Although apparently at odds with the relatively linear process that product managers follow to manage their products at different stages of the product cycle, creativity is an important aspect of the job. Simple creativity techniques can be used to deal with problems on a day-to-day operational level. They can be applied when trying to solve more complex business issues such as understanding the needs of your target market and how you can address their unmet needs, and ultimately increase market share for your product.
As product managers, we all have tough expectations to meet to make the products we manage be the most competitive in the market and to deliver the highest possible usage rates and revenue growth; and we have to do all this with limited resources and tight timelines. Allowing yourself to tap into your creative instincts can give you the edge to help you successfully deliver on your goals.
One of my favorite tools for problem solving as both a designer and product manager is mind mapping.
Start off with a blank sheet of paper and summarize part of the problem you are trying to solve in just one word. This is your starting point for developing multiple associations with the keyword. This simple act of distilling the problem into just one word not only enables you to focus on just one aspect at a time, but also forces you to break down the key drivers of the problem.
With each keyword or concept that you start mind mapping, develop as many branches and sub-branches of keywords associated with the original keyword as possible. This stage of the mind mapping aids the process of fundamentally shifting the way you view the issue at hand. You’ll be surprised with the number of concepts you can come up with in a very short amount of time if you let your mind explore all the possibilities that may be totally unrelated to the broader issue that you are trying to solve. Associations on the various branches can be metaphorical. The metaphorical associations are often the source of inspiration for fresh approaches.
When trying to approach more complex problems, mind map as many aspects of the problem as required and select the keywords on the sub-branches that are conceptually strong enough for you to investigate further. The further the sub-branch concepts are from the original keyword, the better.
An alternative to developing new concepts and solutions may be studying parallel universes that are completely unrelated to the product you manage, or even your industry sector. It may be an area of expertise you have in other aspects of your life or an established body of knowledge that you can tap into further through research.
I recently referred to parallel universes when I was developing new market opportunities. I tapped into my role as a mother, considering the unmet needs of parents when it comes to child development, as well as my knowledge of the abundance of educational products that are available to Japanese children that are not available in my local market. The result of this exercise is the initiation of a dialogue with a potential new business partner.
The technique described above can be used individually or collaboratively for problem solving.
It’s a great way to guide teams to explore all possibilities, without people feeling ridiculed by thinking “outside the square.” It enables people to build on each other’s ideas constructively, coming up with multiple solutions that you may not have been able to come up with so easily on your own.
Like anything, creativity is developed through practice. Continually practicing methods such as mind mapping and researching parallel universes when trying to come up with original ways of approaching a problem will open up many untapped possibilities. It is an efficient way of discovering alternative approaches and fresh marketing messaging, as well as delivering unique solutions during the problem solving process—all critical aspects of the product manager’s role.