Leadership

Driving Innovation with Product Development Partnerships

Product managers, entrepreneurs, and “intrapreneurs” often look outside their organizations to achieve their innovation goals. Whether due to a lack of resources, experience or open-mindedness, internal product development is typically improved by partnering with external experts.

After nearly two decades of building digital offerings for dozens of clients, from venture-backed startups to high-profile nonprofits to billion-dollar multinationals, we’ve identified the following common factors that determine successful innovation lab development partnerships.

  • Tactical AND Strategic Perspective  On Day One, expert third-party developers provide access to a team with diverse experiences that cross disciplines to incorporate development, design and product management into every project. This broad perspective is critical for product innovation – a much different initiative than simply developing specific features. While functionality can be easily outsourced because of its task-by-task description of what needs to be coded, product innovation is an entirely different endeavor requiring evolution along the way. In our 15 years of building digital products, I’ve never seen a project that proceeds along as planned without changes.
  • Trust in the Team Dynamic By hiring an expert team that is already assembled, clients gain not only from their deep subject-matter expertise but from their history of collaborating. Enterprise innovation works best when their interaction with these teams is based on healthy dialogue, mutual trust, and co-ownership of the product development process with both internal and external product owners and designers.
  • A Truly Independent Environment Innovation labs most often thrive outside the walls of the enterprise they are serving. This is largely because new products need a different type of environment than an established company team can provide. To truly innovate effectively, product teams need a safe space that they can quickly develop, fail, learn, iterate – and repeat – in order to arrive at the optimal offering.
  • A Commitment to Flexibility Our experience has shown that short, user-tested design and development cycles are a key ingredient in creating innovative products. A focused, iterative process makes it easier to integrate client and customer feedback and allows us to quickly course correct and build on new information. This also keeps clients from wasting money creating an overly-complicated product and later discovering that incorrect assumptions or missed opportunities were incorporated along the way.
  • A Culture Match The intrapreneurs in the innovation lab or initial hires on the development team often establish the culture and environment of the internal team that will eventually come on board. Therefore, it is important to work with an external development partner that thinks and collaborates similarly to set a consistent tone for future full-time hires.  
  • Constant Transfer of Knowledge & Best Practices We have found that people learn most when they are learning together. By working with a team that is closely integrated on processes, the enterprise innovation team quickly learns new development styles that will allow them to produce features that drive product success.
  • Collaboration via Colocation There is no better way to collaborate than shoulder-to-shoulder pairing or face-to-face meetings. Periodic or permanent co-locating members of the enterprise team with the outsourced development team improves camaraderie, communication and delivery time. It also speeds integration of processes and learning of new development styles.
  • A Commitment to Innovation Success A development partner must do more than just deliver code that meets an enterprise client’s functionality needs; the partner must be invested in the product’s ongoing success. When a product nears the finish line, the development partner must help to train internal existing talent and to hire new team members to continue building and supporting the product. This enduring commitment to the ongoing success of a new product is what separates true innovation partners from mere developers.

Michael Wynholds is CEO of Carbon Five, a digital product development consultancy based in San Francisco with offices in Santa Monica, New York City, Seattle, and Chattanooga.

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