06018 Lead By Example: Building Thought Leadership Into Your Product

Companies strive hard to create new software products that address an unfilled need in the market. When a product hits the mark, it enjoys success, and if it goes beyond innovative to transformational, it becomes an unqualified success. Just about every company and Product Manager hopes for such a product, one that brings in customer accolades, sales and profits.

What makes a product transformational is that it doesn't just help people do their old job better. Rather, it lets people do their job in a whole new way. A transformational product comes with ideas for great new ways of doing the job, ideas which are built right in, so that the software reflects new approaches and best practices.

The new approaches and practices are woven right into the structure of the product, and reflected in specific capabilities. When customers buy your product, they are buying not only the software but also the built-in guidance, your company's thought leadership.

But building thought leadership into your product presents an added challenge for customers who are faced with learning both a new tool and understanding new ways of doing their work. It can add a degree of difficulty to the implementation of the software that can threaten the whole project's success.

Read on below for bright ideas and lessons learned about what is involved when you have built thought leadership into your product.


You're Leading, But Are They Following?

Leadership is a great thing … especially when people follow you! In today's economy, where customers find innovative products beckoning them every which way they turn, it can be hard to capture a customer's imagination and attention. That's your first hurdle, to have your customers make your new ideas a priority.

The second hurdle is for your customers to actually learn and understand the new ideas that come along with your product. There is an effort involved in clarifying and integrating the new approach into the way they do their job using your software tool.

The third hurdle is for each customer to apply your grand ideas and recommendations to their organization, figuring out what to keep, what to discard, and what to change, in order to fit their unique culture and situation.

Only when one hurdle has been cleared is your customer able to try for the next one. This means that your organization needs to ready itself for the challenge of helping each customer over all the hurdles to get them to the finish line.

Training, Coaching, and Consulting Is Key

If your product involves thought leadership, your organization needs to be geared toward the fact that implementing it will require more training, coaching, and consulting than a product that merely helps people do their jobs the familiar way, only faster. As Product Manager, helping to build your organization's ability to deliver the right training and coaching will be a key factor in the success of your product.

Your training and consulting efforts for a new way of thinking need to be:

  • Pervasive. All job positions in your entire organization must be ready and able to provide training and coaching in the new ideas. This can be a challenge to not only teach the ideas to all team members, but to get specific individuals past their fear of and resistance to directing and guiding customers in this way.
  • Consistent. Every contact that a customer has with your organization, from trainers, to consultants, to support personnel, to managers, must provide the same ideas and advice. This requires an effort to bring all your staff to a specific, clearly defined level of knowledge. And it is just as important for the top managers to espouse the ideas as it is for the customer-facing front line.
  • Persistent. New ideas take time and effort for a customer to understand and utilize. Your organization must expect to repeat, reinforce, and revisit the common set of ideas. This need is not insignificant. Are you prepared to fund the necessary cost to spend the additional time with each customer? Has it been built into your pricing, or will this lower your profitability to an unacceptable level?

Is Your Own Team On the Same Page?

Thought leadership in an organization usually comes from a select group of individuals who distill their own and their teammates' experiences and stories into visionary ideas. Just as these ideas are unfamiliar to your customers, they will be unfamiliar to many in your own workplace.

If you do not assume that much of your leadership effort should be directed toward coaching and training your own teammates, you will be taken by surprise when some of them fail to support, or even undermine, the thought leadership built into the product. The larger your organization, the greater your effort will be to bring everyone onto the same page.

Newbies and Old Pros

As new customers come on board and encounter your groundbreaking approach and ideas, you will be most challenged when dealing with two very distinct types:

Newbies. Many people are new to a department or inexperienced in an industry when they are asked to adopt new software to do their job. It's a positive that they don't have many preconceived notions about how to do the job that would run counter to the ideas you have built into your product. But thought leadership is built on a foundation of knowledge and existing practices for a given specialty. Without that foundation, newbies may find it hard to even understand your innovative ideas and to apply them in a usable way. Your training, coaching, and support for newbies will need to include a healthy dose of fundamental ideas, practices, and expertise. You may need to take two steps back in your explanations before you can move forward.

Old Pros. Other users of a software tool are aces in their specialty. They are successful professionals who cherish the methods and ideas they have used up to now, and consider them essential to their current success. Your training will be challenged, and your coaching will be challenging, because you will be called upon to fully justify and back up your leading ideas and your suggestions for using a new approach. On the positive side, professionals who have weathered the difficulties that your product aims to overcome will intuitively grasp the significance and benefit of many of your new ideas and become your most effective advocates. But you may be called upon to do a lot of convincing for other changes where they don't necessarily agree with you.

Winning Hearts and Minds Everywhere

For your leading ideas to be successful, you must win the hearts and minds at your customer's organization. This means convincing not only those who use your software, but also those who manage them and everyone they work with. The transformational change in the departments that work with your software will have a ripple effect throughout the entire organization. You can help your users succeed with their new ideas by providing material – either verbally or as formal presentations – that aims to bring the whole team on board with the new way of doing things.

And don't forget that not only will you do this with your customers, but with your own teammates.

Changing Habits Takes Work and Time

Changing the way your customers think about their job and how they ought to go about it is relatively easy. Changing how they actually go about their job is much harder. It takes steady work to change old ways of doing things and turn new ways of doing things into a habit. It also takes time. Not only is patience required, but a steady focus on the goal. Long after a customer has received and understood the training, you will find yourself called upon to provide coaching to help them form new habits. Expect this and be ready to recognize those moments where coaching is needed so that you provide the necessary support to your innovative ideas.

When the Ideal Meets the Real Deal

Thought leadership is fun. The ideas sound so good, especially when delivered by a good presenter. But the fact is that what comes after visionary leadership is learning how to fit the neat, clean vision into the harsh, inconsistent, and unpredictable realities your customers face every day.

You can feel good about the focus and effort that was put forth to develop your leading ideas. But your organization will be called upon to rise to the challenge again and again to apply those ideas to real-world situations encountered for the first time, and to recognize which situations required compromise on some of the most important aspects of your approach.

Learn Your Lessons Quickly, Often, and Loudly

If you could take up one motto for championing a product that incorporates thought leadership, this would be it: Learn your lessons quickly, often, and loudly.

  • Quickly. As soon as it happens that your great ideas encounter setbacks that highlight limitations to those ideas, recognize it without resisting. Embrace the lesson and enhance your thought leadership.
  • Often. Learn little lessons as often as you are faced with them. Expect that it will be a continuous process to learn new lessons about how to better apply – and how not to apply – your ideas.
  • Loudly. As you learn quickly and often, as soon as you can articulate a new lesson learned, communicate this to your entire organization and customer base. Learn to be a champion for your ideas, and for the ways you have learned to refine and modify those ideas to make them more effective.

It is inevitable that your initial ideas will need correcting and refining. By learning your lessons well, and broadcasting what you have learned to your customers, you turn a solution that sounds credible into one with true credibility. Your thought leadership reflects the real world challenges you have faced and overcome, and is therefore that much more valuable. It becomes a solution that can adapt to the specifics of a customer's situation, with its unique priorities, advantages, and constraints.

Transforming Our Lives

Lest all this advice make it sound discouraging to incorporate thought leadership into your product, remember that new ideas, new approaches, and new ways of doing things are what improve our lives in small ways every day, eventually transforming them for the better. Look back ten years. How much longer did it take to make travel arrangements, to buy products of all kinds, to get information about medical problems you or your loved ones were dealing with? Product Managers are at the heart of the transformations in our lives, by championing their products and defining and championing the transformational ideas built into them.

— Jacques Murphy, Product Management Challenges



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