Product management, art or science?

Scientists and product managers are both innovators. In this article, I’ll explore some theories of how scientific innovation happens and suggest how we can apply these concepts to out own innovation problem-solving in product management.

Strong and weak methods

Let’s start with the theory. Scientists make discoveries through two methods: strong and weak methods. These methods are not necessarily employed consciously or deliberately. Strong methods entail acquiring domain-specific knowledge about phenomena and techniques and using this knowledge to solve problems. Weak methods, on the other hand, are more fundamental. They are heuristics, which are rules of thumb or come to us as common sense. They include trial-and-error, hill-climbing, means-ends analysis (a technique used in AI), analogy, and response to surprise (Klahr and Simon, 2001).

Weak methods and analogies

Klahr and Simon describe that as people start to work on the “outer boundaries of creativity”, that is, looking for a new solution to a problem, they place less reliance on their pre-learned solutions and knowledge (strong methods) and more on processes that allow them to play outside this “box”. It makes sense. When you try to find a new solution or discover something, you reach the edge of your knowledge. One needs another toolset to work with — weak methods. When using the weak method of analogies, for example, one aims to map a new problem onto one already encountered so that it can be solved with an existing framework. This mapping may be complex and it may not produce a perfect solution. However, it may stimulate the necessary thought, connections and creative ideas that may hint at the final solution. Bohr used an analogy of the solar system movements to come up with his quantum model of the hydrogen atom. He imagined the electrons of the hydrogen atoms orbiting the nucleus as analogous to the planets orbiting the sun. Here, while it was not a perfect mapping, it was good enough to stimulate other ideas and connections that could fill in the gaps and discover the correct physical processes.

Hill-climbing, analogies and product management

“A painter is not a scientist; nor is a scientist a lawyer or a cook [or a product manager]. But they all use the same weak methods to help solve their respective problems” (Klahr and Simon, 2001).

How does this relate to technology innovation? Are strong and weak methods relevant in product management and what kind of weak methods could be useful? I’ll analyse the weak method of hill-climbing and have a deeper look at analogies, which are linked.

Innovation and concept combination

Don Norman speaks about hill-climbing in innovation. However, before this, another important event has to occur — the assembly of a novel combination. That is, the uniting of two concepts that did not exist before and are dissimilar. Analogies, tinkering and accidents are all examples of how new concepts can be formed. It is after this that the hill-climbing method can be useful. Hill-climbing is where a person tries to find the most direct route to a solution. If this fails, then the next best route is tried, and so on until the solution is found. A nice analogy for this is solving a maze. You keep trying at your perceived best guess and continue to try until you find your route to the end. It is therefore not at hill-climbing that innovation begins, it is at the novel combination that came before that. Therefore, I’m noting concept combination and hill-climbing as intrinsically linked and important to innovation in product management

Concept combination and hill-climbing in industry

What is an example of concept combination and hill-climbing in industry? From listening to the How I Built This podcast, where founders tell the story of their now successful companies, this creation of a novel combination and subsequent trial and error to create a viable product is clear and recurrent. One of my favourite episodes that illustrates this well is the story of Kickstarter. CEO Perry Chen combined the idea of creative projects being funded, not by traditional means, but by fans, now known as crowdsourcing. This seems obvious now, but it was a new combination at the time. It then took Chen eight years to refine (hill-climb) the idea to viability.

Analogy and concept combination

We know that we need to create new combinations. But how? It can be done through analogies. The invention of the lawnmower was the result of a concept combination through analogy. Edwin Budding believed that there was a better way to cut grass. He also knew how cloth was cut at a cloth factory — with revolving blades fixed between rollers. He combined these two concepts from largely dissimilar domains, cloth factories and gardening, and came up with the idea of revolving blades to cut grass. I assume that his first iteration was not the final one. He must have experimented with various designs (hill-climbed) to create a functional lawnmower.

Culture enabling concept combination

So, all these theories are interesting, et alors? Let’s see how we can apply concept combination, analogy and hill-climbing to technology innovation.

Firstly, for concept combination, I believe that there needs to be a certain culture in place at the given company that allows people the time to think and have the courage to be bold enough to come up with novel combinations of ideas. There needs to be an understanding that it’s okay to create an idea that may not be viable, and even, celebrate the creativity that people used to put those concepts together, no matter the outcome. It may just be a muscle that we need to strengthen, which may become more effortless with practice. I have a friend who used to come up with five startup ideas per day. Nothing came of it, but I think it’s a wonderful exercise.

Diversity

Furthermore, I believe that diversity of thought, education and experience can help people to create interesting concept combinations through analogies. A historian working on a technology team may have insight into the early inventions, which could help to design new emerging technologies. A mathematician on a design team may have ideas for visual designs based on physics and algorithms. People who are knowledgeable in various domains have a more colourful pool of concepts from which to draw. An innovative product needs to stem from unexpected combinations.

Concept combination done deliberately — Brainpower example

Assuming we have a culture that enables innovation and a diverse workforce, how can we consciously use the theories I’ve described? I mentioned earlier that weak methods, such as making analogies, are not necessarily methods that we decide to use consciously. They may just come to us. However, I’d like to suggest that we use them deliberately. So, what is a purposeful way to create analogies? How about, we can take a problem at its fundamental level and map it to a solution for a similar problem but that exists in a different domain? It may just be a matter of a deliberate brainstorming session. I’ll describe an analogy I’ve come up with to test this out.

“I am a budding startup founder and I need human, problem-solving brainpower but I don’t have enough financial resources to hire enough people to work for me. My fundamental problem is that I need brainpower resources. I may hire interns. They can give me their brainpower for little money in return for the experience. However, I wonder if there is an inefficiency in the world that is not being harnessed. Is there a place where people use their brainpower that is not being harnessed for good? I’d like to argue that students at undergraduate level in some courses use a huge amount of brainpower that is not being harnessed to its full potential. The majority of problem-solving goes into solving set exercises, rather than solving real-world problems. The analogy is brainpower being used in industry and brainpower used in undergraduate university courses. How about giving university students real-world problems, derived from industry, to solve and have that work evaluated in the same way as exercises and assignments? That way, students work on real problems and help real causes by feeding that work back. That brainpower is now harnessed. Could students even get bonus points for creating a real impact with their work? That’s my analogy. I put together two concepts from two different domains to start the process of solving a problem creatively.

Hill climbing, Lean Methodology and Google

So, now that we have combined two unique concepts it’s about hill-climbing that idea to a viable solution. The Lean Methodology seems to be based on hill-climbing. With small experiments, iterations and user-feedback we refine our idea until viability, even if the final idea resembles the original one only briefly. The same goes for ideas in product management and inside large organisations. We experiment our way to a solution. Google gives its employees dedicated time to experiment. I found that pitching ideas to stakeholders, or even when ideas have been pitched to me, it’s effective when the ask is to carry out a quick experiment before a larger commitment. A short increment to the top of the hill is less risky than committing to the whole expedition. What if weather conditions change? What if we learn important, new information along the way? It’s easier to be agile and make changes before too many resources have been dedicated to a long term plan.

Culture of experimentation

As with concept combination, where a certain innovation culture needs to be in place, a culture of experimentation needs to be in place so that ideas can be hill-climbed, or experimented with, to viability. How can we as product managers foster this within our teams? This topic alone merits an article and so be it. In a later article, I’ll explore how product managers can foster this culture within their teams, and perhaps contribute to the company culture at large.

Conclusion

In conclusion, scientists and product managers are both innovators, which means that the psychological processes that occur for scientists when they innovate apply also to product managers. This is interesting because we can look at the research from science and apply the methods described to product management. In this article I’ve looked at the methods of concept-combination, analogy and hill-climbing.

In a short summary, the process for an individual is as follows. After a person reaches the boundary of their knowledge as they try to find new solutions to problems with strong methods, they then start to rely more on weak methods, such as analogy and hill-climbing (experimentation). Analogies help people to create novel combinations that can then be hill-climbed, or experimented with, as they work toward creating a viable product. Additionally, I believe that the culture of the company within which a person works must be enabling for this. To create more original ideas, or novel combinations, it would help if this person had been exposed to experiences from domains other than the one they are working in at that moment.

I believe that being aware of these underlying psychological processes can help innovators to create methods to exploit these processes to their advantage. Product management is a science in that there definite cognitive process underlying our problem solving, but it’s an art in that if we are aware if them, we can use them to our advantage. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly”.

Stay curious,

Ilona

Update: For a sytematic way to make analogies, see my later article: An atom is like the solar system — Innovation through analogy

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Ilona Melnychuk

AI Product Manager | Combing academic theory and product experience to create useful PM tools | Ultra-marathon runner