Intercom on Product: the siren call of innovation

For many companies, innovation has become the gold standard. But are there things you shouldn’t be innovating on? Are there areas where it’s best to be boring?

There’s a delicate balance any product strategy needs to master: On the one hand, to build a successful business, you need to design features that set your company apart — your core of innovation. On the other, no customer will sign up for a product if there isn’t a solid foundation on which to innovate on. But how do you strike that balance? And how do you get everyone on board?

On this episode of Intercom on Product, Paul Adams, our SVP of Product, and I come to grips with chasing innovation, why it needs to be sustainable, and the risks of taking it too far.

If you’re short on time, here are a few quick takeaways:

  • When it comes to innovation, it’s all about finding the right balance. Ask yourself where your area of innovation is, what’s the thing that differentiates you from other companies. Down the stack, it’s often best to stick with the industry standard.
  • A good way to figure out where to innovate vs. not to innovate is to have a clear mapping of the product landscape. By laying out the differentiating features down to the nitty-gritty, the UI, the workflows, it’s easy to plot out if they should be unique or just strong table stakes.
  • In the race for market share, startups try to close the gaps on the incumbent companies, while these try to build new, differentiator features. Whoever does it fastest will win.
  •  Not everyone will be working on ground-breaking features. The most important thing to get teams excited about building basic features is to walk them through the big picture, let them know where their work fits and how it will help the company achieve its vision.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Des Traynor: Welcome to Intercom on Product. This is episode number 13. Sorry for the little delay — we’re glad to be back. I am joined once again by our SVP of Product, Mr. Paul Adams. Hi, Paul.

Paul Adams: Hey, Des.

Des: And today’s topic is innovation. To set the table, I’m going to read a couple of quotes. The first is by Jerry Garcia from Grateful Dead, who said, “It is not enough to be the best at what you do. You must be perceived as the only one who does what you do.” Then, equally eminent, Mr. Paul Adams said, “Innovation to me means doing something new and different and better with market impact.”

A tricky balancing act

Des: My first question for Paul is: whenever startups talk about innovation, it’s almost the expected thing they’re doing. Isn’t everyone innovating all the time? Why wouldn’t you be innovating? Paul, are you saying there are parts of Intercom where we’re not innovating?

Paul: Thanks, Des. Yes, there’s lots and lots of Intercom where we’re not innovating and not innovating by design. It’s a very deliberate choice not to. As I said in the quote you read, innovation means doing something new, different, and better. But not everything you do needs to be new, different, and better. In fact, I think there are lots of times when what you do should be boring and the same as everything else.

You kind of have these two modes of operation. You can try and come up with a new and better way to do something or you can go with the industry standard. There are lots and lots of different things at Intercom and for any company where the industry standard is exactly what you should do because it’s how people expect your product to work, it’s how they understand the world to work and every single level or layer of what you do doesn’t need to be new, different, and better.

“Often what happens is people push the innovation criteria too far. They try to innovate down the stack when the industry standard is exactly what they should be doing”

Des: That’s obviously true at a micro-level. People have a certain model for how resetting your password would work or if your product has a rich text editor, people expect bold and italics to behave in certain ways and file attachments to work in certain ways. Humans know how to use computers, let’s not break that model piece. But there’s also probably a slightly more zoomed out piece which is: if you’re modeling teammates, there’s probably a certain way to add them and remove them and you can probably create, retrieve, update, delete them and all that stuff. Would you say that time tracking apps all have some basic way in which they expect some of the core features to work?

Paul: Yeah.

Des: Where do you stop?

Paul: Where do you stop is exactly the hard question. That’s exactly the thing we should tease out a bit today. On both ends of the spectrum, if you have a good product strategy, the decision’s quite easy. At the very top, it’s like, “this is the thing that defines us, this is our core innovation.” To go back to Jerry Garcia, “We’re the only company who does this.”

Then you can go all the way down to the bottom, down to the UI level, and say, “Yes, let’s not reinvent dropdowns, and let’s not reinvent the way computers work.” I think what a lot of companies end up doing is when they look at this whole zoom level – and often it’s project by project, so people aren’t really thinking about the big picture – often what happens is people push the innovation criteria down too far. They try to innovate way down the stack when the industry standard is exactly what they should be doing. It’s easier, faster, move on, get back to the other stuff.

“If you have a clear vehicle of innovation, everywhere else, you just need to meet the requirements of the user”

Des: There’s an interesting piece there where you cite this idea of core innovation. Do you think most startups have that grasp? Is it emergent or is it kind of in the early vision, this idea that there’s one thing where we’re uniquely different? Maybe with Stripe, it’s the proverbial seven lines of code you can use to set up, or with Intercom, maybe it’s the messenger. With Slack, it might be just the actual chat dialog, the back and forth. Do you think, early on, most startups can point to the thing and say, “This is our actual area of core innovation”?

Paul: I think most focused, successful startups can do that. And that’s probably a reason they’re successful. They identify a clear opportunity or problem in the market that wasn’t being served well and they’ve come up with, back to what I said earlier, a new, different, and better way. This is the new, different, better way to do X, and as a result, they’ve probably got traction, started to grow and that becomes the defining thing.

Des: Then, you need to surround that with familiarity, right? If you have this clear vehicle of innovation that’s going to transform companies who use the product, everywhere else, you just need to meet the requirements of the user, and that kind of gives you the operational foundations on which you can sit your innovation.

Paul: Yeah, exactly. I think there are two factors here. One is, how much product do you have to build around the innovation to be in the game? Email is a great example. To even have an innovative way to do email, you suddenly require email to work with all the other things that exist today, all the email clients, and you need subject lines and formatting and rich text editors, and those sorts of stuff.

Do you have permission to innovate?

Des: Two years of your roadmap is inherently non-differentiating, right? But by the time you’ve done all that, it’s like, “Right, now we’ve got all that out of the way, what can we do that’s different?”

Paul: Exactly. That’s one big thing. You hear a lot of big companies doing stealth projects or innovation projects or whatever and they don’t realize how much they’ve bitten off before they get into it. As you said, it could be two years before they get anything to market which is a very long time.

And once you’re up and running, there’s this idea of permission to innovate. The innovation is in the market, you have customers, but your product, well, it’s somewhat fit for purpose, otherwise, you wouldn’t be up and running. There’s still loads of stuff that’s not going to do well and there are going to be incumbent competitors that you’re chasing and their product is loads of stuff better than you. It’s all kind of table stakes stuff.

“I’m sitting there banging my fist at a table saying, ‘Will you please fix your rich text editor?’, and they’re like, ‘Check out our new advanced whole new way to look at search.'”

For Intercom, there are lots of things, our reporting works and security works and stuff like that. There’s no need to innovate there. Intercom isn’t here to innovate on how reporting works and how metrics work, you know? But if we don’t have some of those features, then we need to build them before we can kind of go again on the innovation. There’s this kind of balancing act. A lot of companies see the innovation shiny ball and get dragged away from the more important stuff at the time, which is the industry standards.

Des: As a user, I feel like I’ve used products where they’re shipping changes and excited about what they’re working on, but it comes across as slightly tone-deaf. When I’m sitting there banging my fist at a table saying, “Will you please fix your rich text editor?”, and they’re like, “Check out our new advanced whole new way to look at search” and I’m going, “Please don’t work on search”, they don’t have my permission to innovate. To put it another way, they’re not working on the area of highest impact for their customer. And it’s often a sign that you’re prioritizing internal excitement over user impact because you’re like, “Where else can we be really interesting and different?”, versus, “What’s our customer’s biggest problems and how can we get rid of them?”

Paul: That’s true. It is a balance at the same time because I’m sure there are probably some Intercom customers listening who have a list for me and you.

Des: Oh yeah. I remember we once got called out, and probably rightfully so, with the maturity that we have now. Do you remember when we shipped gifs and emojis? For those who are listening, the thinking which I still support today is that Intercom’s whole angle is we’re supposed to feel like a Messenger that you would use to talk to your friends. That’s the whole idea, our whole company mission is making business personal and as a result, the Intercom messenger shouldn’t feel wildly corporate versus a different kind of messenger. So we added features like emoji and gifs.

However, if you were sitting in one of our customer’s shoes, at the time, when we didn’t, say, support proper ticketing, it would’ve been frustrating to see that launch because you’ve been asking us for this other thing for quite a while and because of this feature going live, you have to wait quite a while to get it. I’m sympathetic to that and I know we’ve been the villain in this case.

It’s a tricky balancing act to work out. There’s almost a sense of, “This one’s for you, and this one’s for me.” We know what we’re trying to do in terms of executing our long-term strategy. We also know that there’s a couple of warts in the product today. We know our Salesforce integration doesn’t work the way all of our customers want it to. We’re working on it, but also you’re going to see us ship some other stuff along the way that isn’t our Salesforce integration.

Checking all the boxes

Paul: Another way to think about this is differentiation, which is the innovation side of the house, is the reason to buy one product over another. It’s why you should buy us. This is why we are better, the best, the only thing that can do this and then there’s the other side of the house, which is the why not, which is, “Well, yeah, I get it but you don’t do the other stuff that is just table stakes and frankly a bit boring, but if you don’t have that stuff, it’s just not practical for me to go with you.” And you need both.

Some companies can get trapped in the other side where they just spill the why nots. They start building all the table stakes industry standards. But if we don’t continue to build out both sides, there won’t be a reason to choose Intercom or any company over another. It is a balance, you’ve got to do both.

“If you ship all of those things, the danger is your entire roadmap becomes, ‘Make us look like our competitors.'”

Des: I agree. I think that’s, is it called the Hotelling’s law? The idea that, in direct competition, the first thing to go is both side’s differentiators because everyone just starts to look like the other person as quickly as they can, and you see that both in politics and software. We’ve done numerous landscape analysis where we look at where Intercom sits, and often, a trap genuine B2B SaaS businesses can fall into is you look at all your closed lost reasons and every time sales can’t close a deal because of a product feature, either gap or misbehavior, that is an input to your product roadmap.

If you ship all of those things, the danger is your entire roadmap becomes, “Make us look like our competitors.” For a long enough time frame, what happens is you stop losing deals because of feature gaps, but you stop getting deals because there’s no reason on Earth to adopt you. Yes, you have feature coverage, and you can do everything the same as everyone else, but you can’t do anything different to anyone else.

“That’s how you know strategy’s gone out the window. It’s the ‘we are the superset of all possible things anyone could imagine.'”

I often worry that this extreme customer focus where you only do things that your customers are asking for means that you’re only going to build your competitor’s features and you’re never going to have an actual thing that you do differently. And your marketing team will struggle because they’re going to try and push a message out that says, “Use our ticket tracker or our project management system or our CMS. It’s exactly like everyone else’s.”

Do you know those feature grids where they have all different logos and all the different features and there’s a check box everywhere? What they badly struggle for is, “show us something you do that no one else does.” Oftentimes, the only thing they can lean on, and you see this happen with so many of these companies, is that they don’t have anything unique but their unique thing is they have everything. That’s how you know strategy’s gone out the window. It’s the “we are the superset of all possible things anyone could imagine.” That’s not a sustainable differentiating position.

Paul: Yeah. You have companies who are effectively building yesterday’s technology today and yesterday’s positioning today. Whilst the hardcore focus on customer feedback is really important, a lot of that customer feedback comes from them, your customers analyzing the competitive landscape. Nothing new is going to arise out of that specific type of focus.

It’s not just about big ideas

Des: For our listeners who are PMs or manage teams, one clear outcome here is that you need to decide where you’re innovating so you can also decide where you’re not innovating. That’s what kind of makes sure you don’t sink the whole roadmap onto just innovation or just non-innovation, i.e. standard feature requests.

But when you have an area where you don’t want to innovate, how do you identify what’s not worth innovating on? When you’re staffing a team to execute a feature where you’re basically saying, “We don’t need to innovate here, we just need to meet the requirements”, how do you share that with the team without them phoning it in or doing their worst work?

I know the second part of that is probably an area you have more direct exposure to, but there’s a two-part question here. One is what’s the traits of an area where you’re like, “We don’t need to innovate”, and then, separately, how do you staff a team and get them excited about this area regardless?

Paul: On the staffing team, another interesting thing is: How do you make sure that one of your product engineering teams doesn’t appear to be superficially more interesting and cool than another? Do you know what I mean? There’s the cool, innovation team, and there’s the table stakes, industry-standard team.

“Often, I see companies like IBM which have a chief innovation officer, and you’re like, ‘What are the other 64,000 people doing?'”

Des: Just as a side round, this is what frustrates me, and we’ve been guilty of this too. Whenever anyone decides to build out a labs team in any company, it’s the most politically effed up thing you can do… Often, I see companies like IBM which have a chief innovation officer, and you’re like, “What are the other 64,000 people doing?” You’re saying, “You joined this company to be at the bleeding edge of the innovative. Only now, we’ve compartmentalized all that, and there’s a bloke called Johnny down the corridor and he does innovation. Everyone else, you don’t.”

It’s a really weird way to do it. It’s almost always done with good intention but it almost always backfires, because it sends the wrong message to the majority of the company.

Paul: It’s also based, I think, on the myth that innovation needs to be a big idea. That’s another common trope people apply. That’s just not how a lot of really innovative companies work at all. They are in the business of making everything 5% better, of innovating in small ways. Back to the new, better, different: this is new and different and better, but it’s small. And then we have 100 of them, and suddenly, some of that is massive. Innovation doesn’t have to be this big idea.

Choosing what to innovate on

Des: But back to the question. How do you find out where you don’t want to innovate, and how do you get the team excited about not innovating?

Paul: The first thing is you need a clear mapping of your own product landscape. For example, one way we’ve done this in the past is that we have a table: Down the left-most column of this table is the product, and it goes from the highest-zoom level to the bottom. For Intercom, I’ll use Intercom as an example, at the highest level would be something like the Intercom flat platform, the full customer platform. It’s the biggest-zoom level. The Intercom Messenger is up there as well.

Then down the bottom, you have the UI. As I was saying before, down at the UI level, it’s kind of non-controversial, and up at the top, it might be non-controversial. What you can do then is you can plot the product landscape you have on the left-hand side. You can kind of plot it going over to the right in the table.

We had three columns. The second column was industry standard, table stakes, call it what you want, the product-market fit, product gaps, the stuff the product must have to compete. Then over in the far-most right column is fully differentiated, your new, different, better. Then you can kind of figure out the middle there. You can kind of go from the zoom level in the product, highest level to the details, then work your way across from, “Yeah, look, the same is fine here,” to, “Nope, this must be the best. This must be the only.”

“Just because you’re going to build something the way it works in every other product, it doesn’t mean that you can’t invest a lot of energy into making it exceptionally good”

For us, like almost all companies, all the UI stuff is in the first column. Make it an industry standard and execute it really well, which is another bit of a side point. Just because you’re going to do an industry-standard thing or you’re going to design and build something the way it works in every other product type, it doesn’t mean that you can’t invest a lot of energy into making it exceptionally good at that.

We all spend a lot of time at Intercom on that. The user experience of Intercom is one of the things people often cite as a differentiator for us, and it’s because we have this philosophy that we will try and execute extremely well in the industry-standard column.

To kind of touch on the team thing for a second, this is partly the answer to how do you get the team excited. Nothing here is superficially more interesting than the other. For example, our reporting team are excited to build the best reporting. It’s not going to be innovative, but it’s going to be really, really good. Easy to use, easy to understand, powerful.

Des: What we’re saying is there are two lenses of analysis. One is the zoom level for the big picture, which is the economic infrastructure for the internet if you’re Stripe, it’s making business personal if you’re Intercom, it’s where work happens if you’re Slack. Then all the way down to the UI, the dialogs, the workflows, et cetera.

And then the other lens of analysis is the spectrum between industry-standard all the way up to truly unique, as in no one’s ever seen this before. You can kind of plot out your features both from the zoom level down to the specifics, and you can basically mark them at each point along where you want them to be, where they are today, and that kind of gives you an appraisal of where you are and if you want to be world-class or truly distinct, versus where you’re happy to just be just fine.

“The Intercom inbox, for example, is an inbox. It needs to work like an inbox. It’s not our job to reinvent how inboxes work”

Paul: Exactly. To make this more concrete for people, again, I’ll just use Intercom as the easiest example. The Intercom messenger, which is our vision for how customer communications can work in the future, where you put a messenger on your website, in your app, and it will replace email or at least most email usage over time. That is our differentiator – it must be the best. That, for us, is what we must be the best at. That’s the kind of vision for the product company. Then down in the bottom left of this table is all the UI stuff. We’re not going to invent a new UI, we’re just going to go with the industry standard and try to make it as easy to use as possible.

The middle column is probably the one that’s hardest for most people. Our inbox, for example, the Intercom inbox, is an inbox. It needs to work like an inbox. It’s not our job to reinvent how inboxes work, but we want our inbox to also be perceived to be the best inbox in the market. It doesn’t have to be uniquely the best, to look different and work differently. But it should be different and better, clearly different and clearly better. For a lot of listeners, in their product landscape, their product map, there should be a whole chunk of stuff in the middle column.

“If they’re just relying on their own appraisal and not their target market customer, they’ll end up doing a lot of artistic creations that never find product-market fit”

Des: Yeah, and I think there are two things I’d say. One is we use the word different a lot. And we mean different in a meaningful way that adds value, not just different for different’s sake. It’s not like an artist or a rock band trying to stand out. We want to stand out in a way that is uniquely useful to our customers, and when we say the word better, we mean in the eyes of our customers or the hands of our customers.

Our definition of success is, “Do the customers find us better?” So when we say better, it means it has been run past a group of beta testers who are target market customers for Intercom, and upon usage or exploration, they have deemed this to be better. That’s actually what we mean, and I think I do worry that a lot of startups can chase the different and better, but if they’re just relying on their own appraisal and not their target market customer, they’ll end up doing a lot of artistic creations that never find product-market fit.

Paul: In the original quote you cited me, there’s a qualifier on the new, different, and better which is market impact. It has been tried and tested with customers and the feedback loop there is that it is genuinely valuable.

Speed is key

Des: There’s a question there about the sustainability of innovation. You can have this new way to do a new type of messenger, a new way to chat within the workplace, a new type of email client. But if you have something that’s a unique take, it won’t be unique for long. Is that something you think startups should be concerned with? Should they be constantly going back to the well to refill on innovation, to refill on unique positioning?

No roadmap is frozen in time, right? All the other companies are moving around and they’re all doing things, so whatever was table stakes will grow. Whatever was differentiating will become a table stake. How do you think about all that?

Paul: The first thing is a bit of a tangent, but the important context is that you have got to be fast. Almost other than anything else here, the thing to obsess about, and we do at Intercom, is your speed. How fast you’re building improvements, how fast you’re shipping them. How fast can you take things to market? How fast can you learn if you got something wrong and then fix it and make something better?

“If you can do that, your competitors will become irrelevant because they’ll always be chasing your shadow”

Speed is critical. When you’ve gone to market with something, the speed at which people can copy you will also be critical. As you said, nothing stands still. Technology is a fast-moving thing. But the speed at which people can copy you will be really important, and there are two factors there that come to mind for me.

One is the speed at which those companies’ teams can build software. As companies get bigger, they typically get slower, so you need to keep that in mind. Then the second part of it is how hard is it to copy. Your innovation could be really easy to copy, like, literally copy the HTML, off you go, or it could be hard. But no matter how hard it is, the inevitability of innovation is that it will eventually be copied by more than one company. You need to continually keep it in mind and verify with customers if there’s a gap there, if there’s a meaningful gap between us and the competition?

Des: Totally. A question that should occur but no one ever asks is Stripe are a $100 billion business, but Stripe’s been uniquely uncopied. And the answer is because you can’t right-click and view the CSS for having a legal team and having a finance team and a banking team and negotiating contracts with banks all over the world. There’s no view source for that. So, as a result, most people will be like, “Huh, that’s not as easy to copy” as, say, Asana or Intercom or Zendesk, where you can just be like, “I wonder how they laid that table out. Oh, that’s how they do it, got it.”

“Anything that delights your customers will be copied by your competitors. It will just be a question of who does it best”

The visibility of innovation is quite obvious. If you really want to work out what they’re doing, you can see exactly what they’re doing. I think that, to me, says that within B2B, generally speaking, you’re not going to have a sustainable, technological innovation as long as we’re talking a browser firing stuff back and forth. There are few exceptions. I’d argue maybe Figma is something that “Good luck to you, you’re not going to be able to recreate or clone that in its current form.”

But for the most part, when we’re dealing with standard create, retrieve, update, delete records, whether it’s expense tracking or HRIS systems, what you’re doing is pretty obvious, and people can copy that. This is why speed matters. You ultimately build a brand of having a high pace of innovation and a high quality of execution. If you can do that, your competitors will become irrelevant because they’ll always be chasing your shadow.

If you can relegate your competitors to that point, then the fact that they can copy you is irrelevant because they’ll never catch up with you. If they can catch up with you, you’re in trouble because they can potentially overtake you. I often talk about speed internally and I get mocked a lot for my obsession with it. There’s a method to the madness in that nothing we do is so fundamentally, bizarrely arcane that people can’t look at what’s happening in a browser and simulate it.

As a result, we need manic aggression of innovation. There needs to be better stuff coming all the time. Interestingly enough, to me, it crosses with the idea we spoke about earlier, this long road to the starting line. Even a trivial innovation has to sit on top of maybe one to two years’ worth of roadmap before you’re even noteworthy.

The kano model race

Most of our listeners will be familiar with the Kano model, the idea that there are, generally speaking, three areas of work. There are table stakes, which are the things that you must have, and no one will ever thank you for having them. There are the performance things, which, if you do them well, will be valued, but if you do them really badly, they won’t. And then, there are delighters, the things that only you do that genuinely thrill your customers.

What the Kano model says is that anything that delights your customers will be copied by all your competitors. At that point, it will just be a question of who does it best. It becomes a performant feature. Over time, all performant features standardize on what their highest acceptable standard is, and then they just become table stakes, at which point there’s just a certain way to do it at a certain quality.

“How much of your differentiators and unique stuff is now just standard?”

If you take a mature software category like, say, email, what we’ve seen over time is anything that was delightful became standardized, and then it became a performant feature, and then, over time, it became a table stake. Do that for 20 years and what you have is a really thick layer of table stakes, which means that if you go and start a new product in this category, the foundations are so deep and the required execution is so high that it’ll be a long time before we can do anything.

And that’s why, if you take something like Super Human or Linear, who are probably going to push in onto JIRA space, they have been in this insane private beta mode for so long. There are just so many areas where they need to outperform to even break through the noise and be not just another email client, not just another task management product.

When people are picking areas to innovate, especially if they’re starting a new company, I think it’s wise to bear in mind the ratio of table stakes to the opportunity for innovation. For an email client with a native gif feature, you’re going to be building the damn email client for a long time before you even get to touch the native gif feature.

Similarly, if you’re in a larger company, it’s worth appraising your own position. How much of your differentiators and unique stuff is now just standard? For us, as you said, Paul, it’s the messenger, and the inbox is maybe a performant feature. We know that, over time, all of those things will inevitably either a) become table stakes or b) we’re going to have to go back to the well and refresh them all over again to refill their innovation and market distinction.

“Can the incumbent raise the bar so high that startups can’t even hit it?”

Paul: Yeah, I’m just standing here nodding away. One thing that does strike me about this, which is something I think people need to think about, is that these days people say things like, “Don’t obsess about your competitors” and so on. But you need to have a healthy look at your competitors. There’s an interesting dynamic here: if you have a bunch of incumbent companies and a successful, growing startup trying to displace the incumbent companies and take their market share, there’s a bit of a race going on.

It’s a very dynamic thing, but it’s a bit of a race. Can the incumbent company build the delighters so fast to make them performers and table stakes faster than the startup company builds the table stakes they’re missing?

Des: Can the incumbent raise the bar so high that startups can’t even hit it?

Paul: Yeah. Usually, startups have a table stakes gap, you know? HR is a great industry that I think will see a lot of interesting companies come out over the next few years. There are a lot of table stakes there, security and compliance, and all sorts of stuff like that. But that’s not where they started. They’re trying to build and close the gaps to the incumbent fast so that when they say to a potential customer, “Hey, switch to us,” there’s no big reason not to switch. They’re trying to close all those gaps.

Meanwhile, the incumbent company under threat is trying to build the differentiated features that the startup has, like the delighters in the Kano model. And whoever does that fastest will win.

Des: Right. It’s the startup’s ability to check the boxes on table stakes versus the incumbent’s ability to find innovation or to clone the innovations of the current startup. That’s what the battleground becomes.

Paul: And if the incumbent is doing their half successfully, the startup needs to do both.

Motivating the table-stake team

Des: Yes, exactly. One question we didn’t properly get to earlier. If you’re in that startup and you’ve got your team working on team differentiation who are doing all the sexy stuff, getting all the love on Twitter, et cetera, how do you motivate and excite the table stake team? In your hypothetical HR system, somebody’s building a cool way to navigate an org chart in a whole different way that might be insanely valuable in a 3d virtual environment, and someone else is building the payroll integration. How do you make sure both people feel like they’re winning?

You’re the one who needs to have these conversations, but my argument would be that they’re both delivering innovation, just through different means. I often use the phrase “it’s a bad state of affairs” when someone says something like, “Oh, there’s a hole in your side of the boat.” Nope, that hole is going to affect both of us, right? An HR system does not work without a payroll integration, no matter how damn innovative it is. The fact that you need to check that box doesn’t mean you’re not delivering innovation.

As someone who sits with teams and says things like, “We need to get this out the door. It needs to meet our users’ requirements but it’s not the most important area where we need to reimagine the whole category”, how do you handle those conversations?

“Once you explain the full landscape and people get where their part fits, in my experience, a lot of it goes away”

Paul: The first thing and the most fundamental thing is to explain the landscape we’ve just covered. What I’ve found in the past is that once smart people working for you understand the full landscape and the Kano Model and how things work, once they understand that, a lot of this just goes away because people get it. It’s the full picture and we’re all on the same team.” Innovation has this kind of superficial glory associated with it. Once you explain the full landscape and people get where their part of the thing fits, in my experience, a lot of it goes away.

I’ve seen lots of people move from the “innovation” part of the product team to the other part of the product team. I’ve seen people move in all directions equally. Lots of people want to experience all parts of it. If they’ve only worked on the new, shiny stuff, they want to get experience doing the table stakes part of the business because there’s a different bunch of requirements and skills. And the trade-offs in decision making can be quite different.

Des: I think you’re right. Especially if you want to go out and start a company or get that early stage experience, you need both sets of muscles. One alone is not sufficient.

Paul: Exactly, yeah. That’s the thing for me, honestly. If you explain to the team how this kind of works, the problem seems to solve itself.

Des: The example I often say is you could be working on a Tesla, but I guarantee you there are some areas of Tesla that probably just aren’t innovation areas. Maybe it’s the indicator, maybe it’s the seatbelt, maybe it’s the ashtray, it doesn’t really matter. You should take your motivation from the fact that you’re still delivering a revolutionary and breakthrough car to the world. The piece that you work on is necessary for that to happen. Never forget it.

“Innovation isn’t always ROI positive”

Des: Let’s retread the ground here. There’s this idea that innovation isn’t always ROI positive. There are features that you will not be able to extract a significant market impact from, no matter how amazing a job you do on them because they’re not a core buying differentiator for customers.

Any closing thoughts you’d say to our listeners who run product orgs, R&D orgs, engineers, at both startups and mid-stage companies?

Paul: The biggest thing for me is that if you don’t have this map of your product, if it’s not obvious and easy for you to imagine it or it’s not written down anywhere, I encourage you to do it. I’ve worked on many teams and product areas over the course of my career, and especially when I was at Google and Facebook, these big, big companies where we didn’t really understand the industry-standard, table stakes versus differentiation at the time.

For a company like Google, at the time, it was like everything had to be new and innovative and better and there was a little bit of an innovation glory culture. That’s a part of Google, to be fair. At Google Search and other places, it wasn’t like that. The thing is to map the table. It’ll help explain to yourself and your team how and where and when you should be coming up with new ways of doing things versus excellent execution of the industry standard.

Des: Which, by the way, is not an easy thing to achieve, as we know all too well. Thank you very much for joining me today, Paul! I hope everyone found this interesting and useful.