Radhika Dutt is an entrepreneur and product leader who has participated in four acquisitions as a result of the products she built; two of these were companies she founded. She advises organizations from high-tech startups to government agencies and speaks at conferences around the world. She founded Radical Product Thinking as a movement of leaders creating vision-driven change and is the author of an upcoming book titled Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter. It’s scheduled for launch in September 2021. She speaks nine languages while learning her tenth. Her work as a product leader is also heavily influenced by my having lived and worked around the world. Radhika has lived in Asia, Africa, Europe, and America. In her book, Radhika will bring this global perspective.

By Andre Marquet on January 14th

Radhika was born in India, she lived in South Africa and ended up going to the US and recently to Singapore. She’s the co-founder of the Radical Products Thinking and Movement. A product leader and has participated in four acquisitions as a result of the product she built. She’s also the author of an upcoming book titled Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter, which is scheduled to be launched in September 2021.

A: You were living in Singapore. So let’s start with that. How was that experience?

It was an amazing two and a half years that I spent in Singapore, in terms of being vision-driven on what product thinking is. It was amazing to see that in action in Singapore, during the COVID pandemic. They were able to have a normal life, because of this vision-driven approach, keeping Covid under control. In Singapore, when they did a lockdown very early, they called it “the circuit breaker”, to communicate their vision, which was to break “the circuit”. So they called it a “circuit breaker”, and masks became mandatory early on.

Giphy: Singapore

A: Do they have a chief product officer in government or something like that?

It’s fascinating! They take this vision-driven approach to every agency. My most interesting example was when we had arrived in Singapore and we had to go get our work permits, with my kids being jet-lagged, and the work permit office talks about design thinking. They treat their customers, by name, not by a number. There’s a government agency and they are calling you a customer? It was brilliant. You’re in an immigration office and they are calling you a customer. So that’s what I meant by this design thinking and vision-driven approach. That’s kind of pervasive in so many aspects of the government. That’s definitely the future of governments.

A: Let’s start from the beginning and not your last dinner in Singapore and a little bit about your background interests, hobbies, aspects that you feel are important.

R: I’ve lived and worked on four different continents. I lived in India, South Africa, Asia, and the US and worked in Europe for a little bit. This kind of background gave me the ability to not focus on one area and be an expert in one thing, but rather look at patterns more broadly. Pretty much every job that I’ve ever had, has always been in a different industry. I saw a pattern of problems and solutions, something that I was able to bring into Radical Product Thinking.

A: How did you decide to get into product? What was the moment you realized you really want to go on this journey?

R: My realization was that product is a mindset. I was working in a company called Avid where I was already well-known in post-production. This was in 2003, we were breaking into news production using video editors, and breaking into the broadcast industry. My title in that new role was project manager for custom engineering and that’s the opposite of what a product manager is. The most fascinating thing is that was what got me into product because I realized that product is a life skill and a way of thinking. My goal was to figure out what the customers needed because all we had was one product and we wanted to expand beyond that. We had to talk to our new producers, new programmers, figure out what it was that they needed. So we called it customer engineering, but the goal was to figure out what was strategy to expand our product. Customers knew that they were participating or partnering with us and paying for customer engineering, but we were doing things that were expanding the product. I realized was that product is a way of thinking, that was my realization. The product is how you create change, it’s a way of thinking. What is your mechanism? How will you bring about that change? And then you do it systematically. So that was my beginning in the product journey from something very counterintuitive and being called custom engineering.

A: How did you get to the entrepreneurship journey?

R: It actually started when I was doing my undergrad at MIT. Me and four other co-founders got together and we started our first company called Lobby seven. We had our first customer while I was still studying. We started out by trying to be a services company, delivering wireless services at the time. This was back in 2000, where wireless services were the hottest thing.

So we started as a wireless services company and we were going to build apps for companies. But what we realized was the existent need for medical product thinking.

Our goal was to be a service company, try out different markets, and find the product-market fit by offering different services in different markets. What we ended up building is what you would now call a Siri. It was a way to be able to interact with your phone, using voice as well as text, but we were too early for the market, seven years too early. You know, this was in 2000, the iPhone didn’t come out until 2007. And from that, we came to the realization that we needed to build products, that we needed to be more vision-driven.

A: Why did you decide to study at MIT? Did you always want to be an engineer?

R: When I was a kid I used to dream of being a scientist. So it was my desire to go to MIT for a long time. And it’s funny that it was after the first entrepreneurial experience that I realized that engineering was not what I wanted to do. The entrepreneurship bug bit me. I was lucky. My parents are very progressive. The idea of going to MIT came from my dad actually, because he’s an engineer. So that’s how it started.

A: Can you tell us a little bit about the Radhikal Product Thinking project? How did it all start?

I have worked in so many different industries and sizes of companies, but one thing that I’ve kept seeing over and over was the same pattern of problems where good products go bad. And this is where I was talking to two friends of mine Nidia Girl and Jordy Katie. It was interesting that they were seeing the same pattern of problems and we started calling them product diseases. So we asked ourselves why are a few people who seem to have this innate gift of being able to build products? Why is it that others don’t have this innate skill? Can people actually build the skill? So that’s where Radical Product Thinking started out. So we tried to take all the intuition and hard lessons that we’ve learned. You start with a vision, but: What is a good vision? How do you actually translate that into action? That’s what we did to build this tool kit.

My first experience with this becoming a movement was when I was speaking at a conference and a person came out to talk to us afterward after the conference. And that was the start of us, creating more material around it, and now it’s evolved into a book.

A: And the tool kit is also available for free. Can you tell us how product managers or even product designers benefit from using it?

R: Product people are very used to using lean and agile, and we found that lean and agile are great, they help, give us speed. We can innovate faster because we’re lean and agile, but the problem is they don’t tell us where we need to go. And lean and agile, they’re good for execution, but not for defining the direction. That’s where Radical Product Thinking comes in, helping you define what’s the change you’re trying to create. And you’d define that in a lot of details. So you can align the team around that vision, translate it into a strategy, and then into a set of priorities. It helps you to give your entire team and intuition for making decisions as you would as a product leader. The whole toolkit helps you craft a vision and use it every day. So those everyday activities are aligned with that vision. And that’s why we created it and made it free because anyone who wants to create vision-driven change, wanted to really help them be able to do that.

A: And what about the product diseases? What are the most common ones?

R: One is a pivotus. A pivotus is what happens to so many startups. It was the first experience at lobby seven, in our startup. So we on purpose almost said, we are going to keep pivoting until we find a product-market fit. And, when you keep pivoting, you end up losing momentum along the way. Your startup can only sustain so many pivots before you either run out of money or momentum.

The example I often give is obsessive sales disorder, in the product world, your salesperson tells you — all we have to do is add this one custom feature and we can win this big deal. And we say yes to that because it sounds harmless. And then by the end of the year, your entire roadmap is driven by all these custom things our customers have asked for. So pivot data and obsessive sales disorder are the most common ones.

Another one is strategic swelling where your product starts to grow until you don’t recognize it anymore. It’s trying to do everything for everyone, but it doesn’t do any one thing well. These are the common product diseases that make good products go bad. Um, but there are about seven of them that I catalog in the book.

AM: You have been working as a consultant with some of these companies, about creating a clear vision. Is there a risk of being too narrow on the vision? You become so obsessed that you end up kind of forgetting what is there. How do you balance this necessity of having a vision?

R: Everything that we’ve ever learned about what makes a good vision has always been about how a good vision has to be a big aspirational, an audacious goal.

We’ve always focused on big as opposed to the details. As part of this radical approach, my goal has been to help companies get to the details. When you’re constructing a house, the people constructing need a blueprint. They don’t need the big fancy picture, you can’t do it based on this grand vision. My goal with this vision statement is to create this blueprint detailed enough and you’re not tied to the words, but the alignment.

“My goal is not the memory. But rather internalizing the vision because we share it and understand it so deeply.”

Like whose world are you trying to change? Um, what does their world look like? What’s the problem? Why does it need solving? Maybe it doesn’t even need solving. What does the world look like when you’ve solved that problem? Like how will you know that you’ve solved it? How will you bring that about? Just those discussions bring about alignment, and then you have a vision that forms the blueprint.

The Productized Masterclasses

A: When vision is still colliding with ethics, we have a problem, right? Why should ethics be applied to product management? There has been lots of discussion about this in the last few years, but a new generation of product managers comes to the market I think this becomes an ever more present question. Do you have any framework or thought on this?

R: One of the things that I’ve realized is as product person we’re changing people’s lives. Like whatever products we put out there, we are affecting people’s lives. Then we can start to think about ourselves, almost like a doctor. A doctor’s role is to look at a problem, the doctor has to think about the patient’s wellbeing.

As product people, we have to take a similar approach. We’re trying to solve a problem for the user, but we can’t say “if that makes a life worse, too bad”. That’s the mindset that we need to shift. Once we start to think about ourselves as doctors, the question is: how can we incorporate this mindset as we build products? In our vision and strategy and how we translate that into our priorities. We have to take these ethics into consideration.

When I talk about the vision, right? When I talk about the who, what, why, when, and how questions. You’ll notice that one of the things that are not included in the vision is the question of what are your business goals? The vision is not about you at all. It’s about what’s the problem you’re trying to solve and how will you solve it?

Let’s think about a doctor. Imagine a doctor says that her vision is to treat the patient while building a million-dollar clinic. Are you solving my problem or are you trying to make money? So it’s the same thing with products that in building our vision, we focus it on who’s the user. And then when we translate that into priorities.

I want to clarify, I’m not saying that profitability is not important, It is super important. If we think about being Vision-driven or profits as a purpose if we’re not thinking about profits at all. If it’s all about purpose, that’s a charity. Charities have an important role in the world but they cannot take the whole burden of making the world a better place. Businesses touch so many more lives than charities. And so ethics means that we have to think about profitability while also trying to be purpose-driven. And that’s how we can incorporate ethics in our everyday work.

UX failures from Radhika’s various travels

A: What kind of advice would you give product managers on their journey to a more senior role? What advice would you give to young people that are either masters and they want to go into product? This is a very classical question, but we get it more and more. So what kind of ways would you recommend people start their product journey?

R: R: As a good product person, you’re bringing the customer’s perspective into how you’re building a product. Being able to see the big picture of what is the change I’m trying to bring for the customer. If you can always keep that in the foreground.

The second piece is: How can you then start to use this to take on a more strategic role? Once you’ve created this big picture for yourself through what product, start working on how to help the customer. Then you want to align your team on these ideas. Taking a more facilitative approach, both the vision statement, the strategy and prioritization. It’s about communicating these ideas to the team. Taking this approach where you building a shared rationale for why we are making the decisions. That’s the key to taking on a more strategic role. So creating that alignment by facilitating discussions and making sure people are all agreed on what’s the shared picture. Create a shared understanding of priorities and an intuition for making those right decisions.

A: That’s really important. We were talking just before the podcast that, in your opinion, we are still lacking a female senior product manager. Why do you think this is still a reality?

R: Even traditionally for a while, It’s been the case in leadership there’s a smaller representation of women. That’s going to take a long time to change. You were asking about advice for leaders, what we need to do is be aware of the lack of such diversity in product as we rise the ladders.

As product managers, there is a pretty even distribution of men and women. But once you start looking at real leadership teams, there are many more men being product leaders compared to women. We have to be aware of what this means for the world when that happens.

When we don’t have representation in product leadership. It often leads to products that don’t work for everyone that they work for a percentage of the population. We need more people and diverse people to bring about these perspectives and to understand how our products are affecting different people in the population and that can only come from those diverse perspectives. As leaders, we have to be aware of whether we have the right representation so that we can make products that work for everyone.

A: Speaking about the next five years, what skills will be most important for a product leader? Do you see anything coming in that prospective five years?

R: In the last decade (Lean startup was published in 2011) iteration has become the mechanism for how we build products. Building products have always been about iteration.

What is the fuel that approach? This over-reliance on iteration, right. Has been that we’ve had a lot of credit that’s been accessible.

With the abundance of credit, it’s been easy to say “ we’ll try this. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else”. You only have a finite number of pivots before you run out of momentum and money. That window is going to shrink because, in the post-pandemic economy, wallets are going to be tighter. Isn’t going to be as much of an abundance of credit as there once was.

In the post-pandemic economy, we have to think about, how can we take a more vision-driven approach? Iteration alone is not going to do the trick. So the trend that I see in the next five years is we’re going to need to learn how to Iterate less and achieve more.

This was one of the main messages of my talk at the Productized Conference, we can iterate less and do more with those iterations. To do that, we need to take a more vision-driven approach.

A: I don’t know too many details about the book. I would appreciate it if you tell us a little bit about the upcoming book "Radical Product Thinking- the new mindset for innovating smarter".

The book is about, how do we build these vision-driven products? It talks about how you can use vision strategy, prioritization, and it gives you a very systematic approach. And it explains how you can use this method to be able to avoid product diseases, as well as avoid what I call digital pollution. When we talked about ethics one of the things we have to realize is as the industrial growth over the last century has created environmental pollution. Similarly, the digital economy has created digital pollution. And so I talk about how we can build vision-driven products that overcome both these product diseases and digital pollution.

A: We have here a question from José Oliveira. What are the best tips to manage communication between product managers and product owners?

So one of the techniques that I use for prioritization is this two by two, it’s an X and Y-axis.

Your Y-axis is: is this a good vision fit or not?

The X-axis is: is this helping us survive or not? — You have to decide what your biggest risks are. Is it financial? Maybe it’s a stakeholder. Maybe, you’re trying to please bosses because your boss could kill this product tomorrow.

What you’re trying to do, together with your product owner, is manage to do the right thing by your vision and manage surviving at the same time. So it’s balancing this long-term and the short-term. Everything that is helping you both with the vision fit and if it is helping you survive, those are ideal. Those are easy decisions.

The harder decisions are investing in the vision. This is where it’s helping you survive in the short term, but it is a good vision fit? Let’s say you’re doing three months of code refactoring and your product owner says: “Unless we do this we aren’t going to be able to build anymore”. Together, you may decide that we have to invest in the vision.

The last example is obsessive sales disorder, which goes into vision debt, which is helping you survive, but it’s not a good vision fit. And so that’s vision debt. It’s like technical debt, except it’s on the vision side. Together with your product owner, you would talk about what are the things that our ideal vision debt or investing in the vision. Of course, you would avoid things that are both bad for the vision, and it’s not helping you survive. In your priorities, in your sprint decisions, most of those things that you’ll do are ideal.

Occasionally, you do some things that are in the investing in the vision quadrant, because you can afford to invest in the vision. And then sometimes you will do a vision debt because you need to survive and feed the people.

A: So what you’re saying is that we should have a balance. And what kind of balance should we have? How much should be the vision? What’s the vision depth limit?

R: The answer to that question is very specific for your company. I go back to this as a communication tool. You have to have that discussion: How much vision debt do we have to take on?

If you have no money in your company. You’re desperate. All you can afford to do is vision debt, that’s what you have to do. But you do have some flexibility. Maybe you don’t have to take on all this vision debt.

One of the most important things is labeling something “vision debt”. Once you start recognizing something as vision debt, you can start planning to be able to pay back the vision and debt. So that’s the idea where you use this as a communication tool, and we agree on how much we take on from each quadrant. That balance has to be right for your organization.

Can you talk about your experience in the exit strategies that participate? Did you optimize the product growth strategy for those exits?

I will admit that yes, we did have to think about a product growth strategy as part of our exit strategy. The reality is you kind of have to think about your exit strategy and you have to think about like: there’s a lot of focus on growth.

A: What happened in your specific cases, on the exits who were involved in?

R: So, let me talk about the exit for my last startup, which was a wine startup. Think of it like Netflix for wine. What we were doing was we were giving recommendations and delivering wine. The exit strategy that we needed to be able to show was that the recommendations that we were giving were leading to sales. But early on in your product, that’s kind of the last step in the funnel. That’s not necessarily where you end up optimizing in the early stages.

If you think about that vision vs survival, unless we were able to show that our recommendations were leading to sales, it wouldn’t have helped us on our exit strategy. That was something that we accept to take on a little bit of vision debt. And we did do some amount of optimization.

All of our other efforts were spent on investing in the vision quadrants. So this is where in terms of planning some amount of growth hacking you do end up recognizing that you’re doing this as vision debt when you’re doing things just purely for growth. But at the same time, sometimes it’s necessary. The important thing is to be able to agree on whether on how much to take on the thing I find is a lot of companies are so focused on exit strategies and growth hacking that you kind of lose sight of what’s the main problem that you’re setting out to solve. And that’s the one thing you want to avoid.

It’s time to get focused on the area you want to improve!

The Productized Masterclasses are 2 days of hands-on masterclasses and insightful keynote speakers. On 27 & 28 May, you’ll enjoy 4 masterclasses of your choice. Get practical tips, and network with your peers. Be prepared to get inspired and learn about Enterprise Product, and Consumer Product.

Radhika will be giving a Masterclass on May 27th.

“Take a more strategic role as a PM, spreading your thinking across your Organization” by Radhika Dutt

About Productized

Productized organizes different activities with the intention to boost the product community around the world. It was created by professionals from the engineering and design space, with a history of co-founding several pioneering projects in Portugal such as TEDx, Beta-i, Startup Weekend and Silicon Valley comes to Lisbon.

About Productized Masterclasses

The Productized Masterclasses are 2 days of hands-on masterclasses and insightful keynote speakers. On 27 & 28 May you’ll enjoy 4 masterclasses of your choice, get practical tips, and network with your peers. Come and meet Dan Olsen, Kandis O’Brien, Radhika Dutt, Ken Sandy, or Daniel Zacarias, among many others and get ready to be inspired to learn more about Enterprise Product and Consumer Product! SAVE THE DATE — MAY 27–28 2021

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