Product Management in an Innovation Lab

Product Management in an Innovation Lab

I wanted to switch things up a bit this week and share some of my recent experiences as a PM in an innovation lab. What are innovation labs? These internal labs are typically found in larger companies with more bureaucracy.

The point of the innovation lab is to strip all the process away, explore ideas that aren’t part of the typical product roadmap, and build a working prototype to validate whether that idea works, all in a very short amount of time. Essentially, it’s a larger company’s way to tap into the speed and flexibility that many startups offer and to experiment on ideas that might be risky but potentially have large payoffs for the company down the line.

Innovation lab teams are usually much smaller than typical teams at the company, focusing on just the right amount of people with the right amount of skills for the idea and prototype. In my experience this includes a designer (UX or Creative), product manager, and a variety of developers and site architects. The group works in close proximity, oftentimes in the same room or lab, and apart from an initial idea or challenge, everything else is left up to the team to decide in terms of schedule and execution.

The product manager works with the designer to come up with the overall look of the prototype, taking into account the user experience and business case for whatever features go into the minimum viable product. At the same time they’re also working with the developers to discuss technical feasibility and implementation.

Since the prototype must be built in a short amount of time and the entire team can easily communicate and make real-time changes, a lot of the technical team members who don’t normally code (such as the site architects) get to flex their coding muscles and do something a bit different from their typical work.

As the point of the lab is to eliminate the hierarchy and process found at large companies, there aren’t any set roles or tools that the team has to use. Depending on the team’s style, requirements could be written on sticky notes and posted on the wall, written down on paper, or even just discussed without putting anything into writing. The goal is to have a working minimum viable product by the end of the period in order to make a case for the technology and the business benefit to the company.

The two innovation lab sessions I’ve been a part of have both been great learning experiences. Each team is different and we’ve usually played it by ear to find the best ways for the team to run smoothly. As a product manager you’re expected to help organize and facilitate discussion on a game plan, but that role could just as easily be filled by a technical lead. It’s important to keep egos in check and to hear out what everyone on the team has to say, especially since time is limited and speed is essential.

All in all, innovation labs at large companies are a great way to encourage new ideas and engage employees. The team is empowered to make decisions in a fast-paced environment, build and break things in a short amount of time, and most importantly validate ideas that could potentially go live. As a product manager, you get to see the product take many shapes and forms before your very eyes, and you have a direct role in influencing the final minimum viable product.


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