Wanted: Market and Product Explorers
Run down the list of titles in your firm that have to do with product or service management or development. There will be a host of people who "manage" products or services. These individuals have a vital job to maintain the existing product or service line. They have detailed plans for several years out about product enhancements and new features. They keep the lights on and ensure the existing products and their incremental improvements are planned and released. Additionally there will be people with the title of Product Developer or Service Developer. Their job is to work with the product managers to ensure the product or service is built according to the identified needs and specifications. Again, a vital job focused on very near term opportunities.
Occasionally we'll find a "New Product Development" or New Product Manager title in an organization. That role is probably closer to what we are advocating, but is still rooted in the near term. A new product or service developer or manager is still working under the constraints of the product or service mantra within the firm.
What most firms need, and sorely lack, are people whose full time job it is to identify new opportunities or markets and start shaping those opportunities into new products, services or business models that the firm can deliver. Existing and near term opportunities are important. They keep the lights on and the beast fed. But only rarely are they going to produce new, dramatic growth or differentiation. Innovation will spring from people who have longer term vision and are less tied to the day to day product or service delivery, and who are more interested in emerging opportunities or threats. In my experience, most product managers rarely read or interact outside of their own area of expertise, so the firm is constantly surprised when new products enter the market from unexpected quarters.
According to most CEOs, there's little that's more important than innovation, yet there are few if any defined roles in the organization who "own" it. It would do my heart good to see a few people with permanent responsibility to explore new markets and new opportunities. Perhaps we could call these individuals market or opportunity explorers. Naming them explorers gives them the right to investigate, explore and identify really dramatic new things and introduce them to the organization, which can then convert new opportunities into products and services. Most organizations have programs like Stage-Gate that do that part well. What's missing is an intentional focus, and an assignment and role(s) that focus solely on the longer term innovation.
Yes, I know that Product Managers and Product Developers consider this work part of their job, but given the demands of the job and the relentless quarterly reporting, longer term, disruptive work gets pushed out constantly. Let's have one or two people whose job it is - full time - to uncover and explore new opportunities and markets. You can't manage a task without assigning someone to do it and measuring them and their results. You certainly can't be successful over the long term when no one is actively responsible for this important work.