By Peter Longini
You don’t have to be a bleeding-edge technology start-up to support genuine innovation, to make yourself memorable to customers, or to have a good time. The venerable Thomson Reuters information service formalized a way to make it happen while pleasing some of the world’s most famously unsmiling clients. Product Management Director Michael Koppelmann explains how they did it.
Category: Product Design, Development and Launch
Thomson Reuters makes serious products for serious people. The $13 billion-plus company, which traces its corporate history all the way back to 1799 and today employs more than 50,000 people, calls itself the world’s leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals in the global finance, legal, tax, accounting, scientific, healthcare and media markets. It’s pretty somber stuff.
So what criteria do they use to decide which product enhancements its developers should build? Fun! Dazzle! Buzz! Bonding! And they’re serious about it. Just ask Michael Koppelmann, Director of Product Management within the company’s Investment and Advisory group.
Koppelmann is leading an initiative, but it’s not to create the sorts of industrial-strength information tools that anchor the desktops of brokers, analysts, advisers, fund managers and other solemn financial professionals around the globe. Those kinds of heavy-duty products are already on the company’s roadmaps and new releases of them are issued two or three times every year. Instead, his assignment is to spearhead a new initiative focused on creating an environment to encourage smaller-scale innovation around those big products, to make the case for including creative innovations in the official roadmap, and to bring on exciting enhancements to enliven the company’s otherwise austere product lines.
The Fun Factor
"We came up with four criteria for looking at these items,” Koppelmann said. "The first is an Entertainment Factor. Entertainment is really not our business. But when we look at the technologies people use on their own because they want to. And when you see how sticky some products like Facebook or Linked-In or Flickr really are, it goes way beyond the usefulness of the product. Here, we take products designed to do very serious things, like helping managers deal with great volumes of complex data, and try to create that same sense of enjoyment and addictive attraction.”
"Another criterion is Visual Impact. We think it’s logical that people would rather spend time with a product that’s visually appealing and interesting than one that’s not. So while our company wins its deals by the quality of our products and services, at the end of the day, we’re selling to people who have a number of choices. And when they come out of a conference after a week’s worth of demos of competing products, we want them to have stuck in their mind: ‘Hey, remember that one cool thing we saw in your product?’” One example might be using mapping technology to graphically show an advisor’s or a company’s book of business. "We think that gives us an edge,” he said.
"Another criterion is Socially Trending topics,” Koppelmann noted. "Take for example social networking. Right now it’s a hot topic for us because it’s so socially trendy – and there’s real value there. You really can’t talk to anyone about technology right now without Twitter coming up. And even if people don’t understand it or know the value of it, they’re interested. They know it’s a trend, they know it’s a major social thing. And they want to know how we’re dealing with it, or how we’re interacting with it. So for us to bring microblogging in to someone and make it useful for them, we’re allowing them to interact with something they might never have done before. It also shows that we’re conscious of major social trends.”
Ties That Bind
"The fourth criterion we look at are things that tie our products together in new ways. All of the things I’m talking about are enhancements; they’re not really new products. So, with a company like Thomson Reuters, with so many technology products covering verticals ranging from healthcare to news to tax and accounting to wealth management, we look at small enhancements that bring things together. So, for example, right now we’re looking at some interesting crossover functionality between news, contact management and some of our wealth tools. And there are a ton of other things you can do with those three components.”
The size of a potential enhancement project is critical to its acceptance and funding by the company’s leadership, Koppelmann pointed out. "These items are struggling to be included in a roadmap which is already crowded with client- or application-critical projects. The issue with many innovative type projects is that they’re often seen as ‘nice to have,’ but they’re crowded out of the roadmap by these core enhancements. So keeping them small helps to ensure they can be included in each release.
"I also believe that in many cases, projects overreach, adding 70 percent of their features on top of the 30 percent that really generate the majority of product value. We feel that if you focus on the maximum value, the rest are enhancements you can get from small projects – not from new products themselves. We’re looking to include a couple innovation items with each release, across product lines. But each one of them can bring a great deal of value; so they’re not small in impact.”
In many large, well-established companies, creativity tends to happen on the sly, where people feel that they’re forced to sneak around established procedures in order to do innovative things. But not at Thomson Reuters. "It’s a smart place,” Koppelmann pointed out. "They’re saying ‘look, we want you to do these type of things – we’re interested in them; we see the value, and we’re going to make a commitment to letting certain types of things get done within the roadmap.’ We’re formalizing it, giving it resources, and saying that we’ll make this type of work a priority even when it’s busy, even when our roadmaps are jammed full. We’re letting our people know that we’re empowering them. We’re saying as a company that we’re making a commitment to this and that they should share their ideas.”
Particularly from a company with more than 200 years of history, that sends an important message: "A lot of times, people coming from big companies and big matrix environments tend to look at the startups and the trendy, bleeding-edge technology companies and think they must have some sort of unique environment that allows them to create new ideas or bring new ideas to market,” Koppelmann said. "But you can replicate that internally by committing to innovative projects and giving people license to bring their ideas forward. That’s what Thomson Reuters has done and it’s interesting how fast some great ideas come to light.”
Peter Longini is Managing Editor for Network (www.productstrategynetwork.com), a Pittsburgh-based professional network of product strategy and management practitioners, and a sponsor of the BPMA.