Do you need permission to innovate?

By Nathan Isaacs | May 27, 2021
picture of light bulb for blog post about innovation

Christian Idiodi has led or consulted on nearly 200 successful product launches for a range of companies from startups to big banks. So, you’d think he always wanted a career in product management, right? 

“Actually, I wanted to be a doctor,” said the partner at Silicon Valley Product Group (SVPG), a global product consulting firm. “I wanted to solve hard problems like cancer or HIV. That was always what I had dreamed and aspired to be.”

Idiodi joined the Human Insight Podcast to discuss what makes a great product manager, how companies and managers should invest in coaching their product managers, and how product managers work with teams to ensure customer empathy


In his conversation with Andy MacMillan, CEO at UserTesting, and Janelle Estes, Chief Insights Officer at UserTesting, Idiodi goes on to discuss:

  • His role today at SVPG
  • His new initiative, Innovate Africa
  • How the product world has evolved over the years
  • Best practices for developing and coaching product managers and leaders
  • Staying close to the customer
  • Balancing processes and innovation

Idiodi often jokes about how product people find their calling. “We all did it the same way, right? We all went and got that bachelor's degree in product, our master's degree in user design, and a Ph.D. in engineering,” he said.

As he said, he planned on becoming a doctor. But he then took a year off before starting medical school, traveled the world, ran out of money, got a job in door-to-door sales, and, almost as a lark, entered an internal business pitch competition. 

Round after round, he kept winning and advancing until “I ended up winning this competition. I am 23 years old with a check for almost a million dollars to run a business. And I have no clue. I always joke, I probably cried myself back to my hotel room that night.”

It was painful, he said, figuring out how to build a business and a company. But thanks to some great coaching and mentoring, he was able to scale the business. He pitched a second idea, succeeded, and the hook was set for a career in product.

But then, he said, he failed woefully at his next 18 ideas. 

“Nobody wanted anything I was coming up with,” he said. “And I was really forced into the discipline by trying to figure out what my early success was and why I was failing. I realized I was disconnected from customers. I was disconnected from the people building. I was making decisions from a conference room.”

He learned from those early insights. “Now, I haven't had a single product failure in my career since that streak,” he said. 

“But I'm now able to share, with passion, these techniques,” he said, “because that was how I grew in the discipline through massive failure to massive experimentation.”

Delivering a great product means going through many iterations and capturing a lot of customer feedback. And let’s face it, you'll have to weather a lot of criticism about your product along the way. Watch this video of Idiodi presenting at Human Insight World 2020, where he talked about testing and turning those insights into value by iterating faster. 

Successful products require a team

“I often remind companies and teams that your customers don't care about you. They don't care about your company. They only care about you to the extent that you solve their problems,” Idiodi said.

And solving a customer’s problem requires a team effort. Whether people choose to buy your product or service (or not) is very different from whether they use it. 

“The importance of product management is to ensure that we’re creating value for customers in a way that works for our business,” Idiodi said. “The value that the designer brings is to ensure that what we create, people can use. The job of engineering is to ensure that we can build it. And it's impossible for us to truly create products customers love without all three people working as one.”

He uses the analogy of a team with each member contributing to the overall success. “You can’t have a team of quarterbacks and expect to win the Super Bowl. Or a team of just wide receivers. At some point, you need to hike and throw the ball. Someone needs to catch it,” he said. “And that's what the team does. You need each other to be successful.”

Who is responsible for product innovation? 

Likewise, it is not one person’s job to be the company innovator

“I argue that no one needs permission to innovate. You don't need permission to think about new problems to solve; new ways to solve existing problems; new markets; new customers; new opportunities; new ways to add value,” Idiodi said. “It’s unfortunate that process, structure, role definitions, and management just tend to stifle innovation in many organizations.

It should be everyone’s job to think about solving problems. As an example, Idiodi refers to a recent trip through airport security in another country. They had placed balloons over the security dome and played music as people passed through.

He asked the security guards about it, and whether it had been requested. And they told him no, nobody had told them to do it. “We just kept seeing people walking through security, feeling very nervous and uneasy,” they told Idiodi. “And it's our job to make people feel safe, not our job to make people feel insecure about going to the airport.”

Idiodi was impressed that they were in an environment where they felt empowered to experiment. But more importantly, he said, that they didn’t feel they needed permission to identify a problem.

“It didn’t diminish the quality of the technology,” he said. “It just improved the experience of going through it.”

Keep the customer first, have a deep understanding of their problems, make sure you’re solving problems in a meaningful way, and the rest is relatively easy.  

“I cannot stress that enough,” Idiodi said. “Every magical product I’ve built in the world comes because, in some shape, form, or fashion, I could have a name in the back of my head every single day for who I was solving that problem for. Just a face. A name. Every time I'm at work. And just understanding, at scale, there are millions of people that look like that person truly being a secret to success.”

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About the author(s)
Nathan Isaacs

Nathan is a Senior Content Producer at UserTesting. When he's not producing UserTesting's Human Insight podcast and other human-centered content, you can find him making beer, riding on Zwift, and fixing up his 110-year old Craftsman home.