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SOLUTION is less important than discovering the PROBLEM

Fail Faster

Episode 369


38 minutes

Join us on the Fail Faster podcast as we dive into the world of product development and innovation with John Guillaume, the former head of design and innovation at Comcast Business.

In this episode, John shares his insights on what makes a product great and why some products end up being average. He emphasizes the importance of being true to the promise to the customer. With his extensive experience in sales and product management, John sheds light on how to accelerate go to market initiatives succussfully. Discover the strategies and key principles that can help you create exceptional products and achieve market success.

Podcast transcript

Vandana: Hey John, welcome to the Fail Faster podcast. How are you today?

John: I’m doing terrific. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it, Vandana. 

Vandana: Absolutely. Yes, I am very interested to getting into knowing what makes a product great, right? There’s so many interesting things that we are going to dive into. And why do products end up being average? These are some really interesting topics and would love your perspective on some of these things. But before we dive into that, can we get a background of introduction from you, John? 

John: Yeah, most certainly. So I’m the former head of design and innovation at Comcast Business. And Comcast Business is a business unit within Comcast. Some may know it as Xfinity, but one of the largest or the largest cable company in the United States. I’d spent the last 13 years there, where I ran product management for a number of years, and then more recently, became the head of design and innovation. But my background is mixed. 

My background started in sales, and which I always, anytime anybody’s interested in sales or even in product management, I should say, in design to some extent. But having a sales background can be really beneficial to add kind of context and perspective to things that you are building as a product developer or product manager. But it’s just that I think it was, I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was foundational to kind of understand customers and understand, you know, how they buy and what their challenges are and how do you ask the right questions to understand their challenges. 

And then in the kind of the reverse, as a product manager or product designer, you then have also developed empathy for sellers. And many businesses, especially in mid to enterprise, you really, you need to empathize with sellers too, because they’re the ones that are actively talking about your product and distributing your product, and they need to feel really good about it as well. 

So like all things, product and product design, it’s multifaceted, but empathy for all users involved is really important. From sales though, I did that for several years and decided that wasn’t for me long-term. And I had an opportunity within the same company I was selling for to start up a business unit as a GM and learned a lot in that role where I built a business as more of an entrepreneur and we built a $80 million business in the span of three years. 

And I was able to develop some, just to do some things from scratch, first of all, but also develop some horrific world-class distribution relationships with Walmart and Sam’s Club and Costco. So it was a pretty interesting time for me. But then after that point, it’s really when product and go-to-market became more of my expertise and focus area, I took a shot at three different startups. 

One of them worth calling out was a company called New Global Telecom and actually spun out a business from my previous employer and pulled that together as we were recapitalizing NGT. And we created a wholesale voice over IP company that ultimately Comcast became a customer of and then Comcast ultimately acquired. So that was kind of my journey to and through Comcast. So it was Comcast, I always joke, I went from 120 person company, you know, venture back to 120,000 person company, which was quite the contrast. 

But Comcast business was, it was addicting. It was fun. It was my first opportunity to really work in a company at massive scale. And when we got acquired, Comcast business was doing, had about 3% market share and we were fortunate enough to do a lot of the right things. And we grew that to over 50% market share in most of the markets. And it was just a terrific experience, not only from product, but also product design and in how we evolve over time. 

And so I ran product management for a number of years there. And then about six years ago, I took over as the chief design officer. And that’s really where I started getting more immersed in the design world, the design side of product and the design side of business. So that’s a little bit about me. 

Vandana: That’s amazing. And so many things you just mentioned are unique about what you are sharing here is bringing the sales expertise gives you a very different view of the sellers and of the customers. Super interested to know, like, could you give an example of what was being missed, before you joined and before you shed light on some of the gaps that you saw because you were coming from a sales background? 

John: Well, there’s always small things that, like when you’re trying to empathize with a seller, they’re small things like even the language you use. So how you talk about it from a product point of view, or even internally, may not be how a salesperson comprehends it, understands it. 

And often, then how do they kind of translate that to a customer. And often you find breakage in that linkage, because you’re just talking different languages, because you’re coming from different disciplines and, you know, a product manager is probably going to have more technical acumen, they’re going to have the full background on how it’s built and what type of architecture and things, a lot of things that could be irrelevant to a salesperson. 

And it’s what’s relevant to the salesperson and most importantly, but they have to kind of coexist is what’s important for the customer too. And it’s that translation that there’s always a gap. And it’s really important to get that right. So stay away from the techno speak or the acronyms and things that may be second nature to a product manager, but not second nature to a salesperson, not second nature to a customer. 

So speaking in plain English is really important. And, you know, one of the interesting, when I was, I mentioned doing some interesting distribution deals and I met this buyer at Sam’s Club early in my career. And this was as a GM, I was doing everything. I was doing the sales and the business development. I was heading up the product and the development and the whole thing. But we earned the contracts, we won that. 

And now it was about, okay, how are we going to go to market with this? And this gentleman whose nickname was Thumbs, he was missing three fingers. I hope Thumbs is doing well. I haven’t talked to him in a long time, but he went by Thumbs. We did, me and my team, we spent a couple of weeks really trying to refine the product that was ultimately going to be presented in a retail environment. And we did what we thought was really great work. I mean, we put our heart into this. 

And I’d come back and I’d present it to Thumbs. And he looks at them. There’s three different options. He slides them back over the desk to me. And he says, John, I want to tell you something. He said, third grade in seven seconds. And I said, tell me more. And he said, if you can’t explain something to someone at a third grade level and they understand it in seven seconds or less, you’ve lost the sale. 

And that has stuck with me my entire career. And there’s truth across any discipline in that third grade in seven seconds. And but that’s one of them is it may be that how you support, train, and set expectations on what to pitch to customers through your sales team, it has to be, think of it in third grade in seven seconds. It has to be absolutely clear to them because if it is to them, it’s going to be absolutely clear to the customer. 

Vandana: Very well said. Yeah, what a great tip. Thank you so much. Yeah. And I wanted to also, I mean, you kind of like brought that a little bit into this answer, but I wanted to also touch upon from 3% to 50% market share. That’s huge. So what were some of the things that you took ground up? And, you know, I’m sure that some of it gave you the acumen that you have to bring those kind of learnings, you know, into the organizations which need go to market strategies. So I want to know more about that. Like, how did you go from such a huge leap? 

John: Yes, it was, in very simple terms, I would say we had a better product and a better price. And the competition at the time, it was primarily a technology called DSL, which still millions of Americans use today for the way they access the internet. DSL is and continues to be slower in terms of internet speeds and less reliable. So we came in as the new competitor and we had a better, faster product. And oftentimes, you know, at a better price point, so the value was there. And so there was an inherent advantage in what we were doing. 

And when I came along, we had a very small product portfolio. We had a broadband or internet product. We had two phone lines was the extent of our phone service. And we had video service, meaning TV. And that was really the extent of the portfolio. And me and my team, we expanded that pretty rapidly as we not only in the breadth, but also the market segments, we started going up market into mid-market enterprise, which really allowed us to go after new markets. 

We started in small business. So not only did we continue to enhance our core product, which was broadband and phone at the time, but we also went deeper and included new products like Wi-Fi, security, and more advanced phone services. So it was, we, the most important thing that we could do is stay true to who we are. That was, we had a better product and really taking advantage of that. 

And, but then also understanding being a new player in the space, we didn’t have all the products and services that the incumbents did. So we were rapidly expanding on those items, wasn’t necessarily innovating, but expanding to meet the needs of customers. And we did it in a way that seemed to resonate and worked out. So, you know, kudos to everyone involved, but I know it was a special time and place for me. And it was really enjoyable to see all that come together. I’m sure. 

Vandana: What a great achievement. And just congratulations to, I mean, I know it’s been a minute, but still, you know, that’s a huge accomplishment. So congratulations to all teams. Absolutely. And let’s get on to the, some of the things that you wanted to share about what makes a product a great product. Right. So let’s get into that. In your opinion, how, what do you see today and where the trend is with the customers? What are the good designers missing and not getting it too great?

John: Yeah. You know, really, simply said, it comes down to being customer centric. And there’s a number of frameworks that your audience will be familiar with, you know, like human centered design, design thinking, jobs to be done. Those types of frameworks and regardless of the approach. 

And there’s goodness that comes out of any one of those. And it comes back to what problem are you solving for the customer? And it’s the problem is where innovation happens. And, you know, I would always tell the team to say, look, let’s look for problems, the customer’s experience, because that’s where we’re innovation. 

So if innovation occurs, when there is a clearly identified problem, and then it’s coupled with successful execution of design engineering and the right business model. And if you can, if you can execute on those with a clearly defined problem, probably going to be successful and have a differentiated product. Then as to who you might be competing with. 

So it in all instances, it starts with a friction point that needs to be identified with a customer. If there is no friction, there is no innovation. So you have to think about if you’re not then doing something differently. Are you doing it better? Are you doing it cheaper? Are you doing it faster? Where are you innovating? Maybe it’s not on the product, the product person. 

It could be that you’re you’re innovating on the fringes. It could be that you’ve optimized process or logistics, a technology that allows you to do something less expensively in order to bring a product to market at a lower price. That’s that’s a strategy as well. So it depends on the type of business and the business’s inherent advantages and what they bring to market. But it has to start with a problem. 

And that is one area I would say that is here’s my litmus test. My litmus test is if you ask a product manager in particular, right, what problem are you trying to solve? If you get an answer that goes over 15 seconds, they don’t understand the problem. And I’ll get an answer the last minutes. They don’t understand the problem. They say they do, but they most likely don’t. 

And and it’s without understanding that problem. It’s really hard to have clarity of purpose in what you’re trying to achieve. And that extends then to not just a product manager. I don’t mean to be picking on a product manager, but the team. So there’s multiple people involved. There are multiple organizations involved in large organizations. They have to have clarity of purpose. And it goes a long way to understand that. 

Vandana: Love that. And I love the way that you put it in a litmus test. Yeah. So that’s that’s a great tool again. Thank you. So, yeah, understanding the problem. I get it. So once we are all in that one problem space and that’s defined, how does how do teams get to deliver high quality products from there? Are there any any other things that teams are missing in your perspective? 

John: Yeah, there’s I’m going to I’m going to go backwards just a moment and say something I think is important. And it goes back to the problem to be solved. And I always say, look, there’s no shortage of ideas in any organization. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, you have ideas in your head or you’re in a large organization. There’s no shortage of good ideas. The hardest part is figuring out which are the best ones to go after. 

And especially true in large organizations. If you go after a problem or you go develop something, you’re talking about hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people hours invested, let alone the the absolute dollars invested. And if it doesn’t work out, it can be a real challenge for large organizations to pivot from there. So it’s the question of it’s not that there’s a lot of good ideas. So which ones are the best? So it just has to go beyond opinion. 

So when we when you go back to your question, then, Vandana, on what is what are the best practices in creating a better product? Well, it starts with problem identified. And but to do the problem identification, it takes work. So it usually starts as a hypothesis. Right. So it could be the CEO has a thought that it could be a product manager. It doesn’t matter. Someone has an idea. Right. Teams tend to rally around that rather than just go build it. How do you put it to its test? And this is the discovery phase. Right. 

And in the discovery phase, you really want to understand customers’ preferences, challenges and really kind of get them to open up in a way that is you’re not leading them to the answer. Too many times I’ve seen even questions go to salespeople or customers to say, if I had this product and, you know, insert description, would you buy it? And unfortunately, you don’t learn a lot in that because it’s one, it’s a yes, no, always be open ended. 

But two, a lot of people just don’t want to say no because people don’t like saying no to other people. And and you don’t learn a lot along the way. What you’re really trying to flesh out is that taking that hypothesis and reading between the lines, listening between the lines. And and then you’re going to you do this with enough customers. And I would say if you do five or 10 interviews, themes are going to develop or a theme. And it’s really the theme that you’re trying to pick up on, not any one thing anyone said. So look for the themes. Now you’ve got to put that theme to the test. 

And this is where you get into you’re still in the discovery phase. You need to prototype and prototyping is an art unto itself. But I always encourage people to do be scrappy. You can do a lot with a little, especially these days. There’s so many free services out there and get it in front of customers as rapidly as possible. Even in prototype, even if it’s if it’s ugly, it doesn’t have all the features, whatever it might be. But if it’s if you think it’s at least pointing in the right direction of the problem to be solved, putting it out there and asking for engagement, you’re going to you’re going to learn along the way. 

And how do you take and iterate from that prototype from the prototype test? You iterate and you do that to the point where you think you’re pretty confident in what it is that you’re going to go do. So then you start thinking about the solution. And there’s no there’s dozens of ways typically to do to to solve a problem in terms of how you architect it, what software stacks go to market, those types of things. But the solution is less important than ultimately identifying the problem. 

But it’s that discovery phase in the iteration to make sure you’re you’re absolutely set on what it is that you want to present to the design and develop phase of the product that allows the design team, the engineers and the product managers to really then hone in on what are the most important capabilities? What are the nice to have? What are the things that we originally thought we wanted to do need to need to be set aside and thought about later? And in being very, very focused on the essence of your promise to the customer on that problem set and don’t let it kind of expand too much. 

You know, a feature factory comes to mind a lot when you see products being developed and they call it innovation, but it’s just incrementalism with just more and more features that aren’t necessarily solving a problem or adding value to a customer. So it’s really the iteration piece that is important. But then you couple it also with the continuous customer feedback loop. 

So. This is it’s this is an understated element, but it’s really important, understated element of the design and develop phase. But I often will see research occur, say, in anticipation or at the beginning of a project and then it ceases. And you certainly can learn something. And if you’re going to do that, for sure. But how do you create a continuous feedback loop so that the team that is ultimately building this thing and going to bring it to market, how do they have a constant feedback loop from the users, the customers, the sellers, so that every week they can start seeing feedback? 

And and then again, you take it especially easier now with things like chat GPT, where you can summarize some of these things. How do you then summarize the themes that are coming out of these? And as you look through your roadmap, instead of having this rigid 18 month roadmap that you’ve committed to, how do you look at these themes and make yourself smarter? I would always tell my team, I say, look, any teams, I say we reserve the right to be smarter. And if we’re getting smarter, then let’s take advantage of being smarter. So we don’t have to commit to that one feature that we thought was a brilliant idea. It all months out. 

But yeah, we’re set for the next couple of sprints. But this will this theme is coming up. This is an important one where we should just pull it into maybe the third sprint or what have you. Right. And there’s lots to that. But that’s the that’s the iteration. That’s the continuous feedback loop. And the designer, the product manager, the engineering teams, they now have this continuous source of information to start marking how well they’re doing. And that’s too often. I don’t see that happening. 

And wait until the products ultimately launched and then that’s out in the field. And then that’s when they start getting the feedback. And the feedback loop at that point, you’re already fully developed. And it’s it’s hard and costly to start kind of pivoting left and right. So you can do this throughout the entire development cycle. And you can and you can do it certainly after you’ve launched it and, you know, incrementally expand on the product side. 

Vandana: That’s so cool. And, you know, you just described the process that we follow called experiment driven design. And a lot of what you said is what what we we do and we live and breathe day in and day out for all the projects that we handle. I love this idea of the continuous feedback loop. And you’re right, there is a gap, you know, from the beginning till the production is done and the product is out there. 

So is that in your in your mind, is that the only reason why products fail or are there something else there that, you know, is getting missed? And that that was such a huge, huge point. And just getting that into the loops would solve a lot of problems, you know, that a few that are waiting for us in the future. So is there anything else like that, like this, that the teams are missing?

John: Sure. Well, there are certainly there’s a lot that goes into a successful product, let alone an exceptional product. And it’s this is as much art and science, of course. But one of the one of the other areas that I really like to emphasize with teams is clarity of purpose. 

One of my favorite books by Simon Sinek, Start With Why, I really recommend it for product leads, product managers, designers. It’s just a terrific book. Good read. It’ll make you feel better, a little bit smarter for sure. But why are why are you doing this? You know, this being this product or this product extension or adding this feature? Why? And it seems like such a simple question. But it’s often difficult to answer. 

And it kind of goes back to asking this question often leads to a five minute diatribe where it’s just kind of rambling on in and around the topic. But it’s there’s not really clarity of purpose. And in clarity of purpose means that the team, the leader are operating with vision and the mission. 

They really understand their core values and what they’re trying to do and the purpose for delivering and the promise to the customer. And that is unto itself a North Star that teams can constantly go back to when they face the question of, should we do this or that? And as much data and customer feedback and feedback loops and as much data as you can have access to, there is subjectiveness to all of this. Right. 

So I’m a big fan of data, but there it’s especially when you’re talking about a product or a product category, less so on the features. You have to make gut calls every once in a while. Yeah. But those gut calls need to be kind of founded upon. Why are we doing this? What’s our mission? What’s our what’s our purpose? What’s our clarity of purpose? So I can always bounce it off that. 

But additionally, we really need to make sure it fits with with what our customer promises is intended to be. Are we if we add this, do we further enhance our customer promise? Or is this just kind of out on the fringes? It’s a good way to to keep the entire team on track. And by having the entire team engaged and believing the mission and the purpose, you’re going to get more out of those people than you would if you’re just handing off requirements to engineers or designers to say, go build this, go design that, because they won’t understand why. 

And that happens too often. Let everybody understand why. Let them become a part of it. So that is another area that I think could is it seems hokey. It seems a little superfluous to many. But look, we’re human beings. We like to be part of something and like to believe in something. And I think good leadership, good product is born from a commitment to a purpose and clarity of purpose. The other thing I would add is a product is just a component of a successful business or even a successful product. 

So the like one of my my favorite books that really kind of kind of unknowingly got me into design, even though I wasn’t thinking about it, was Jeffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm. And in that and this was written years ago and I can’t remember, but I’m not sure if design was even mentioned in the book at all. 

But he talks about this notion of the whole product and the whole product is the product itself is in the center of this wagon wheel. And then there’s, you know, six or eight slices around it. And the whole product includes things like sales and marketing and support and all of those things that we think about as customer experience and such today. 

But you can have a great product, but if the support is awful, you may not have a good business. You may have a great product, but if the salespeople can’t sell it, you may not have a good business. So you might have a great product, but if the marketing isn’t resonating with the buyers, you may not be successful. So it has to be orchestrated across the functions within a business. 

So, you know, often, you know, especially through this digital transformation, it’s thought of as I’m going to build a portal so customers can come in and they can authenticate and they can pay their bills or whatever they do online, right? But if that digital experience doesn’t match up necessarily with the sales experience, doesn’t match up with the support experience, but when they call it, the value proposition and that promise of that digital experience starts to break down.

So the same promise that is being built through this digital transformation also needs to be extended into the customer support and how they actually interact with people, whether it be sales or customer support, whomever the various users are within that ecosystem. So I think of it as design orchestration. 

How do you design and orchestrate the promise, that value, that intentional value to a customer? How do you orchestrate it around all organizations so that it’s delivered in different ways? Maybe it manifests itself over the phone. Maybe it manifests itself in a chatbot. Maybe it manifests itself in a mobile app or through a salesperson or through an indirect channel. 

But it all has to be orchestrated so everybody’s driving to the same clarity of purpose. And oftentimes, you know, you’ve heard Don Norman, right, kind of the Yoda of human-centered design. But he has this wonderful little talk about, you know, sometimes when you design or build in the micro, it has a negative impact on the macro because organizations can go about solving different problems. 

This is especially true in larger organizations, but one organization makes some changes over here. Another organization makes some changes over here, all with the right intentions, like good intentions. But they don’t necessarily, they’re not orchestrated in a way that makes it a cohesive experience for the customer. And that’s another area of breakdown that I see, like what could transform average products into exceptional products. 

Vandana: Love that. These are such great insights. Thank you so much, John. I’m like, yeah, I’m just taking it all in. It’s really, really well thought through. And I love how you’re, you know, pointing us in these directions. So thank you for that. 

Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you would like to share? Maybe something that in the ideal world, what would make you feel successful, you know, in your current role as an advisor to multiple organizations? And with all this expertise that you’ve gained through your experience?

John: So I’m by nature a pretty happy guy. So, you know, it’s one of the things I’ve always enjoyed throughout my parenthood. I have two kids, a 20 year old and 18 year old. And one of the experiences I would never trade in for anything was coaching them at every opportunity, like their sports teams. 

Every opportunity I had, I coached. And a lot of soccer and basketball in particular. And not that I was a particularly good coach, but it was just the experience of seeing them grow. And when they were young enough, I could help them. As they got older and better than what I could deliver as a coach, you know, that’s when I took a step back. 

But I say that as sharing. I very much enjoy coaching and helping younger entrepreneurs who have some brilliant ideas and some brilliant technology, helping them bring it to market and really seeing them maximize the potential of what they have in their head or what they’re bringing to market. 

Vandana: Amazing. What a great way to see that in your kids and then extend it to your team. So good luck with everything that you do, John. I have a feeling that you are influencing a lot of great impact in the different ways that you are. And I wish you all the good luck and lessons. 

John: Thank you. It was my pleasure. 

Vandana: Thank you so much for joining us today.

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