Building a diverse product team that combines members with direct experience in a particular industry with experienced product managers can give you a head start on delivering a successful product. 

In my previous Product Craft article, “How to Develop a Product Team with Diverse Skills—and Why it Matters,” I explored how to create a dynamic team that delivers real results. Now, let’s talk about the importance of innovation and how to leverage a team’s diversity to drive it.   

The importance of innovation  

Innovation is vital for organizations because it enables them to stay relevant in a competitive market. Developing new solutions that solve critical problems plays an essential role in economic growth,—and without it, progress is non-existent. 

Research by McKinsey shows that 84% of business executives believe their companies’ future success depends on innovation. Just as you need to balance the team’s different skillsets, it’s important to weigh building a product that answers users’ specific needs while innovating for the future. 

The insider advantage

Leveraging your team’s skillsets to drive innovation requires in-depth insight and feedback, which is often best gathered from an industry insider. For example, WebPT’s all-in-one software platform was initially developed by a physical therapist (PT). And now, the six rehab therapists currently on our product team provide developers with first-hand intelligence about the pain points, trends, and opportunities that exist within the industry we serve. 

The therapists on our team also know how specific features impact clinical workflows—and can advise us on how to continue enhancing these to meet therapy professionals’ evolving needs. For example, teaching someone new to physical therapy about insurance authorizations and their impact on scheduling, documentation, or billing can be challenging. However, a former practicing PT has instant knowledge of these issues. 

Having peer-to-peer discussions with other PTs is also a significant benefit of having insiders on the product team. This expertise gives the team instant credibility with potential users of the system. Ultimately, a product manager can avoid real issues by hiring team members with deep subject matter knowledge. 

Beating the bias

Taking this path isn’t all roses, though. Bias remains one of the most significant challenges to innovation—and it can come from both sides of the experience fence. Team members with domain experience usually grasp workflow problems better because they have lived them. However, they might also have biases that can outweigh the value of their expertise. 

A domain expert’s knowledge can help the team avoid rookie mistakes and pick up on issues an untrained eye might miss. But, they can also rely too much on their training and ignore or undervalue new approaches and practices. Additionally, making assumptions about an insider’s expertise can lead to errors. Just because an individual has knowledge and experience, it doesn’t mean they are qualified in all product areas. 

Broadening team horizons

Leveraging a diverse team to drive innovation enables product managers to broaden the horizon for users and deliver additional knowledge that strengthens a product—and perhaps even an industry—as a whole. 

One way to do this is to encourage your team to draw from their experience. For example, about two years ago, the WebPT team realized it was difficult to become better product managers by looking at our belly buttons. With many of our team’s peers also in health care, we felt we could learn more by exploring the innovations and product solutions that occur outside of healthcare. 

The team implemented a “case study” style program, during which the members conducted their own research on other companies and products, bringing a summary of their findings back to drive discussion on how they might benefit us. For example, a discussion about how the Doritos Loco Taco saved Taco Bell had a lot of striking similarities to a large project we were working on. Understanding how Clarence Birdseye developed a whole end-to-end mechanism for frozen foods had similarities in driving the adoption of features by looking at the broader workflow. Looking for inspiration outside our industry, whether from previous experience or from observation, can help spark new ideas.

Building the best solution

Team diversity can drive innovation substantially because approaching a problem from multiple viewpoints leads to the best solutions. At WebPT, we use this process to try and create debate about the different angles of a problem. For example, a beautiful design might generate excitement and even solve a problem for the physical therapist but could cause problems for the billing workflow. That means even in the design process it makes a world of difference to have experts—with varying backgrounds and experiences—participating. 

Closing the expertise gap 

Expertise doesn’t come only from hands-on education or years of doing a job. Product managers and teams must continue to develop their knowledge. For example, someone on my team might not ever treat a patient for low back pain, but that shouldn’t stop us from establishing credibility with our users. 

Here are some ideas for how to close the gap:

  • Don’t be afraid to take a class. We’ve all taken courses on agile development or how to write a better user story. Why not take a course on anatomy or physics? I took a 40-week functional science class to help me better understand PT. Not only did I gain better knowledge of the mechanics of the foot, but I also made great connections who have helped me as we developed our products.  
  • Learn to speak the language. At the start of my career, I did a lot of work on products related to diabetes care. I remember spending 10-15 minutes a day practicing how to say “diabetic nephropathy” and “microalbumin.” There is no excuse for being unable to pronounce the vocabulary of your industry.  

The moral of the story is this: If you invest the time and energy to build a diverse product team—one that leverages its members’ unique backgrounds and viewpoints—you’ll have a team destined to succeed. Give team members the training they need to produce the results you want, and you’ll enjoy the credibility that goes with having both leveled the playing field and mastered the game. 

 

About the Author

Russell Olsen joined Phoenix-based WebPT as Chief Product Officer in 2017. He leads category design, product management, user experience, and product discovery, and applies disruptive innovation approaches to accelerate growth while solving customer and market problems. Prior to WebPT, Russell led product teams at Phytel, Truven Health Analytics, and IBM Watson Health. Russell brings with him deep experience in healthcare and growth companies and has delivered innovations impacting millions of lives over the course of his 15-year career.