Radical Product Thinking, with Radhika Dutt
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
Radhika Dutt, author of Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter, is here to share how radical thinking organizations are vision-driven instead of iteration-led.
".. any time your vision starts to become disconnected from your daily activities... there is a break in the chain somewhere. That's how product diseases come about."
JJ: Hello and welcome to Product Voices. I am thrilled for today's episode.
Radhika Dutt is here! So exciting. Radhika Dutt, of course, is the author of Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter. She's a product leader and has built products across a breadth of industries, including broadcasting, media, advertising, technology, government, consumer, robotics, and even wine. Of course, that's the most important one. She advises organizations from high tech startups to government agencies on building radical products that create a fundamental change instead of just optimizing the status quo.
And maybe the most awesome to me... She speaks nine languages and holds three citizenships. Now that's just really cool. Radhika, thank you so much for being here.
RADHIKA: Thank you so much for having me JJ. I'm excited to be here.
JJ: So first, let me just say I love this book. I think it's practical, yet really inspiring. There are really profound lessons in this book, and to me, that in itself makes it radical. I'm so excited to talk to you about this. So maybe first let's just start with your journey. How did you create the Radical Product Thinking framework and then ultimately write that book? What led you down this path.
RADHIKA: I think so what really led me down this path was just seeing the same set of product diseases over and over. I started my career building companies and, you know, just making mistakes. Right. So my first company was called Lobby Seven. It was founded out of our dorm rooms at MIT. It was myself and four other cofounders. And the first disease that we ran into was what I call Hero syndrome. That's the disease where we're so focused on just scaling, on being big. And the thing I realized right is that more than 20 years ago now that we ran into that disease, and that disease is just as prevalent today in the startup world as it was 20 years ago. And so these diseases were things that I kept seeing over and over. I would learn from them. But then when I went to work at other companies, I kept seeing other people struggling with these diseases. And so in 2017, after having had one more such run in with a product disease at a company, I felt like I just about had it.
And my question at that time was, is it just that there are some people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, who seem to just know intuitively have this innate gift for building world changing products, and the rest of us are just doomed to cycling through trial and error and just learning? Or is there a way that each of us can just systematically learn how to build world changing products and not run into these diseases? So that was the burning question. And I was talking to ex colleagues and friends of mine. Nitty Agural and Jordy Katies. And that's how we started working on a framework. And it was this kind of mind meld where we started to think through, well, you know, how could we give someone tools to start working through this?
And then we started testing these tools with a few organizations, and we kind of grew from there. We put it up online for free. And it still is free because it's a very vision driven approach. Anyone who wants to create vision driven change, who wants to create change in the world, we want to enable them to be able to do it. And so it's a free toolkit on the radical product thinking website. And just it became this global movement where people started adopting it. And I started hearing from people saying, this really helped me build a better product as a result.
JJ: That's just so amazing. I love how that has evolved. So you talked about the diseases, and I want to touch on that in a moment, especially a couple of them that really resonate with me. But first, I want to talk a little bit about the three pillars of radical product thinking as you've laid them out. And have you maybe tell us a little bit more about your thinking around each of these? And again, I mentioned that this book was very profound and inspiring to me, and I think really these pillars illuminate that. In my mind, the first pillar that you lay out is think of your product as your mechanism for creating change. I just love that. Tell us more about your ideas around that.
RADHIKA: Yeah. I think the starting point is a fundamental shift from how we've traditionally thought about product until now. We've just thought about product as well. It's the end goal in itself. You build a successful product if it's making you lots of money, whereas this way of thinking is different in that your product is not just your hardware or your software or a physical or digital thing. Absolutely. Anything can be your product if it's a mechanism to create change. And so the reason for thinking about this mechanism as a product is because that means you can build it very systematically, that it's not just let's just try things and see what works. We'll put something out there and see what sticks. Instead, we take the systematic approach of starting with a clear picture of what's the change you want to bring about and then translating that into a plan. Like how will you bring about that change? What does that mean in terms of how you translate it into your actions and your daily activities? And how will you measure for success? Those are the logical questions you would ask.
And so building a product becomes this systematic approach. And that's why anything that is your mechanism to create change can be your product. And that means. Right. Whether it's a government policy or it's a website for people to meet each other, or it's a consumer electronics product, anything has to be thought of as this mechanism to create change so that you know whether you're bringing about that change through your product.
JJ: I think that is so important for those of us out there who create I'll say non traditional products, if you will, services or something other than purely software are purely physical, durable. And there's a lot right. There's a lot of experiences and services out there that can really embody that first pillar. So again, that first pillar, think of your product as your mechanism for creating change.
Second pillar, envision the change you want to bring to the world before engineering your product. Envision the change you want to bring to the world before engineering your product. Really profound. Tell us more about that.
RADHIKA: Yeah. Let's look at the example of Facebook, one that's so top of mind for us. Right. There was a product that was put out in the world. And at the time the vision described was to create an open and connected world. And so it sounds like we have vision and a product was put out there and optimized for all these metrics like user engagement and revenues, etc. Right. But. If think about what does this open and connected world mean? It really does not describe any change that we really want to see in the world. What is an open and connected world? What does that actually look like for people? What's the change that we bring about the society look like when you don't think through that, you end up creating something that could just grow and become a monstrosity. Right. And so you don't even know what to correct for or what changes to make. How do you course correct if you haven't thought about what is the change you want to bring about?
And so that's the fundamental starting point. We have to be able to envision that change before we start engineering our products so that we can course correct, so that we're not on this galloping horse that's just heading somewhere, even if it's heading in the wrong direction. And by the way, it's just such a profound shift. Right. Because when we started using lean and agile as those methodologies were so ubiquitous. Even the book Lean Startup, it talks about, yes, you should have a vision, but the idea almost is you discover your vision along the way. Although it says you start by having a vision, the vision is always something that is broad. Right. Kind of like open and connected was considered a good vision. And therein lies the problem. When we use iterations, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can discover a more detailed vision along the way and that you can't possibly know your vision until you start trying things. And that's one of the fundamental things that I really want to challenge, because when we just iterate.
This is how we start running into these product diseases, because we're iteration driven, and that leads to product diseases like Pivotitis, right. Where we keep changing directions, trying things, and without knowing what change we want to bring about, 1s then our iterations aren't driven by any clear direction. It's like saying we're going to go on a road trip and my direction is to go north. That's my vision for the road trip. So you don't know if you're going to end up in Boston, if you start from New York or you're going to end up in Toronto. It's just, you know, this is why we need that clarity of what's the change we want to bring about. And that vision might change slightly over time, but at least you need some sort of starting point, a stake in the ground round.
JJ: Yeah, that's amazing. And then that third pillar is maybe kind of the connective tissue, if you will. Create change by connecting your vision to your day to day activities. Tell us more about that.
RADHIKA: Yeah, exactly. Because very often we might start off with a vision. But what I realized was even when you know exactly what's the change you want to bring about, until now, we've not really had a methodology for how do you translate a vision into your daily activities? And when you see that sort of a disconnect, that's where product diseases creep in. Like any time your vision starts to become disconnected from your daily activities. So there is a break in the chain somewhere. That's how product diseases come about. And that's why in the radical product thinking way, it gives you this five steps or five elements. And this is not to say it's completely linear. You might go back and forth between the steps. And so just to be clear, I'm not against iteration. Some of these steps require a little bit of iteration. I find that I start with a vision, I develop a strategy, and then as you execute on that strategy, you realize actually I need to go revise that strategy or I need to even go back and revise my vision.
So I'm not against the duration. But being able to have that clear stake in the ground, go back to it and clarify refine those elements, and very systematically translate that vision into action and everyday activities and how you measure success, I think that's really the key to be able to avoid product diseases and create world changing products.
JJ: Okay. So let's talk more about these product diseases. This really resonated with me when I was reading the book, and I'm sure, of course, with many others because we've been there, we've done that. We've seen it around us or frankly, even been responsible for of these diseases. So I want to touch on a couple of them. You've already mentioned a couple as well. Strategic swelling really hit home for me. I mean, it's kind of the quintessential problem of product management is to say no. We have all these good ideas and frankly, most of them could be valuable. And so we have to really prioritize well. And that's not always easy for organizations. I love the story in the book about comparing Yahoo and Google. So share with us your thoughts about strategic swelling.
RADHIKA: Yes, strategic swelling is the disease that happens. Right. When your product starts to grow and grow, your product starts off well. And then a customer has an idea for you. Oh, you know, if you just add this one other feature, I could also use it to do blah. And pretty soon your product grows to the point where it could make coffee for you nicely if you just ask. So this disease happens when we have this sort of a broad vision where we talked about the vision like open and connected. But we've always learned that a vision has to be a BHAG or a big hairy audacious goal. For ages, GE's vision of being number one or number two in the world in every industry that was touted as a good vision. So what happens when you have such a broad vision? Well, hold up any feature against it and the answer is yes. Let's do it. Could I be number one one number two in this market? Yeah, sure, if I work hard enough. Right. So the answer to anything is yes. And GE is an example where they caught this disease, strategic swelling, because that company that made light bulbs. Grew to the point where it was also doing subprime mortgages to the point where there was a day when GE became reclassified from a manufacturing company to a finance company. Now that strategic swelling.
JJ: That's amazing. And there are several examples out there of companies with good intentions and allowing the strategic swelling disease to get them. So another one that related to me and kind of my past as well was obsessive sales disorder. Right. Tying into that, hey, a customer wants this, and if we just do this, we'll get the sale. And that is so common in so many organizations, especially B2B organization. So share with us a little bit more about obsessive sales disorder.
RADHIKA: And you talked about contributing some of these diseases ourselves. Obsessive sales disorder is one that I have contributed to, and I'll admit to contributing to it. Right. Because it's so tempting, especially when you have this big deal that you're going to be able to win your salesperson comes to has this glimmer in their eye, and they tell you if you just had this one small feature and we'll turn it on only for this customer and you say, okay, yes, let's do this. Right. And pretty soon your entire roadmap is driven by all these things that you have to make going on. Right. And so that's obsessive sales disorder. And what happens is we often forget to acknowledge what I call now vision debt. So just like we take on technical debt, which is basically, well, we take shortcuts on the technical side so that we can do something quick.
So it's not good for the long term. But hey, short term is going to help us. Vision debt is something very similar where it's not good for the long term, vision. But hey, it's really going to help us short term in terms of survival. And so winning this big client is helpful for survival. And so we take on a little bit of vision debt, but then you take on more and more and more of vision debt, and eventually you realize, Whoa, we have so much vision debt. This is obsessive sales disorder.
JJ: Vision debt. I love, love, love that. That's amazing. So I want to talk about. Kind of really the crux of the book and how organizations can implement this radical product thinking by discussing a little bit the five elements of radical product thinking as you've laid them out, which are vision, strategy, prioritization execution and measurement, and then culture. So instead of talking about each one of those individually, maybe let's talk about how they work together. What's your experience and how does the interconnectedness of those elements work together to ultimately bring radical product thinking into the DNA of an organization.
RADHIKA: So, JJ, before we get into each of how those elements interconnect, there's one part of radical product thinking maybe that I really want to highlight just to explain why all of this is even radical. Because for our listeners, what I realize is the words that I'm using vision, strategy, priorities. We've heard all those words before. So maybe many of our listeners are listening to this and going like, well, what is radical? Because, of course, we need a vision. Right. And so let me explain that with the example of the vision. What I mean by a vision. I've already said it's not a broad vision, but. Well, okay, then what is a good vision? So good vision to me is one that is very detailed. And honestly, it sounds more like an essay than a little slogan, like being number one or number two in the world. In every market, a good vision has to answer five questions. It's the who, what, why, when and how. So whose world are you trying to change? What is their world look like? Meaning? What exactly is their problem and what are they doing today to solve it? Then we can answer, why does that world need changing meaning? Why is the status quo unacceptable? And if we cannot answer that question, why is the status quo unacceptable? We really have no business building a product. Right.
Then we can answer, well, what does the world look like? Meaning, when can you say you've arrived? When can you hang up the mission accomplished banner? And then finally, how will you bring about that world? And this is where you you talk about your technology or your product, et cetera. And so this who, what, why, when and how questions. I've realized that even when you know that you have to answer them using these questions and starting with these questions on a blank sheet of paper, it's just so counterproductive. It just leads to wordsmithing. And so the radical vision statement is a fill in the blank statement so that you're not stuck in the words. You're focusing on the concepts.
And so here's the radical vision statement for a startup that I had right. It would read like this today. When amateur wine drinkers want to find wines that they're likely to like, they have to try attractive looking wine bottles or wines that are on sale. This is unacceptable because it leads to so many disappointments. And it's hard to learn about wine this way. We're bringing about a world where finding wines you like is as easy as finding movies you like on Netflix. And we're creating this world through a recommendations algorithm that matches wines to your taste and an operational setup that delivers these wines to your taste.
So if I pause there for a second, the thing is, this sounds almost like an essay. It's a little long, but I had told you just nothing about my start up. But hopefully after that vision, you knew exactly what we were doing and why we were doing doing it. And that's why it's a radical vision, because it creates so much alignment in your team, and it's different from what we've ever learned about writing a good vision. That is really good. And yes, I did before I knew you innovated around wine and I thought, well, that has to be cool, right? But I didn't know what you did. And after you reading that, yes, I know what you did, right. I know what the product was. I know what the vision of the company was. That's really impactful there. I love that.
So how do you tie that in? How do you start from there and then go forward to again, kind of get that radical product thinking across the organization, right? So once you have a vision, then you can say, well, how do I translate this into a set of steps to bring about this vision into reality? And that's where your strategy comes in. And that means asking, well, why will anyone use this product? Like, what's the pain that makes them go seek out your product? Then the next step is saying, well, okay, so how will I solve that pain? So that's your functionality or your design? The third step is then saying, well, how will I power this design? So think of your design as the nice car seats you have and the heater under your butt. But what's the engine that's going to drive this car? That's all the back end and maybe the technical infrastructure, your partnerships, etc. For those, the capabilities you need to build. And then finally your logistics, meaning what's the business model that's driving this? How you actually deliver this solution to the customer in terms of pricing, training, et cetera. Those logistics are the elements, by the way, that we often say, oh, I'll build the product first, and then I'll think about monetization, or then I'll figure out how to support it, but it really needs to be part of the product design, product strategy itself. So that's the strategy. So once you have a vision, you can translate it into how will this product actually come about, like what's it doing and how will it get to market.
Then once you have a vision and strategy, what often goes wrong is your customer comes in and says, oh, but I need this thing urgently, or your CEO has an idea for you and maybe you have to make revenue use this quarter. And so all that vision and strategy goes out the window and you just focus on priorities that are all short term. So how do you instead take a more vision driven approach to your priorities? And this is where in the radical product thinking approach, you actually make these trade offs explicit. Because in reality, right. Think about your College days. What you had to make a decision on every evening was, am I going to go party tonight? That's the short term, or am I going to study? And this is the longer term that I'm working towards. So that's what we're doing in a product every day. We're making decisions that are long term versus short term. And so I make priorities explicit on this X and Y axis. And when you're pursuing things that are helpful for the long term and short term, those are of course, ideal features. But if you always focus just on ideal, well, of course, those are the easy decisions. And maybe we're being a bit myopic if we always just focus on easy decisions. And so sometimes you have to take on priorities that are investing in the vision. That's where it's good for the vision, but it's not good for the short term. Like, for instance, you refactor code for three months or you're taking on some, you're tackling some technical debt you take on in the past.
And then the opposite of that Quadrant is the Vision Debt Quadrant, which is where, you know, it's helpful for the short term, but hey, it's not good for the long term. This is where, you know, you start to take on these custom features. And so in any sprint or as you make decisions for your product, you find the right balance between these quadrants, taking on more things that are good vision fits, and taking on fewer things that are bad for the vision. Right. And so that's basically how you translate vision and strategy into your everyday actions and what you actually work on. And then you can measure what matters. This is the fourth element of radical product thinking, the execution and measurement, which is where you can finally start to use iterations. Right? Like, how will you know if your strategy is working? This is where every element of your strategy, you can start to treat those as hypotheses. And the metrics you measure are intended to validate whether that particular element of your strategy is working or not. And that's how we measure for success. And then finally, the fifth element of radical product thinking is culture, which is where you can use the same ideas of vision strategy, et cetera to engineer the culture that you want to bring about. And I talk about how we can think about culture in a very tangible way in the book that again, has quadrants, but that's a lot more practical rather than a fluffy way of thinking about culture, so that we can very systematically engineer culture. And if you like, we can talk about that in part two of the podcast. But those are the five elements of radical product thinking that really come together in terms of how we can engineer change systematically.
JJ: I just love this so much. And again, as I mentioned before, managing Vision Debt is one of my favorite parts of the book. I just love that concept and the way you've crafted that. I mean, that's just one piece of this overarching framework that is so important.
Yes, you mentioned a part two. So for those of you listening, Radhika has been generous enough to come back at some point. So we're going to explore in deeper detail all of this.
But before we end today's episode, I have just one final question for you. Is just general advice you would give for an organization, a product leader, even a product manager who wants to embrace radical product thinking and bring it into the organization. What's that first step that they can do to get started on this path.
RADHIKA: So I think the first step, whenever you're introducing anything new into an organization, there's always resistance. Why do we need to do something new? We already have all these methodologies that we're using. So unless it's clear to everyone what's the problem that you're trying to solve, it's really hard to get buy in for trying something new. And so the thing I encourage people to do is before you bring in radical product thinking into the organization, have an open discussion about the product diseases that you're facing. And in the book, I talk about seven of them. We covered some of them today, and maybe in part two we can cover more of them. But start with that discussion of product diseases so that you're all aligned on the problem you're facing and what you want to overcome. So that then there is an impetus for actually tackling things like, well, let's get more clarity on the vision. And all of these things, they don't take very long. For example, when I run a visioning session for a company, it literally takes no more than 2 hours at the very most. But typically an hour and a half session gets us to a level of clarity of a vision that every team needs. Right. So just using this hour and a half worth of time, when you get that level of alignment, it's not that much of an investment in terms of time or effort, but the results that you see from it, it's truly amazing. And so that's what I would encourage you to do. Start with having that open discussion, then tackle a vision, and that gives you enough momentum to keep going. The other thing you can do is if you cannot. Get to the vision because, you know, you feel like, well, we just talked about vision. People are starting to feel like, oh, this will be a step back. You don't have enough momentum. Start thinking about your priorities of vision versus survival. And as you talk through vision versus survival, you will notice that when there isn't enough clarity about vision, people themselves will start talking about, well, what exactly is our vision? And you'll have a lot of discussion around priorities because the vision isn't clear. So all of those things, they will help trigger those this sort of communication will trigger the right steps in terms of getting more clarity of vision then strategy, priorities, et cetera.
JJ: That's great advice. Okay. So you can find out more information on Radhika's website, Radicalproduct.com, and you can also visit the show's website Productvoices.com to find a link to Radhika's website, how to buy the Book, additional Resources.
Also on the website, there's a Q and A section where you can submit a question. So if you have a question specifically for Radhika for part two of our Radical Product Thinking episode, submit that on the website and we will talk about it in part two of the episode.
Radhika, thank you so much for being here with me and for sharing your vast wisdom and your insights. It's been a real pleasure talking with you.
RADHIKA: Thank you, JJ. It's been such a pleasure. I really enjoyed our conversation. And for people who want to reach out with those questions, I'm excited for part two.
JJ: Yes, it's going to be a lot of fun. And thank you all for listening to the Product Voices podcast. Hope to see you on the next episode.
Connect with Radhika
Buy the Radical Product Thinking Book
Barnes & Noble: https://www.amazon.com/Radical-Product-Thinking-Mindset-Innovating/dp/1523093315/ref=asc_df_1523093315/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=509245866633&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=11218282257583953573&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9029145&hvtargid=pla-1322871736950&psc=1