all, if you’re trying to build a business, and fun really has no place for something so serious… right?

I’d argue that elements like fun, creativity, and joy should be at the top of any important project you take on. In our adult years, we’ll spend more time with our colleagues, teams, and clients than we do with our friends or family (!!!), so why spend that time working with people you don’t genuinely enjoy spending time with?

When you ask yourself this question, an interesting shift happens. Instead of focusing solely on the industry, size of the company, title, etc. of an ideal customer, your focus shifts more to the type of person and organization you’d enjoy working with. In marketing terms, we shift our focus from demographics to psychographics.

When I ask myself this question, a few follow-up questions about my ideal customer emerge:

What are they like? 

What motivates them?

Do they care about the people around them and the culture they build?

Do they value integrity and creativity?

Is the work they do more than just a “job” for them?

Obviously it’s more challenging to find people with a matching mindset than it is to look up someone with a specific title or in a certain industry or company size. 

At the same time, we have more effective tools available these days to attract like-minded people. This blog is a good example of that. If you’ve read my piece this far, it’s likely you care about the same things that I do.

So take a moment to think about the people you might enjoy working with the most. Imagine you have five open seats around a table. If you were to form an advisor panel with these five customers, who would you want in those seats?

2. Who can you create the greatest impact with?

This question is all about the value proposition of your offering.

When you think about impact, what you’re really asking is whether your product or service will solve your customer’s problem. So it’s crucial you spend time developing a solid customer profile and understanding their pains and gains.

Here are the key questions to consider when you start this process:

  1. What jobs are they trying to get done?
  2. What pains are they experiencing?
  3. What gains are they looking for?

If you asked them about their current challenges or concerns, what might they say to the following questions?

  • What are the main difficulties and challenges you encounter? Do you have difficulties getting certain things done, or meet resistance with particular jobs for specific reasons?
  • What do you find too costly for your business? What takes a lot of time, costs too much money, or requires substantial efforts?
  • What negative consequences do you encounter or fear? Are you afraid of a loss of face, power, trust, or status?

On the other side of the ledger, what might they say to things that they want or desire?

  • How do current value propositions delight your customers? Which specific features do they enjoy? What performance and quality do they expect?
  • Which savings would make your customers happy? Which savings in terms of time, money, and effort would they value?
  • What would make your customers’ jobs or lives easier? Could there be a flatter learning curve, more services, or lower costs of ownership?

By going through these questions, you’ll likely get a better picture of whether your product or service will meet the needs for your customers

(For further reading about this topic, I recommend reading Value Proposition Design by Alex Osterwalder for a step-by-step process to create a strong value proposition for your product or service.)

3. Based on your experience, which clients do you understand best?

If you have past experience working in a particular industry or segment, this is a good time to think about where you can leverage this. You already have a good sense of what the challenges look like for this group and you might be able to achieve early success by targeting this group.

One thing I think about is the Blue Ocean Strategy developed by Renee Mauborgne and W. Chan Kim. Instead of fighting for a spot in a highly competitive market (i.e. red ocean) how can you create a unique offering where you create the demand (i.e. blue ocean).

By thinking about the combination of which clients you understand best and mixing it in with a unique offering, you might be able to create a blue ocean for your business.

4. Who would it be most profitable to work with?

Finally, take a moment to think about profitability. 

Insights here could come from your past experience working with different customer segments, research that’s publicly available, conversations with colleagues & peers, or anywhere else you can think of.

Industries that are experiencing substantial change or growth might be a good group to target as they often have unmet needs or opportunities where you can create a Blue Ocean Strategy around.

Profitability doesn’t just mean how much gross revenue you can generate with a customer base. If you have a customer base that’s difficult to work with, you’ll likely be spending a lot of time providing customer support or post-sale services that will eat into your profits.

Which clients will be the most satisfied with your offering just as it is? If customization is required, what parameters can you set so that you’re not modifying every last detail?

Putting It All Together

Whether you’re a leader in Sales & Marketing collaborating with your Product team to create a new offering or you’re an business owner keeping up with new customer demands, it’s important that you nail down the target customer first. I hope the questions above sparked some ideas and thoughts for you to further explore!

Finally, it’s worth keeping in mind that all of this is a balance, and the questions above should encourage you to establish principles rather than rules with who you work with. Principles help guide your decisions and are more adaptable than rules which tend to be more rigid. Regularly working with all parts of your business to keep your ideal customer profile will be important as well as major events or shifts in the market may change the expectations and behaviours of your customer.

What was most useful for you in this article?

What has worked for your business in deciding on a target customer?

I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts below.

P.S. I’m running a workshop on Tuesday, November 10th at 12pm EST to help leaders frame any business challenge. We’ll use fun, interactive activities to help you figure out what your key obstacles are and how you can solve them. If you’re working on any BIG challenge or project, I hope you’ll join me there.

How to Reframe Obstacles as Opportunities for Curiosity

Space is a heck of a place to run into problems.

In the 1995 movie Apollo 13 there’s an iconic scene in which NASA Flight Director, Gene Kranz, (played by Ed Harris) draws a map of the Earth and Moon on a blackboard.

It had been two days into the mission when an oxygen tank failed aboard the spaceship causing an explosion in the main service module. Without the module operating, the crew had to move to the lunar landing module as a lifeboat.

In the scene, Kranz gathers the mission operations team and draws a map of the flight trajectory that the damaged Apollo 13 would need to track to return back to Earth safely. It was a simple map for a complex problem.

Over the course of the next five days they would have to navigate a series of obstacles that required the crew and the mission operations team to find creative solutions. Anything and everything was on the table.

Every time a new problem emerged, Kranz gathered his team around the blackboard to discuss the challenge around their central goal: get the crew back home safely.

Reframing Obstacles as Opportunities for Curiosity

It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s going wrong or what could go wrong. But maybe there’s a better way of looking at obstacles? 

In fact, problems themselves can be an opportunity for creativity and innovation. When teams can gain clarity about the problem and break it down into questions to find answers to, we might just create the space for innovation to happen.

Here’s an activity to try with your team at your next (remote) meeting called Starting at the End.

It sounds obvious but one of the most forgotten steps when launching a new project is clarifying the objective. Even taking the first 30-60 minutes of a project to talk through these questions as a group can help clarify the direction and rally your team around a common goal.

Here’s the first question:

  1. Why are we working on this project or problem?

Take your time with this question. Beyond the obvious answers around hitting certain metrics or deliverables, there may be some deeper whys that emerge from you and your team that create an emotional connection to the problem you’re solving. Just like the mission operations team rallied around “get the crew home”, this will be your team’s core motivator.

  1. Where do we want to be 12-18 months from now?

Depending on the scope of the problem, you may want toggle with the timeframe here. Maybe it’s 6 months or even 5 years? Personally, 12-18 months is a sweet spot if you’re looking for a balance between an aspirational goal while also being focused on tangible milestones you want to achieve.

  1. Imagine we travel into the future and our project failed. What caused it to fail? What went wrong?

Now we switch gears. In the first two questions, we painted a picture about what success might look like, but now we want to look at the obstacles in the way.

Note that after you pose this question to the team, it’s natural that the energy in the room might dip. Uncertainty is uncomfortable especially if it’s a project you’re excited about. But it’s important to embrace this tension and make sure everyone in the room has a chance to share what they might be worried about before we move onto the final step.

  1. To reach our goals, what questions do we need answered?

This is the last, and the most important step.

Now that we have a list of challenges we might encounter, we’re going to reframe them into questions. Problems create uncertainty but interesting questions help activate curiosity.

Problems create uncertainty but interesting questions help activate curiosity.

Here’s how you’re going to phrase the questions: “How Might We…” 

How Might We (HMW) questions transform the mindset of your team by helping them consider  the possibilities. We’re all so wired to fix things, but what innovation needs is more curiosity and space to explore. Here are a couple of examples of transforming some existing obstacles & assumptions into HMW questions:

Solving a Big Problem? Consider a Five-Day Design Sprint.

The activity above comes from a process designed by Jake Knapp and John Zeratzky called a Design Sprint. In fact, it’s one of the first activities you’d do in the sprint to gain clarity on what you’re trying to solve.

Here’s what that process looks like:

  1. You spend the first day identifying your goals and mapping the current process for your key stakeholders. 
  2. On the second day you focus on ideating and unleashing your team’s creativity. 
  3. On the third day, you decide on the ONE area you want to prototype a solution for. 
  4. And by the time Friday rolls around you’re actually testing your solution with real clients.

Thinking five days is too short to prototype a new solution? Take this example of an insurance company that condensed 6 months of meetings & discussions to come up with a prototype in 5 days.

The best part is that not only are you reducing risk, you’re saving time. One of the characteristics of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world we live in is that the rules change quickly. If your launch timeline isn’t reaching your audience quickly, the project itself may be too late.

How Are You Thinking About Problems?

On April 17th, 1970 – five days after the launch – Apollo 13 splash downed in the South Pacific. Although fatigued from dehydration, the crew was alive and in good condition. It was an amazing achievement given how dire the situation was only days ago.

It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out how to solve a problem but we do need a good framework to help us get started. If you’re just about to launch a project, give the activity above a shot and see if you can reframe your obstacles into HMW questions. Your team will thank you for the simple switch in the mindset from uncertainty to curiosity.

P.S. I’m running my second workshop on October 23rd for creative leaders (like yourself!) to bring more fun and innovation to solve your BIG problems. Registration is capped at 10 people and the last session sold out. So grab your ticket early and I hope to see you there!