Radical Product Thinking

While Steve Jobs had an innate talent for turning revolutionary ideas into tangible products, many of us require a more structured and methodical approach. That’s where Radical Product Thinking (RPT) comes in. RPT is a systematic process that guides you through envisioning, building, and delivering visionary products that make a positive impact on society.


The concept of iteration-led product development, while popularized by success stories like Twitter, has limitations when it comes to creating revolutionary products; taking an approach that solely focuses on making incremental improvements can lead to lackluster products with a lack of vision and innovation, such as GM’s Chevy Bolt, which was developed solely to capture market share and lacked a clear vision for revolutionizing the automobile industry, in contrast to Tesla’s trailblazing Model 3.


While many product developers have adopted the iteration-led approach, which involves making incremental improvements and iterating until stumbling upon a winner, the Odeo to Twitter success story is an outlier in that it does not always lead to revolutionary products. Such an approach lacks the clarity of vision necessary for creating groundbreaking products that innovate industries and change the world.


GM’s Chevy Bolt is a prime example of this; the product was developed solely to compete with Tesla, with a focus on bringing a commercially viable electric car to the market as quickly and cheaply as possible, and as a result, it lacked a clear vision for revolutionizing the automobile industry. Rather than designing a brand-new chassis, GM used the one from their gas-powered Chevy Spark and built on top of it, resulting in an electrified evolution of an old car, rather than an electrifying revolution.


While iteration-led product development may have its place, creating visionary and revolutionary products requires a clear vision and deliberate, intentional steps towards that vision, rather than simply iterating until a winner is stumbled upon.


Why a Vision-Driven Approach is Key to Product Development Success

The Tesla Model 3’s success can be attributed to its vision-driven approach to product development, unlike the traditional iteration-led approach that is solely focused on short-term business goals. Tesla’s vision was to build a car that would accelerate the world’s transition away from fossil fuels by enabling drivers to go electric without compromising performance or breaking the bank.


Tesla made sure that their vision informed every decision and innovation they made while developing the Model 3. This approach led to a slew of cutting-edge innovations that worked together as a unified, vision-driven whole. They asked themselves, “How can we maximize this part’s efficiency, so it will contribute to our goal of achieving both high performance and affordability?” With this approach, Tesla built the Model 3 from the ground up, keeping their eye on the prize at every step of the development process.


An iteration-led approach, on the other hand, can lead to a short-term, vision-less mindset that can lead to corner-cutting. Without a vision, all you’re left with are short-term business goals, often quantified as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), such as revenue and user numbers, which can make companies obsessed with boosting them. However, this can lead to losing sight of what’s important. For example, the latest iteration of a website may increase the time people spend on it, but the goal should be enabling customers to take care of their business and get off the site as quickly as possible.


A vision-driven approach to product development provides a better alternative to iteration. Tesla’s success with the Model 3 can be attributed to their vision-driven approach, which ensured that every decision and innovation they made contributed to their goal of accelerating the world’s transition away from fossil fuels. By keeping their eye on the prize at every step of the development process, they were able to turn their vision into a game-changing reality.


Creating a Clear and Compelling Vision for Successful Product Development

The success of a product depends on having a clear and compelling vision, but many companies fail to create one that truly resonates with their customers. Without a vision, companies risk getting lost in a sea of aimless ideas and short-term goals that ultimately lead to failure. To avoid this, RPT recommends a vision-driven approach to product development, starting with creating a vision that is problem-centered, concrete, and meaningful.


A vision should be focused on solving a problem for the world, rather than on personal or financial gain. This means identifying the specific group of people who will benefit from the product, and describing the change that the product will bring to their lives. For example, Lijjat, an Indian food and consumer goods producer, doesn’t just aim to sell lots of lentil crackers. They want to help impoverished women in India by providing them with a sustainable way of earning a dignified living and becoming financially independent.


A vision should also be concrete and specific, rather than vague and general. This means avoiding uplifting but meaningless phrases like “empowering women,” and instead describing a specific change that the product will create. For Lijjat, this means providing a way for women to support themselves and their families through the production and sale of lentil crackers.


Finally, a vision should be meaningful to both the company and its customers. This means identifying why the change that the product will create is important, and how it will benefit both the company and the people it aims to help. For Lijjat, this means creating a sustainable business model that benefits both the company and the women who produce its products.


By following these guidelines, companies can create a clear and compelling vision that will guide their product development efforts and help them achieve long-term success.


Product Development Strategy


RDCL Approach: Creating a Vision-Driven Product Development Strategy

The key to successful product development is creating a clear and compelling vision and then developing a strategy to turn that vision into a reality. The RPT approach to product development suggests using the mnemonic RDCL, which stands for Real pain points, Design, Capabilities, and Logistics, to create a winning, vision-driven strategy.


The first step in creating a strategy is to learn people’s real pain points, so you know what design, capabilities, and logistics your product needs to succeed. By understanding the specific problems that your target customers are facing, you can design a product that addresses those pain points and meets their needs.


For example, Lijjat, an Indian food and consumer goods producer, was able to successfully employ over 45,000 women by understanding the real pain points of impoverished women in India. They knew that offering these women jobs at a papadam factory wouldn’t be helpful, as they couldn’t simply abandon their responsibilities at home. Instead, Lijjat allowed them to work from home, providing them with a sustainable way of earning a dignified living and becoming financially independent.


Once you have identified the pain points of your target customers, the next step is to design a product that meets their needs. This involves creating a product that solves the specific problems that your target customers are facing, rather than simply trying to sell a generic product. By creating a product that is tailored to your customers’ needs, you increase the chances of success.


The third step is to identify the capabilities you need to bring your design to life. These can be tangible or intangible resources, such as data or trust. For example, Netflix needs viewership data to power its recommendation algorithm, and Airbnb needs people’s trust so they will rent out their apartments to strangers.


Finally, you need to figure out the logistics of selling, delivering, and providing service for your product. This involves developing a detailed business model that outlines how you will reach your customers, distribute your product, and provide support and service.


By following the RDCL approach to product development, you can create a winning, vision-driven strategy that meets the needs of your target customers and leads to long-term success.


The RTP approach: Prioritizing your vision in decision-making

Once you have developed a vision-driven product development strategy, the next step is to navigate the complicated business landscape in a way that prioritizes your vision while ensuring your company’s survival. To do this, it’s important to remember your priorities.


As a decision-maker in a vision-driven company, your two top priorities are:

– making progress toward your vision and 

– surviving as a business. 


Every decision you make will either fit or not fit your vision and either increase or mitigate risks to your company’s survival. These lead to four possibilities, which can be divided into four quadrants in your decision-making space. You could make a choice that meets both imperatives, a good vision fit that also mitigates risk. Conversely, you could make a choice that serves neither imperative, a bad vision fit that also increases risk. These two possibilities are no-brainers, and you should embrace choices in the ideal quadrant and avoid choices in the danger quadrant.


The next two possibilities are where things get tricky. You could make a choice that’s a good vision fit but increases risk, which is the quadrant where you’re investing in the vision. For example, putting money into research and development negatively affects your short-term bottom line, but it could give you the technology you need to achieve your long-term goals. Finally, you could make a choice that’s a bad vision fit but decreases risk. For instance, taking on a project that’s irrelevant to your vision but allows you to secure some much-needed funding.


While sometimes you have to take on projects that decrease risk, it’s important to be clear about what you’re doing and recognize that you’re building vision debt. Building some debt is acceptable as long as you don’t accumulate too much debt, and you invest in your vision sooner rather than later. However, it’s best to avoid building vision debt as much as possible and prioritize investing in your vision more often than mitigating risk. By remembering your priorities and making decisions that fit your vision and mitigate risk, you can navigate the business landscape in a way that leads to long-term success without losing sight of your vision.


The Key to Successful Product Iteration

After laying out your vision, strategy, and decision-making priorities, the next step is to develop your product, test it on the market, and iterate based on customer feedback. However, the story of Nack app demonstrates that this approach can be flawed if you’re measuring the wrong things.


Nack was designed to promote the Italian tradition of “suspended coffee,” where a person buys two cups of coffee – one for themselves and one for a stranger. Nack’s founder, Paul Haun, tracked user metrics like daily users and time spent on the app, and iterated the app based on these metrics. However, he later discovered that most users were simply using the app to get free coffee and not paying it forward as intended.


The lesson is clear: when testing and iterating your product, make sure you’re measuring the right things – those that align with your vision. In Nack’s case, the key metric was not the number of users or time spent on the app, but the number of people actually gifting coffee to others. By iterating the app to incentivize gift-giving, Nack successfully encouraged users to participate in the spirit of the tradition.


Therefore, it’s essential to choose metrics that measure whether you’re making progress towards achieving your vision. Success cannot be solely based on metrics that don’t align with your ultimate goal. Even if your product is popular, if it does not achieve your vision, it’s ultimately a failure.


So, when testing and iterating your product, ensure you’re measuring the right things. Choose metrics that align with your vision and measure progress towards achieving it. With this approach, you can avoid the pitfalls of conventional wisdom and ensure that your product is successful in achieving your ultimate goal.


Creating a Vision-Driven Company Culture

To create a vision-driven company culture, it’s not enough for just the leader or a few employees to be vision-driven. Everyone in the company should be driven by the same vision. The RTP (Roadmap, Targets, and Metrics) approach to product development can help create a vision-driven culture. Creating a company culture means creating experiences for employees, which can be categorized into four quadrants based on whether the work is urgent or satisfying.


The first quadrant, meaningful work, is the most important one. Meaningful work is any task that contributes to the larger purpose and feels satisfying but isn’t time-sensitive. To enable employees to feel mission-driven, organizations should ensure that most of the work falls into this quadrant. The second quadrant is heroism work, which is urgent work that feels satisfying, like solving a critical customer issue. This kind of work can feel exciting in short bursts, but it becomes exhausting after a while, so it should be kept within reasonable limits.


The third quadrant is organizational cactus work, which is tedious but necessary work, like filling out administrative forms. Most of this work can and should be minimized to allow employees to focus on meaningful work. The fourth quadrant is soul-sucking work, which is neither satisfying nor necessary, like sitting in meetings where you can’t disagree. These experiences should be eliminated as much as possible.


To create a company culture that fits this pattern, it’s important to think of culture as a product and use the RTP approach. A clear and compelling vision of the culture should be created, followed by designing an RDCL (Roadmap, Targets, Culture, and Leadership) strategy to achieve that vision. Finally, wise decisions should be made and meaningful measurements should be collected using vision-driven metrics and priorities. By emphasizing meaningful, vision-driven work, organizations can create a culture that is not only satisfying but also contributes to a larger purpose.


Iterating your product is not a bad thing. In fact, you should always aim to create better versions of it. The problem arises when iteration takes over the entire product development process and becomes its defining feature, rather than a helpful tool to achieve a bigger goal. You must have a well-defined and inspiring vision to guide every aspect of product development, from designing strategies to metrics and even company culture.

Inspired by a book “Radical Product Thinking”; R. Dutt


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