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Is your team qualified to innovate? 21 questions to ask product leaders

Whether you plan to tackle product development with in-house teams or a third-party agency, it’s a good idea to get clarity about how your product leaders approach innovation––and whether they’re qualified to lead a team of innovators.

Why? Because innovation is the key force that will make it possible for your organization to stay relevant with its users for years to come. We’re living in a time of increasing rates of change; organizations that want to stay profitable will have to find ways to adapt to changing conditions and create new sources of value for changing users––in other words, to innovate.

So how can you know whether someone is qualified to lead ongoing innovation? Ask your product leaders these 21 interview questions to get a sense of their experience with and approach to innovation––and whether they’re qualified to lead your organization’s product development efforts moving forward.

Question 1: What is your team’s approach to innovation?

Most product leaders have had a great idea or two in their lifetime. Some have led product management teams in developing and launching amazing products. But few have managed to do that work (the work of innovation) consistently.

And yet, there is research on what kind of work leads to consistent innovation. Rather than a single process or set of tools, what works is a set of mindsets and behaviors that have been demonstrated to consistently yield innovative outcomes.

(Read more about those mindsets and behaviors.)

If a product leader doesn’t have a clear answer to this question or suggests that their unique genius will be the main driver of innovation, they may not be equipped to lead a team in consistent, ongoing innovation.

Question 2: How will you determine you’re building the right product?

Fully 19 out of 20 product innovations fail. This means that all the time, energy, and resources that went into developing the product are lost. In some cases, those resources can be substantial.

That’s why building a product no one uses is one of the most expensive mistakes a company can make.

It’s also why asking your product leader about their strategy for ensuring they’re building the right product is so important. When you ask this question, look for an answer that addresses their plan to establish…

  • Desirability, aka to determine what your customer base actually wants.

  • Viability, meaning to define what is possible to build, maintain, and scale from a business perspective.

  • Feasibility, meaning what's possible from a technology standpoint.

Successful products exist in the intersection of these three.

Question 3: How will your product management team determine whether a product meets user needs?

This gets into the idea of desirability. To build a product users want, you have to talk to actual users, typically by doing some kind of user research.

Note that this process should involve talking to users and finding other ways to experience first hand what your customer needs are.

If a product leader claims they can get adequate insight by talking to salespeople or help desk employees, proceed with caution. There is no replacement for first-hand user accounts.

Question 4: How will your product management team assess business viability and technical feasibility?

Just as product teams should plan to communicate with end users to determine a product’s desirability (before they build it), they should also plan to work with representatives from business and technical teams to assess business viability and technical feasibility.

In many cases, it makes sense for product management teams to include professionals from various disciplines (design, engineering, delivery) who work in an integrated way to ensure that the products they build work on all necessary levels.

For more complex products, an integrated methodology is the most efficient way to go from nothing to a truly innovative product. The alternative, working in silos, tends to lead to too much back-and-forth communication and rework.

Question 5: How do you think about “derisking” a product?

Derisking is the process of identifying your riskiest assumptions and investigating to either validate or invalidate them.

For example, imagine an organization that plans to build a mobile app version of its website. At the start of the project, the riskiest assumption may be that customers want an app. Building an app without first engaging with users to find out what they want could lead to an expensive failure: building an app nobody uses.

To investigate the assumption that you should build an app, you could talk to users about what they want and need from your company. Those conversations will help you understand the user experience and lead you confidently forward in the right direction, whether toward an app or something else.

Your product leader should plan to derisk their work at every step, by getting input from all affected parties: users, developers, designers, engineering team, people on the business side, and so on.

Question 6: How will you handle failure?

You’ve probably heard the startup credo “fail fast.” This is also a useful approach to innovation.

When you ask your product leader about failure, look for an answer that suggests they will aim to test ideas at every stage, learn what works and what doesn’t, and move forward with the pieces that work.

This is another take on “derisking:” when you test your riskiest assumptions in good faith, some of them will prove incorrect. In some contexts, you could consider this a failure. But a product leader who’s well equipped to innovate will see failure in terms of what it can teach.

For example, if you thought users would love a certain interface but they don’t like it at all, you’ve learned what not to do. From there, you move on and try other interfaces. Even better: you create several low-fidelity interfaces to test at the same time and get evaluative feedback from your users, learning what they like and don’t like about each.

Every bit of feedback offers valuable insight for what your product should do.

Question 7: Can your product management team scale a project?

Innovative products drive new value. When those products are wildly successful, there may be opportunity to scale them to drive even more value.

Product leaders should have a plan for scaling their operations as needed.

This might mean scaling a team, either with internal resources or by bringing in additional resources. It might also mean building products with infrastructure that can and will scale in a cost-effective way. In other words: are they building products that work in one specific context or products that are capable of growing?

Question 8: Do you have a plan for each project?

By its nature, the work of innovation involves a lot of unknowns. In some cases, it’s unclear at a project’s outset what the final deliverable will be.

That’s okay. But an experienced product manager should have a clear sense of what's possible and what to expect within various timelines; essentially a product roadmap.

This can play into the idea of derisking, too: a good product manager who is working to convince executives of the value of product development should be able to pitch a small (say, six-week) engagement, explain what outcomes they expect to see from it, and define what next steps they’ll take based on those outcomes.

This is related to the next question…

Question 9: Can you clearly communicate your vision to stakeholders?

If they can’t yet explain what they’re doing to stakeholders (from developers and designers on the team to the CFO and CEO), they likely don’t yet have a firm enough grasp of what innovative product development entails.

Question 10: Can you stick to your plan?

To be clear, this doesn’t mean building something you think will work without changing course based on what you learn.

It means keeping the product vision and end goal in sight: creating something new that adds value.

On one level, that’s a straightforward task.

On another, it requires deep familiarity with every stage of product development so that a product leader can confidently guide their team. For example…

  • Deciding when it’s time to stop generating ideas and time to start prototyping.

  • Deciding when you have enough user feedback to proceed.

  • Coaching developers and designers in building prototypes and mockups that are just functional enough.

And so on.

Question 11: Does your product management team communicate efficiently?

I mentioned earlier that integrated teams are more efficient when working on complex projects.

Regardless of how their team operates, though, they should have efficient communication practices. This is especially important if their teams are remote or hybrid.

What does efficient communication look like? Among other things, product leaders should have a plan for regular all-team check-ins and guidelines for when team members should use various communication channels.

Question 12: How will you measure success?

Even the most successful new product can’t be expected to perform as well as an organization’s established lines of business, which may have years or decades of brand awareness, marketing, and word of mouth going for them.

The best product leaders recognize this and plan to measure success based on metrics that are different from those used to evaluate established products.

For example, it may make more sense to measure against objectives and key results (OKRs) rather than return on investment (ROI).

This can help prevent a situation where a new product that’s incredibly valuable is deemed to be a failure because it doesn’t perform as well as an established product.

Question 13: What happens if a project “fails”?

This is a great question to ask a product leader because it will reveal a lot of their decision-making thinking around the process of developing new products.

First, if they’re derisking a project at every step, there shouldn’t be the kind of failure that costs millions of dollars and months of work.

Second, any “failure” should also be the source of valuable new information or insight.

In addition to practicing the “fail fast” approach at the micro level (e.g., with product prototypes), product leaders should also plan to “fail fast” at the macro level. This might manifest as running a time-bound pilot project to test a new approach to product development.

Whatever the outcome at the end of that pilot, the leader has valuable insight to guide their next steps.

Question 14: How do you sustain successful innovation?

I mentioned above that everyone has had a great idea or two.

Product leaders qualified to lead organizations in ongoing innovation need a strategy for innovating consistently over time. The series of mindsets and behaviors that have been proven to enable this are sometimes called “product innovation” and sometimes called “working differently.”

Question 15: Does your culture encourage innovation?

Innovation only works when team members feel comfortable sharing ideas, experimenting, and questioning assumptions. You can’t consistently innovate without trying new things, and you can’t expect your team to present new features or ideas if they don’t feel comfortable failing.

One of the keys to developing a culture that encourages innovation is creating a space where experimentation is encouraged and failure isn’t harshly punished.

Question 16: What related fields of expertise do you have access to?

Integrated product development teams (which typically include designers, developers, and delivery leads) have skill sets that tend to work best for complex projects.

But the development of a product is only the beginning. To give it its best shot at success, it will need help through the product launch stage from marketing, sales, and other professionals. Effective product leaders should have strong relationships with leaders of other teams at your organization.

Question 17: Does your product management team collaborate well?

Effective product leaders cultivate teams whose members work well with each other and also with members of other teams. They often do this by making it clear how every team member’s goals contribute to the bigger-picture goals of the organization.

Question 18: Does your team collaborate intentionally, on an ongoing basis?

Being good at collaboration is important.

Intentionally collaborating in an ongoing way is just as important. Effect product leaders help their teams recognize how they can all learn from each other and become stronger practitioners by refining their work through collaboration.

Question 19: Does your team take feedback well?

We sometimes call feedback the “breakfast of champions.”

It’s essential to developing products that add value. And it’s not always easy to hear. The most helpful feedback is a mixture of positive (“I loved this”) and negative (“I hated this”) because it guides product teams toward building great products that people want and use.

But hearing the negative feedback about something you’ve built can hurt.

That’s one reason effective product leaders take a derisking approach, starting with customer experience and user input, then testing prototypes of increasing fidelity. By the time they’re testing a product that took a lot of time and effort to build, the team has a good amount of confidence that users will like it.

Effective product leaders help teams recognize the value of all types of feedback by demonstrating how to use it to make better and better products.

Question 20: Can you compartmentalize multiple projects?

In many cases, especially when internal product teams are tasked with product development, teams work on two or more projects at once (say, maintaining existing products and building a new one).

Finding the right balance can be difficult, especially given that businesses are set up to measure and reward people based on the performance of existing products.

Effective product leaders have soft skills and strategies for helping teams balance their time and compartmentalize their work on various projects.

Question 21: Has your company made innovation a priority?

Product innovation requires time and financial investment. Product leaders working in an organization whose executives don’t understand those prioritizations–––or who value quick returns over long-term advancement––may fight an uphill battle justifying the resources they need to innovate.

Some product leaders are prepared to run the campaign of winning hearts and minds in addition to doing the work of product innovation. But it’s not easy. If your executives require a lot of convincing to get on board with the idea of product innovation and your product leader isn’t particularly interested in doing that work––or doesn’t know how to go about doing it-–they may not be positioned for success.

Effective product leaders have a deep understanding of a complex space

Whether you’re evaluating your current product leaders or starting the interview process with new ones, these interview questions are crucial for understanding how they work and whether they have what it takes to lead a team in consistently delivering successful products to market.

If you’re interested in learning more about product innovation and strategy, contact TXI today.

Published by TXI in Product Innovation

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