Yoon C. Lee on why design is not a democratic process, and why you can't afford to stop innovating in a downturn
Product State Q&A
Yoon C. Lee is the Chief Product Office at Bugaboo, and Founder / Chief Innovation Architect at march 5, llc. He is also an advisor to Porsche Digital, and board member at GrowRay Lighting Technologies. He is a former exec at CAFU, Bowers & Wilkins, and Samsung.
EC: From smart refrigerators to beautiful baby high chairs, what role do product leaders play in elevating design?
YCL: For a product leader to elevate the design, the most important responsibility is to provide leadership in creating the environment for your design and innovation team to be as creative and as ambitious as possible — without getting too distracted with the elements that can negatively influence the design decision.
These negative elements can come from multiple angles. For example, cost challenges, challenges in operational complexities with the new design, differences in needs by regions, etc. Such elements — when examined individually — all have a justifiable voice.
The challenge is, a successful creation is not, and cannot be, a democratic process. A good and forward progressive design is created by vision and leadership — and not by discussions.
But at the same time, creation can't be a silo-ed activity.
Your vision has to represent the consumers; not your own creative ego. You have to connect to your consumers, sales organization and marketing organization to enable the right communication and the downward activities have to be as equally successful for your products to have the right representation to your consumers.
But if your organization doesn't believe in the vision and the design, it is very difficult to launch the new product with the right momentum and conviction.
The product leader's other critical role is to pull in relevant organizations, share the insight and context to help make them into believers of the design inspiration. A change from looking at the design and ‘your design perspective’ to ‘our design perspective.’
EC: How do you approach R&D differently in downturns like the one we are experiencing?
YCL: Downturn or not, innovation should be managed with both the current goal, and future vision in mind. One of the big mistakes in product design and innovation is during the expansion times, too much emphasis is given to the future products and not enough to the current.
And, vice versa, during contraction times like now.
We have to remember that the future doesn't come to us — we build the future.
During the downturns, if we only focus one firefighting and short-term goals, when we get out of the down turn, the product pipeline is not there anymore to rapidly ramp up. And that becomes even a bigger problem.
EC: Companies are shifting attention away from innovation. How do you ensure innovation doesn’t stop?
YCL: I've seen that movie before in 2008, and it was very painful. The best way to prevent this from happening is to manage the design development by budget — and not by crisis.
During a downturn, negotiate, fix and agree on a smaller than normal budget. Once it is agreed, give short term and mid-to-long term target for the design team. Let them manage it, and leave them alone.
The biggest mistake management can make during a downturn is constantly monitoring, adjusting and cutting the budget. This is a path to a disaster.
Agree with a smaller — or a lot smaller budget — and leave the product team to focus on building low hanging fruits, as well as preparing the future.
If the management constantly taps into every approval, usually what happens is innovation always ends up being perceived as less important and less urgent than the operational issues. This will ruin the product portfolio. As an analogy, this is like tapping into the retirement fund during urgent times because the money is there. But if you do that, the consequence and the penalty — to innovation and the company’s future — when the downturn is over, is huge.
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