Book Review: Beyond the Obvious

beyond the ObviousBeyond the Obvious
Phil McKinney
Hyperion, 2012
250 pages

Subtitled “Killer questions that spark game-changing innovation”, McKinney’s new book (released last week) is combination of personal experience in building new products as HP’s CTO and a framework for how he approaches the problem of trying to identify new business opportunities.

“Innovation” might be the one-word summary of 21st century business. That said, I hate the word. Governments are always dropping “innovation” into every announcement they make and CEOs all genuflect at the altar of “innovation.” Innovation is the panacea that will solve every problem – costs will go down, customers will throw themselves into your arms and the person that came up with the great breakthrough will be the next Steve Wozniak and Sergey Brin combined.

The trouble is that most people hate new ideas and actively work against them. Innovation is something most people like to have happened in the past. Real innovation is a process that’s not only messy, it’s painful. The outcome of real innovation in the short term is that people lose their jobs, that products people have spent their life building become obsolete and that individuals’ power is disrupted. In the long term, real innovation creates more value than it destroys and lets people move on to more important things. But people don’t always see it that way.

So what is McKinney’s approach to uncovering innovative new ideas? The first is dealing with what he calls “organizational antibodies” whose job it is to kill anything that threatens the status quo. The second is to ask what he calls “killer questions.”

I think McKinney has a solid approach – you should read the book and hear it from him yourself. This is definitely a practitioner’s book. It’s not an academic text like The Innovator’s Dilemmaby Clayton Christensen or Winning at New Products: Creating Value Through Innovation by Robert Cooper. McKinney references Cooper’s stage-gate process but doesn’t go into a lot of detail about exactly how to structure it beyond using an escalating system of commitment to allocate more resources to a project as it achieves development milestones.

Definitely read Cooper’s book if you want more detail on implementing stage-gate. My personal experience with it is that you have to be careful – if you take Cooper’s process too literally you’ll have a few dozen meetings before an idea gets anywhere near turning into a real product. But the fundamental principle is unarguable – start small. “MVP” as start-ups call it these days, the minimum viable product. This is McKinney’s approach as well.

How applicable is this book for the average product manager that’s tasked with keeping a single product on track? McKinney addresses this in the book. Innovation can and should come from anywhere. Even when the VP of Product Management or the CTO or the CEO has the formal responsibility for coming up with new ideas, anyone who sees an opportunity should work to make it happen. And don’t feel like the “organization antibodies” are out for you in particular – they’ll attack anyone, even the CEO. McKinney goes over the common arguments put forward by the antibodies like “You’ll never get approval” or “Not enough return on investment” and how to counter these arguments. Great stuff.

Now, to comment on the title for a second, I personally suggest not discounting the obvious. Sometimes doing the obvious thing is not very easy and people will even resist that. For example, it’s taken years for the mantra of “performance is a feature” to be widely accepted by developers because building systems for high performance isn’t easy. But at Google, where latency is practically a religion, they have lots of data showing that response time is the one feature that users value over nearly everything else. And it’s not like speed is a particularly insightful observation. It’s just a lot of hard work to make happen. So while innovators do need to look “beyond the obvious,” don’t overlook the obvious either.

For the “Killer Questions”, McKinney divides them into Who, What and How questions. Like “Who is passionate about my product?”, “What emotional or status benefits could people derive from using my product?” and “What is the process used by the customer to discover my product?” (a “How” question). Now some of these questions have a consumer products bias to them, which isn’t surprising that McKinney developed many of them working at HP’s consumer product division but many still have applicability to other industry segments like enterprise products. McKinney dives into examples of using each of these questions and what insights it generated.

One question that I think should be on every product manager’s mind these days, especially software product managers is “Can someone give my product away for free?” Twice in my career I’ve seen situations where a once-viable product category simply disappeared. JProbe, a great tool for Java performance analysis, ended up competing with free tools built into the developer tools that were given away by platform vendors. PowerRecon, a virtualization capacity planning tool, had great features but ultimately had to compete with a free tool from VMware that it was using as part of its pre-sales process. If you’re part of a big company with lots of products then having a limited product lifespan is fine as long as everything in the overall portfolio fits together. But when you’re a small company, having competitors priced at zero dollars will be tough to beat. Think about how you can take your product into a different market segment where the price competition is less intense, even if other competitive pressures are stronger. As a wise PM once told me, “If there’s no competitors it’s probably because there’s no market.”

Overall “Beyond the Obvious” lives up to its name, delivering insights into how to structure a process around innovation. It’s inspirational for product managers through anecdotes of product development at HP while also being a practical guide on how to make innovation happen. Check out Phil’s tweets at @killerquestion and his blog at philmckinney.com.

Thanks to Jon Bernstein at Hyperion who sent me a copy of the book to review.