How do you create a product vision? Part 2

Day 148 of Self Quarantine             Covid 19 Deaths in U.S.:  161,000

Becoming an expert quickly

This post is the second part of describing how to create a product vision.

Getting to a product vision for an innovative product is a five step process:

  1. Understanding what a good one looks like
  2. Becoming an expert quickly in the knowledge domain of your product innovations
  3. Using an influencer centered design process to collaborate with domain experts and customers on your product vision
  4. Creating the product vision using service dominant logic and an outcomes orientation
  5. Communicating the Product vision – to employees, to customers, to investors

Over the last 40 years as part of the innovative software development I did in small and large companies, I had to become an expert in some new content arena very quickly to sell investors, potential employees and customers.   Dan Pink in To Sell is Human calls this type of selling process “pitching and catching.”

“One Oscar-winning producer told the professors, “At a certain point the writer needs to pull back as the creator of the story. And let [the executive] project what he needs onto your idea that makes the story whole for him.” However, “in an unsuccessful pitch,” another producer explained, “the person just doesn’t yield or doesn’t listen well.”

“The lesson here is critical: The purpose of a pitch isn’t necessarily to move others immediately to adopt your idea. The purpose is to offer something so compelling that it begins a conversation, brings the other person in as a participant, and eventually arrives at an outcome that appeals to both of you. In a world where buyers have ample information and an array of choices, the pitch is often the first word, but it’s rarely the last.

Pink, Daniel H.. To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (p. 158). Riverhead Hardcover. Kindle Edition.

Becoming an expert in 30 days is another exercise in pitching and catching.  Your pitch is to engage the expert catchers to help you build a better understanding of a knowledge domain.  If done right, the catcher is engaged in continuing to help you build your “product.”  If you really do a good job with the collaborative pitching and catching, the expert will become an influencer to aid others in buying your product.

What may not be obvious is to become an expert in some domain, you need to have mastered at least one domain of knowledge and put in the requisite 10,000 hours.  In my case, I invested well over 10,000 hours in becoming an expert in information technology (hardware, software, databases) and software development.

Developing deep expertise is also required to stand up to competitors.  This “become an expert process” allowed me to be indistinguishable from actual experts who had labored for at least 20 years (or in the Malcolm Gladwell description of the 10,000 hours rule of developing expertise).  I knew I would never have time to devote 10,000 hours for any given domain of expertise, so I had to shortcut the process.

Here are a few of the “become an expert” endeavors I went through in order to build a product or a business in the targeted domain.

In the blog post “On Questions” I write about the process of becoming an expert quickly.  In brief, it is all about finding the current questions that are driving any knowledge discipline.

It’s the Questions Stupid!

“What is the moisture content of the tobacco you put in your cigarettes?” Fred Zayas asked the IT manager from Philip Morris in 1977 as we sat in a computer room installing a PDP-11 computer for the automated control of their cigarette production line. This question came innocently enough after about thirty minutes of our getting to know each other while the computers whirled away on the software installation.

“Nice try,” said the IT manager becoming very guarded suddenly.

After we left the site, I asked Fred where that question came from.  He smiled and said “every time I get involved in a new industry or new company, I try to find what people in that industry consider to be highly proprietary and what they are willing to share. In the tobacco industry, the most highly kept secret is how much moisture is put into the tobacco. The moisture content determines how “fresh” the cigarette will taste for how long as it goes through the distribution system to the consumer.  By asking this one question, I immediately establish that I am in expert in their industry.”

A few years later on our Japan Study Mission trip to understand Japanese manufacturing, we found that there was a huge difference between what American companies considered proprietary and what Japanese companies would talk about. In the US, we talk freely about the processes by which we invent and create and manufacture and service our products. Yet, we hold closely anything that has to do with our next product or our product road map. In Japan, they will share anything about what their next or future products are, but they will share nothing about the processes they use to invent or manufacture such products.

Over the years, I’ve found that I developed a process to appear to be a Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hour expert in any domain. I’ve had to do that every 2-3 years as I enter new knowledge domain areas to create an innovative product (like I am doing now with data science and the use of Jupyter notebooks).

My assertion is that if I work full time using the process for a month, a twenty-year veteran in each knowledge domain will have a hard time figuring out that I haven’t actually spent twenty years in their industry.

The process is simple – I alternate between immersing myself in the literature (articles, books, online classes, videos) of the field and then interviewing experts in the domain.  What I am in search of in this process is the key questions that are driving the industry or the domain of knowledge.

It is the questions that are asked that create the perception that you know what you are talking about. The perception from the real industry experts is tacitly “if you know to ask that question then you really have worked in this industry for twenty years.”

Part of asking knowledgeable questions is to know when to balance the simple questions with the more detailed and complicated questions.

To this day, I remember my first encounter with the simple question phenomena.

“Who is our customer?” David Creed, Vice President for the US Area Software Services organization of Digital Equipment Corporation asked in May of 1982.  I’d just been promoted to the corporate level as a part of our developing ALL-IN-1 in Charlotte, NC. This meeting was my first exposure to the two-day monthly meeting of the US and regional VPs.

Sitting at the back of the room I rolled my eyes as nobody in the room answered Creed’s question. “Are you kidding me?” I thought. “Even I know the answer to that question. These bozos don’t have a clue.” And what kind of idiot is my new boss, Mr. Creed, if he doesn’t even know who our customers are?

Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut and didn’t blurt out what I was thinking.

It took a while to get going, but quickly the discussion became quite lively and enlightening. David was really asking where we were getting our revenue from and had the nature or characteristics of our customers been changing over the last year.

“Who is our customer?” is a simple question. Trying to answer it with the wisdom of the crowd sheds more light on the qualitative aspects of our customers than simply looking at a list in our Salesforce CRM systems.

What are the key questions that are driving the continuous development of knowledge in the domain under study?  The goal is to capture and update this list of questions AND research the current state of the answers to those questions and best practices.

The Attenex Origin Story – becoming an expert in eDiscovery

A key part of becoming an expert AND continuing to develop your expertise is to NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK.  Networking should never stop.

While our wives were in the meeting part of a spring Sunday afternoon gathering of the volunteer Bainbridge Island Educational Giving Fund, Marty Smith and I caught up on what professional mischief we were into.  Marty shared how excited he was about an internal project at Preston Gates and Ellis (now K&L Gates) to “Work Smarter” within the law firm.  He rapidly interspersed terms like “large SQL DB, computational linguistics, natural language programming, information visualization in 3D, and WYSIWYG.”

I chuckled and asked Marty “what is going on?  Most technical people would have a hard time using those terms in a paragraph and here you are a lawyer, not only talking about these concepts, but understanding them as well.  Give me some more context.” The next hour went by quickly as Marty shared the research project they were doing with PNNL in Richland, WA, to use technology to be more productive with Microsoft’s legal eDiscovery needs. Just as the conversation was really getting interesting, the chimes rang, and we were called to dinner with the ten other couples.

The next morning the phone rang at 7am.  It was Marty telling me to get my butt on the next ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle so that I could meet with Preston Gates Managing Partner, Gerry Johnson.

“What is the meeting about?” I asked groggily.

Marty responded, “We want to make you an offer you can’t refuse to help us with what we talked about last evening?”

Not having anything else on my blank calendar I answered “Sure.”  Then I scrambled to get to the ferry and walk up the hill to the Bank of America tower and ride three elevators to get to the 50th floor.

After brief introductions, Gerry shared that Microsoft was getting frustrated with the escalating cost of doing electronic discovery for their lawsuits.  The anti-trust lawsuit required 150 attorneys over a year to review printed versions (in bankers’ boxes) of 300GB of emails and Microsoft Office documents. Microsoft was strongly encouraging Preston Gates to reduce their attorney fees, move the reviews offshore or find a technology solution to reviewing their documents.

Marty and Gerry wondered if I would be interested in consulting with them to do two things:

        • Evaluate the PNNL technology to see if it could be turned into a product
        • Develop a business plan for a new software company to bring the technology to market.

I was flattered and accepted their offer on the spot with one provision – that I would not be asked, nor would I accept an executive position to run the company if the business plan indicated that it made sense to go after the eDiscovery market.  I shared that I had my fill of working inside a company after my recent experience of going from a private company at Primus Knowledge Solutions to a public company.  They agreed and we agreed on a compensation plan for the project and we were launched.

As I walked back down the hill to return to Bainbridge Island and start to work on a project plan, I shook my head at the fastest sales effort for professional services I ever experienced – less than twelve hours from contact to contract.  I wish I knew how to do that every time.

The next two weeks were a quick immersion into the world of legal eDiscovery and visual analytics technology using my tried and true “become an expert” professional services technique.  This technique has the following steps:

      • Find easily accessible experts in the area under study:
        • David McDonald and Martha Dawson – Preston Gates eDiscovery Practice
        • Dennis McQuerry PNNL Spire Project
          • [NOTE: When you are looking to build a product, there are at least two domains of knowledge that are important – the expertise in the knowledge domain and the technologies that underlie the products in the domain under study.  Both need to be studied.]
        • Interview the accessible experts to understand the map of the territory from their point of view:
          • How do they think about the domain?
            • What frameworks do they draw from?
            • What mental frameworks have they developed?
          • Who are other experts in the domain?
          • What are recommended resources for understanding the domain (articles, books, courses, videos, journals, professional magazines)?
          • How did they educate themselves in this domain?
          • What are the important or leading-edge questions in the domain?
          • What are the hassles (Slywotzky hassle maps) in the domain?
          • What are the hard problems yet to be solved?
        • Observe the working environment of the system under study:
          • I spent one day walking through the entire end to end work process for eDiscovery with Martha Dawson
          • I spent two days observing the reviewing attorneys (over 100)
          • This observation is the role of human centered design user research and ideally where video ethnography comes in. If you can’t video, at least try to take some photos of the working environment.
            • You are looking for what isn’t in the computer system
            • You are looking for what is in the computer system and how data flows within the computing network
            • Use mental checklists like POEMS or aeiou.
          • Read and experience as many of the resources you observe
            • Capture the key vocabulary
            • Identify experts mentioned in at least three different resources
            • Identify the key insights and questions and problems and hassles and TOC bottlenecks
            • Continue to expand the list of resources
              • Keep this list up to date for the time that you are in the knowledge domain
              • These experts will be used to develop other talent in your company
            • Interview 3-7 identified experts in both the knowledge and technology domains
              • Using the list of experts identified during the resource view and the connections of the Preston Gates and PNNL experts, contact at least 20 of the experts
              • Do an in depth (at least one hour) interview with three legal experts and three visual analytics technology experts
                • If at all possible, conduct the interview in the experts actual work setting (like at their desk or office, not in a conference room)
                  • You want to be able to see what artifacts they touch or use or refer to during your discussion
                • Record and transcribe the interviews where possible
                  • In the age of the pandemic, a Zoom call and recording is terrific if the expert is in their office.
                  • Make sure to ask questions about the environment that the expert is sitting in
                  • Refer to artifacts that you can see to understand why they have that artifact in their working place

By the time the two weeks were finished, I had a robust view of the eDiscovery industry and was ready to evaluate the PNNL technology.  While I did this research in two weeks, the immersion continued for the next year with the virtuous cycle of continually finding resources in order to find the experts in order to interview the experts in the eDiscovery and the visual analytics domains.  In addition, I started a technology and vendor landscape diagram.

I liked the product opportunity so much that I asked Marty and Gerry if I could be part of the new company.  They both smiled.

Most importantly, keep updating your list of key questions.  As you encounter new people in the domain, ask the questions or subsets of the questions.  From a networking perspective, this will establish you as an expert and you will find others in the domain connecting with you.

The more I learned about the technology and the needs of the litigation space, the clearer it became that there was a market and a business and a product opportunity.  Within a year I was participating in Continuing Legal Education panel discussions as a peer with experts who were in the domain for 20 years and had the 10,000 hours of experience.

The actual contract with Preston Gates was to look at all 10 “Working Smarter” investments in software for different parts of their legal practice and determine which ones had a large enough market to fund a company like Attenex.  After becoming an expert in eDiscovery, I quickly had to become an “expert” in other legal areas like contract law, Intellectual Property law, trusts and wills, etc.

Continuous Synthesis of Your Expertise

For me, becoming an expert through accelerated learning techniques is always a fun and engaging endeavor.  However, I have to keep reminding myself that the purpose of becoming an expert quickly in a given knowledge domain is to create a better product AND to develop a longer-term vision of the Whole Product.

To keep on track, I constantly draw diagrams and frameworks for the product vision.  I regularly present the vision to experts and potential customers to check my understanding and to confirm there is a real need.  After my 60 days of becoming an expert at Attenex (30 days for eDiscovery and 30 days for the other relevant legal practice areas) I produced this product vision for our funding partners at Preston Gates.

As with Dan Pink’s description of pitching and catching, the goal of the synthesis is to create collaborative conversations.

With an understanding of how to become an expert quickly, we move on to the third step – using an influencer centered design process to collaborate an your product vision AND aid in funding your new enterprise.


The five parts of this series on how to create a product vision are:

  1. Understanding what a good one looks like
  2. Becoming an expert quickly in the knowledge domain of your product innovations
  3. Using an influencer centered design process to collaborate on your product vision
  4. Creating the product vision using service dominant logic and an outcomes orientation
  5. Communicating the Product vision – to employees, to customers, to investors
This entry was posted in Content with Context, Design, Entrepreneuring, Human Centered Design, Idealized Design, Innovation. Bookmark the permalink.

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