Innovation comes in many forms and shapes. In our coffee series, this time we were so lucky to catch up with Nils and are excited to share this interview. Nils is a product marketing and management expert with 15+ years experience from Google, Trustpilot and Bestseller (just to name a few) - and now the LEGO Group. His experience ranges from building digital products to improving cross-functional collaboration.In this coffee interview, he shares insights on how to set up product teams for success, driving change management and innovation remote.
Can you share your experience in building digital products and improving cross-functional collaboration?
It's probably good to start with my time at Google because it was back then I was introduced to the way of working with OKRs. That has a lot to do with how you build good products, how teams operate and how they really work well together cross-functionally. I learned how to align teams on the scope of the task at hand and ensure that you don't deviate from that. This really helped me understand how to keep teams focused.
Throughout the years I realized that you can't stay in your commercial silo - you have to work with other functions to achieve progress and build good experiences.
By that I mean you should consider:
- How do you work with developers?
- How do you work with designers?
- What is the role of UX?
- What is actually the role of a product manager?
- And how should you collaborate together with the commercial team - sales, marketing, business development, or even legal or finance?
How do you help different business units to improve and address opportunities they see?
Because in reality, a finance manager, a marketing manager, head of sales etc. they're all going to have great ideas on what they think could be the solution to a problem or an opportunity but it's unlikely that they're going to be the ones really building it. In product, we always say the problem with ideas is that everybody has them. So the role of the product manager here is really to separate good from bad ideas, or what we call product discovery. The process of going through ideation and experimentation and finding out what actually works and moves the needle.
Many large organizations have or are setting up innovation departments. What role do you see product play in innovation?
I see product as the translator between tech and commercial. This is where innovation and magic really happens - in the cross-functional nature of the team. Even if I was a single product manager and I am only working with developers, it's likely that we would come up with novel solutions. However, if it is a financial problem, you probably want a finance subject matter expert on the team. It is within the mix of those functions that the great ideas come out. Historically speaking, it is a shame that in many enterprise companies for tech products, engineers are not included in the innovation phase. Instead, they are just being handed a list of specs and requirements without knowing the context. As Marty Cagan says “there's a lot of great ideas that actually come from engineers.”
In a marketing driven organization, such as the LEGO Group, how do you ensure product teams have a voice? How do you organize and manage them so that they play a role in innovation?
As you said, it's a very known, loved and marketing driven brand. Therefore, marketing as such is key. Brand reputation is key. Quality of our products is key. We are very good at building products and experiences for kids and parents but it is relatively new for us to do the same on the digital side. The concept of iteration and constant delivery is relatively new as we used to invest long term and launch the product everywhere. Digital product development is often not practiced that way. You would launch, iterate and continuously improve. So it is an exciting time for us. Now we are really establishing digital technology to become a digital consumer company, too.
The hard part is change management and jointly drafting the strategy, allowing the team to come up with a solution without telling them what you feel the solution should be. That mindset shift is something that is going to take time. On the digital side of the LEGO Group, we realized if we want empowered teams, they need to be owning a problem or an opportunity. They also need to be staffed accordingly, and we need to give them a scope. OKRs come in handy here - a three months scope of what we want them to focus on, whilst not telling them what to build. There will always be features or integration requests but on the innovation side, we really want them to own the problem or the opportunity and only give them a strategic direction and then be hands off.
How do you collaborate and orchestrate innovation when you're spread across the globe?
There are different tools to visualize ideation, development processes, delivery processes and so on. Technically, it can work if you're not co-located. But especially when it comes to ideation and brainstorming on the discovery side, you need to use tools that help collect input, visualize it and let people vote on the ideas. So what we have done on whiteboards in a room before with eight people can still work remotely.
How do you ensure you push ideas from the idea stage to evaluating them, eventually killing your darlings and launching what you believe in?
It is a matter of validation, and that is something teams or companies just need to invest more time in. It is so important to properly validate concepts and ensure the people actually want to use the product or service once it's there. Therefore, you would want to probe on that early on to mitigate risk. It is also something we have to learn as we build new experiences in the case of the LEGO Group. We have to realize that there are other platforms and digital experiences kids use today and we see it as a mission to foster cognitive development. Physical play is something we do not want to go away. Therefore, we use digital as an enabler to inspire physical play.
What was the worst or best idea/ prototype you have generated?
It was the best and worst at the same time. At the time I was at Google. I remember I got a chance to work on a branding campaign called “Find us on Google”. Remember, at the time, businesses having a website that could handle online purchases were rare and it was relatively new in 2009/2010. We tested an approach where you can, as a business owner, come to a website that we would have built and put in your URL. Then it would say, Find us and Google. You could order a decal which had an NFC chip in it and make it visible e.g. on your store window. Thereby, even if you were closed, people could hold up their phone and that way go straight to your website. The problem is that, today, why would you need that with Google's core product? It was also a terrible idea because most people didn't have NFC chips yet - only the later iPhones actually had the capability to do that and therefore introduced this as a standard feature.
I was both behind and ahead of my time - but it was fun to work on it.
Tell us about a time you faced failure and more importantly how you bounced back
Sometimes traditional enterprises have an ambition to make the OKR framework work. And no matter how hard you try, you need to take a step back and figure out whether this is working. If an organization is simply not ready to deviate from thinking output, requesting features and handing over lists of requests instead of giving mandate, you need to accept that. Which brings me to how to bounce back. When I was in that position, I pursued a new opportunity where the mandate was given and the way of work appreciated and welcomed.
Can you share any book recommendation?
One of the latest books I read and really liked was “Continuous Discovery Habits” by Teresa Torres. “Radical Focus” by Christina Wodtke is in my opinion also one of the best books to learn about OKRs that I would definitely read twice.