The first scene of the film “Under the Tuscan Sun” opens at a book launch party, where a young author named William toasts his teacher – the protagonist, Frances Mayes of Diane Lane.
“When I took his course at State, I had the worst case of writer’s block in the world. All I had were terrible ideas. I hated them all,” William said. “I was about to drop out of class when she said something to me that changed everything. She said: “Terrible ideas are like playground scapegoats. With the right encouragement, they become geniuses. She told me to take one of my bad ideas and work on it. Well, I did. To Frances Mayes, who likes terrible ideas!
The plot revolves around Mayes’ terrible idea a year later: to buy a ramshackle villa in Tuscany that she can barely afford for the family she doesn’t have.
I watched this movie growing up, but it took far too long for me to appreciate the principle that ideas don’t start well – they need to be nurtured, experienced, and matured.
It is easy to lose sight of this concept. American work culture rewards success, not progress. We hear about what people do, not what people choose not to do. When your work involves iterations, it can seem like you’re not making a mark.
As a senior product specialist at Poynter, my work is mostly about process and iteration. I work across departments to improve the user experience with our products, including newsletters, education programs, and events. My final area of interest is a newer space for Poynter: communities of journalists. Thousands of journalists train with Poynter each year, bonding among their cohorts of learners as they grow in confidence, skills and abilities. I explore opportunities to extend this connection beyond the one-time training experience and to serve our alumni in meaningful ways over the long term.
To help me conscientiously approach this new opportunity, I applied to the News Product Alliance mentorship program. I was fortunate to be accepted and matched with Kim Fox, Reader Experience Product Manager at Hearst Newspapers. Over the past six months, I have benefited from his business acumen, knowledge of the journalism industry, and empathetic guidance.
Through many conversations, she reminded me of the value of digging deep into an idea to see how potential customers respond. Instead of “Great idea! Do it,” the advice was, “Great idea! Try it.” It invited wonder, encouraged experimentation, and celebrated shifting gears when the idea didn’t really, really solve a problem for a real, really defined audience.
This approach is product thinking in a nutshell. Product thinking is a way to understand an audience’s problems and then solve them. One of the main benefits of applying product thinking to all aspects of an organization – from programs to products to projects – is that you don’t waste time, money and your reputation on good ideas that don’t add real value.
The NPA mentorship program is structured to help mentees meet professional challenges. For me, it was about figuring out how to develop a product for one of Poynter’s most committed alumni groups. Based on initial conversations with people in the target audience and evaluating the types of products that are successful in other industries, I decided that a Mastermind-style peer mentoring group would be the perfect fit!
What problem, exactly? For whom, exactly?
The product process requires answering these questions before launching anything. Tools that facilitate discovery include those familiar to journalists, such as editing and face-to-face interviews, as well as product prototypes, audience research, and a business model canvas.
As Fox described it to me, a business model canvas is a few steps above writing a business idea on the back of a napkin and a few steps below a business plan. of 50 pages. In a snapshot, a business model canvas shows the external and internal factors that bring a value proposition to life – and how they all work together. The nine building blocks to be identified and mapped in the business model canvas are:
- Customer segments
- Value Propositions
- Client relationship
- Income stream
- Key activities
- Key Resources
- Key partnerships
- The cost structure
By putting sticky notes in all nine categories, it was easy for me to see where my idea was strong and where it was lacking. Even though I have a lot of direct experience with our target audience, I was guessing the key components of the customer segment and the value proposition. The exercise highlighted the assumptions I made when I came up with my “big” idea.
I was still at the beginning of this process, and it was time to design my audience research to dig deeper into these assumptions. Using my business model canvas as a guide for lines of questioning, I created a survey, hosted a focus group, reviewed my prototype with key stakeholders, and conducted one-on-one interviews.
Who are these people? What are their problems? What do they really want? What can Poynter realistically provide?
Answering these questions through audience research, I learned that my brainchild had merit, but it likely would have failed had I pitched it. It was too expensive. It was too much of a time commitment for the client. And while it was a real problem, it wasn’t the most pressing problem we could have solved with our limited resources. Our clients want to deepen their existing relationships with each other. I could evolve my current idea to prioritize this value proposition – or explore an entirely different concept.
So was it a bad idea or a great idea? I learned that it doesn’t really matter, outside of my own ego. This is now a tested idea.
It’s not have value; he discs value.
People trying to adopt product thinking in their organizations need to slow down and spend time testing ideas with real customers before taking action. And, most importantly, they must learn to quantify the process and its value to their organization so that their contributions are measured against progress versus perfection.