Innovative Product Managers

In his article, Innovating in Large Companies, Marty Cagan highlights the fact that many successful companies allow their engineers to spend 20% of the time on innovative projects of their choice. Marty encourages companies to allow Product Managers as well as engineers to spend 20% of their time innovating. Why is this a good idea?
– Because many successful products come from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Tim Brown, in his Harvard Business Review article, stresses that innovation comes through observations, observing how people use current products - what products could help them do their jobs better.

Marty in the same article reminds us “that innovation is rarely about solving an entirely new problem. More often it is solving an existing problem in a new way. So watching people struggle with their existing solutions is a great way to highlight innovation opportunities.”

Good product managers, according to Jeff Lash, do not just gather requirements — they understand unmet needs, existing problems, and opportunities for improvement, and they then use that information to determine the requirements for the product.

So what are the characteristics of innovative Product Management? Tim Brown identifies five attributes that can be applied to a Product Manager:

1. The Product Manage has EMPATHY: that’s to say they have the ability to image the world from multiple perspectives, they put people first, they notice things that others miss and use their insight to inspire others.
2. The innovative Product Manager is an INTEGRATIVE THINKER they use analytical processes along with their ability see all the key points and the things that seem to contradict aspects of a problem. They use novel solutions to solve existing and/or emerging problems.
3. Product Managers must be OPTIMISTIC they have an inbuilt believeth that there will be a solution to any given problem.
4. EXPERIMENTALISM: The Product Manager understands that significant innovations don’t come about from small incremental tweaks.
5. COLLABRATION: Product Mangers work along side many people with different disciplines.  They also have more than one discipline themselve.
The innovative Product Manager adds value through observation, insight and understanding.

Related articles:
Successful Product Managers collaborate to ensure innovative product development
How Product Managers can avoid innovation traps #part 1
How Product Managers can avoid the innovation trap #part2
The innovation Value Chain and Product Management


  1. Hi Derek

    This is a really interesting post. I definately agree that Product Managers have to be optimistic, but I would question whether its possible to quantifying a percentage amount of time dedicated to innovation.

    My thinking is that within Product Management, and particularly in techincal environments, true innovative deliveries come from environments rather than people. What I mean by this, is that fostering an environment of technologists, product managers, business analysts and business people that recognises and rewards an innovative culture, is the true path to progressive improvement.

    As I think back to some of the most market driven innovations we've implemented on lastminute.com, we've always followed a similar path. Understand the market, understand the problem, get some data, feed the data to the product and technology team, then watch the magic happen.

    This approach certainly isn't the only approach to innovation, but it does work - However it takes time to foster this kind of culture. Oddly enough, some of our most profitable developments in recent times have been through this process.


  2. I believe the 20% quoted in the post originated with Google who allow their engineering teams to spend 20% of their time on their own pet projects – this gives them time innovate – otherwise they would, especially if there using agile, spend 100% of their time focussed on delivering defined functionality with little or no time to set aside for contemplation and implementing new ideas that may or may not have an immediate business value. This is also helps fuel the R in the R&D – let’s face it many companies are cutting back on the R and focussing on just the D (design and development).

  3. 3M started that. They no longer do that. Now they buy back their stock and no longer offer new employees a pension.

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