Leadership and Innovation

While there’s never a shortage of ideas coming from within a company, massive amounts of outside influences and pressures from large customers, analysts, competitors and shifts in the markets compound and often stifle the innovation process.

In the past, companies have relied on conventional methods and while they are proven, they often come with opinions, gridlock and lack of clarity.

To bring a new view into innovation and fueling the products in your current portfolio, I was introduced to Innovation Games. With years of software product management leadership, Luke Hohmann has developed a unique alternative to innovating new products, infusing sales and marketing with the right positioning and developing understandable strategic plans.

Recently, I attended a facilitator’s workshop where I experienced the games firsthand and Luke’s knowledge and zeal for innovation. It was a fantastic experience and I’ve introduced this to several executives and product marketing teams. I found Remember the Future and Prune the Product Tree to be a great way to connect with customers, gain open and honest feedback and accelerate the innovation process.

If your product management or leadership team needs to infuse some life into its innovation process, I would highly recommend Innovation Games.

If you like the post, please comment. If you’d like to connect with me, I may be reached on Twitter at jim_holland or drop him an email at jholland[at]missioncreekpartners[dot]com.

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  • Roger L. Cauvin  On May 18, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Some of Luke’s Innovation Games are useful fro product management, and some of them are more applicable to product design. You’ll notice that many of them mention “features” rather than market problems or benefits.

    “Remember the Future” is a good example of an Innovation Game that is applicable to product management. It shifts the emphasis from features to what the product needs to accomplish for the customer.

    I’ve also suggested product managers modify the “Buy a Feature” game to be something along the lines of “Buy a Problem”.

    • Product Management Tribe  On May 18, 2010 at 3:10 pm

      Roger – thanks for the comments on Innovation Games and your perspective on adapting the games to product management and innovation. I agree there’s applicability for many of the games and see minor changes by a facilitator or team to make them successful.

  • Luke Hohmann  On May 19, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Roger –
    You’re pointing out a common misperception about the game “Buy a Feature”. Specifically, people think that because “Feature” is in the name of the game the game is about features, not understanding customer needs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The reality is that customers need ways to talk about the problems they’re facing. Direct questioning is a poor approach. By providing customers with a list of potential features, and watching who collaborates with whom to purchase specific features, we get amazing insights into the actual problems that customers need to solve.

    So, while the game may be called “Buy a Feature”, the goal of the game is developing a deep understanding of market problems.

    BTW, you’re not the only person who has had this misunderstanding of the game. For example, Lane Halley, when she was at Cooper Design, explains that she also had this misunderstanding until she took the time to really understand how the game works (her story is here: http://www.cooper.com/journal/2009/01/innovation_games.html). The result was that once she understood the game she was excited enough to bring me into Cooper to teach the class.

    Lastly, calling the game “Buy a Problem” turns customers off. They don’t want to buy problems. They want to buy solutions to their problems. You could call the game “Buy a Solution”, but, that hasn’t proven to sound as much fun as “Buy a Feature”.

    Ultimately, I appreciate everyone for contributing to this discussion, as I celebrate a variety of ways that help us understand customers.


    • Roger L. Cauvin  On May 21, 2010 at 2:45 pm

      Luke, the difference is between:

      1. Framing the game as a feature discussion and secondarily gaining insights into the problems that might drive decisions on what features to ultimately include.
      2. Framing the game as a discussion of problems to get prospects out of the feature mindset.

      Based on the “Buy a Feature” chapter of the INNOVATION GAMES book, the game barely even gets to approach 1. The first paragraph of the book states:

      “Which feature will entice customers to purchase your product? Which feature will cause customers to upgrade? Which feature will make customers so happy that they’ll ignore or tolerate the features that they wish you would fix or remove.” – page 77

      As far as I can tell, there is not a single mention of the words “problem”, “challenge”, or synonyms thereof in the entire chapter. The word “feature” appears at least fifty times. There is one sentence vaguely referring to probing into the “who purchased specific features to see what is motivating the purchases.”

      Sure, “Buy a Problem” wouldn’t be a good name. Who would want to buy a problem? Maybe they’d want to sell it instead (“Sell a Problem”).

      Regardless, the point is that product managers need to tools that take prospects out of the “feature” mindset and into the “problem to solve” mindset. The original “Buy a Feature” description in the book orients the game around features and doesn’t suggest facilitators guide the discussion to prospect problems.

      Since the book came out, I suspect the way the game is played has evolved and is a bit more problem-oriented.

      • Luke Hohmann  On May 23, 2010 at 3:56 pm

        Roger –
        Shipping a book is like shipping a product release – it is an fixed point in an ongoing stream. Since you’re referencing just that game, instead of the whole book, I agree: I could have done a better job of helping facilitators identify problems through the language of feature negotiation in the game. Maybe I’ll get the chance to improve my original book in a second edition.

        Of course, if the reader of the book takes in the book as a whole, starting with our slogan, Innovation Through Understanding(R), that reader will quickly resonate with our commitment to helping you “uncover customers’ true, hidden needs and desires” (from the back cover). If that reader tries out the games, either in-person or online, they will quickly realize that they don’t have to expend a lot of energy to get customers to discuss problems – the collaborative nature of the virtual market will quickly motivate these discussions.

        Perhaps Joan Waltman, who wrote the foreword to the book, and who at the time of writing that foreword was President of Qualcomm Wireless Business Solutions, said it better than me: “Innovation Games: Creating Breakthrough Products Through Collaborative Play, presents many creative ways to gather those keen insights and nuggets of understanding that cna make all the difference in deciding which problems you choose to solve for your customers and in how well you can that ultimate goal of delivering superior products to the market”.

        This conversation reminds me a bit of a conversation that occurred after Carrie Porter from the Wall Street Journal published an interview with me (http://ow.ly/gRTF). Some readers commented that the games didn’t seem like fun, or all that useful. What was very gratifying to me was that people who have actually used the games (such as SAP and Rally Software Development) replied.

        Ultimately, I invite you to come and learn the games by playing them. Because, until you’re playing games with customers, you just can’t really understand the power that they have. That way, instead of “reading a bike (book)” you’ll be “riding a bike (playing games)”.

        And yes, I will endeavor to improve my descriptions of the games.


      • Roger L. Cauvin  On May 24, 2010 at 12:48 am


        You don’t have to convince me that the book is an important read or that the games are useful. I’ve never challenged either of those facts. On the contrary – I have written in praise of the book and the games. I’ve attended mock games and have facilitated variations of some of them myself.

        I just view some of the games as more useful for product management, and other games as more useful for product design. Even though the “Buy a Feature” game has apparently evolved since you wrote the chapter in the book, it still is oriented around features (sorry, there’s no getting around the plain meaning of the name of the game) that secondarily stimulates discussions about problems that might drive decisions on what features to ultimately include. As a product manager, I prefer approaches that more fundamentally alter the mindset of the prospects I facilitate.


  • Sarah Mitchell  On May 21, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Hey Jim,

    This might seem like a blast from the past but it’s proof your old colleagues are keeping track of you. I have some clients here in Western Australia running an Innovation company (http://www.hilighter.com.au). They are incredibly switched on and I forwarded this link to them. They are very excited about the Innovation Games and want to speak to you further about that. Their names are Astrid and Maud. They’ll be in touch with you. Just letting you know I sent them and have given you a glowing reference as a good guy to work with and know.

    I hope you’re well. I’m swamped but in the best possible way. :0)


    • Product Management Tribe  On May 21, 2010 at 1:23 pm

      Sarah – thanks for the comments. I’ll have Luke Hohmann, CEO of Innovation Games join me in connecting. Glad to hear all is well.

  • Luke Hohmann  On May 24, 2010 at 3:30 am

    Roger –
    Gosh – my reply did sound rather defensive. Sorry. I know you’re a supporter of the games.

    What’s vexing me is that I chose a name for this game that is limiting how people are applying it. Me and the team are working hard on improving this, so that people can better understand how this “conceptual engine” that powers the game can be applied in other contexts.

    Stay tuned!



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