For this episode of Le Podcast on Emerging Leadership, I recently had the privilege to sit down with Radhika Dutt, the author of the revolutionary book, “Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter”.
In our insightful conversation, Radhika shared her wisdom on the role culture plays in driving innovation. Radhika stressed the importance of creating a shared sense of purpose, autonomy, and psychological safety within a team for innovation to thrive. These three elements are the cornerstone of a healthy and dynamic work environment and are covered by the principles of radical product thinking.
Radhika explained the Radical Product Thinking framework, composed of five main components: Product Vision, Strategy, Prioritization, Execution and Measurement, and finally Culture.
She introduced a useful framework for understanding and shaping organizational culture. Radhika suggests viewing work along two dimensions: whether it is fulfilling or not, and whether it is urgent or not. The goal is to maximize the time spent on fulfilling and non-urgent work—work that feels truly meaningful—and minimize the time spent in the other three quadrants: fulfilling but urgent work (heroism), non-fulfilling but urgent work (organizational cactus), and non-fulfilling, non-urgent work (soul-sucking quadrant).
The conversation then transitioned to how one could use the radical product thinking approach to shape and improve culture over time. By identifying the pain points that lead to time spent in the less desirable quadrants, leaders can develop strategies, formulate hypotheses, and measure improvements. In essence, your organization becomes the product that you continually refine to serve your employees better.
Radhika’s insights serve as a valuable reminder that improving the world through innovative products extends beyond the products themselves. It’s about creating an environment where employees can do their best work and feel valued. This mindset shift can lead to more effective teams and, ultimately, more successful and impactful products.
You can listen to the full conversation with Radhika Dutt on the Emerging Leadership Network podcast.
If you’re interested in learning more about Radical Product Thinking, you can find her book in bookstores or visit her blog at radicalproduct.com. Join us for our next episode as we continue exploring the fascinating intersection of leadership, innovation, and the future of work. Until then, keep leading the change.
Welcome to the podcast on emerging leadership. I’m Alexis Monville. Today we are thrilled to have with us Radhika Dutt. Radhika is an innovation and program product management expert. She is the author of the book “Radical Product Thinking: The New Mindset for Innovating Smarter”. Radhika has worked globally across diverse sectors, from startups to giants. Welcome, Radhika.
Thank you. Thank you for having me and I’m so excited to be here with you today.
Thank you, Radhika. Could you please introduce yourself to our audience and share a bit about your background and the work you do.
Sure, so my background is that I started out as an engineer. I studied engineering at MIT and I became an entrepreneur soon after. My first startup was called Lobby 7 and we started this with a group of co-founders. There were five of us in total and we started it while we were still in our dorms at MIT. My whole experience has been through entrepreneurship and then working at larger companies and making mistakes along the way. For example, my first startup Lobby 7 was where we caught the “Hero Syndrome”. What I mean by that is our tagline and vision statement was to “revolutionize wireless” and our tagline was “enlightened wireless”. If you ask me now what does that mean, what did you mean by “revolutionizing wireless”, I’m really not sure. All we knew was we wanted to be big. That was all that mattered and that is “Hero Syndrome”. So that was the first “product disease” I caught and along the way there were other product diseases that we caught.
I’ve worked in different organizations and kept seeing product diseases. Over time, as I learned from these product diseases and learned to do better, I then watched other people make these mistakes and had to watch them suffer through it. The burning question for me in 2017, after almost twenty years of experience, was: Is it that we’re all doomed to learning from trial and error or is there a way we can learn to build products systematically so that we can avoid these product diseases? That’s how “Radical Product Thinking” was born.
Wow, excellent. I’m glad you’re touching on the product diseases, that’s really something that is interesting. In “Radical Product Thinking”, you’re describing the approach, but you really start to say it’s really a mindset change. I believe there’s an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland that is inspiring that and making it easier to understand. Can you tell me more about that mindset change?
Yes, so the mindset change we need is moving away from the belief that the best way to build products is through iteration. This Silicon Valley mentality of trying different things and putting them on the market to see what works has led us to continually pivot and iterate until we find something that works. However, this mindset disguises the fact that a team can typically only afford 2 to 3 pivots before they run out of money or momentum. Teams lose momentum as they begin to feel they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re just trying different things, and it can become demoralizing when they don’t feel they’re making progress.
Teams need to feel they’ve learned something and have a clear next step. This iteration-led mindset needs to change. We need to become more vision-driven. We need more clarity on the problem we’re solving, our set of hypotheses, our planned actions, and how we will test if it’s working. We need a more systematic approach. It sounds obvious, but then one might wonder how we ended up with this iteration-led mentality. The answer is that it’s baked into the venture capital (VC) business model.
Venture capitalists invest in multiple startups, needing only one to succeed big for a return on investment. In fact, they want startups to fail fast so they’re not continually investing in something that’s not going anywhere. This “fail fast, learn fast” mentality originated from the VC model.
While this VC model has led to some unicorns, it doesn’t mean it’s the best way to build products. It’s more survivor bias than a proven method. Entrepreneurs need to realize that world-changing products often come from a more systematic and deliberate approach.
So what would be the pillars of the Radical Product Thinking philosophy when looking at this?
The first pillar is seeing your product as a mechanism for creating the change you want. Until now, we’ve thought about a product as a physical or digital thing and its success as the end goal. We need to start with clarity on the change we want to bring about before we build the product.
The second pillar is that your product is only successful if it creates that change.
The third pillar is the idea that you can build your product systematically. In other words, you can engineer the change you want to bring about by starting with a clear vision of the end state. This vision then translates into strategy, priorities, hypothesis-driven execution and measurement, and culture. These five elements – vision, strategy, prioritization, hypothesis-driven execution and measurement, and culture – make up the Radical Product Thinking framework.
This step-by-step framework allows you to create visionary products systematically.
To clarify, could you tell us more about the first element of the framework – product vision? When I hear “vision,” I’m tempted to think of grand visions and ambitions that aren’t really grounded in reality, but I believe that’s not what you’re referring to.
Exactly. We have to discard much of what we’ve learned about what constitutes a good vision. We’ve been taught that a good vision is broad, such as revolutionizing wireless or disrupting a particular industry. But in the Radical Product Thinking approach, a good vision is detailed and answers the who, what, why, when, and how questions.
By this, I mean: whose world are you trying to change, and it’s not everyone’s world. What exactly is the problem and what’s the solution they’re using today? Why is the status quo unacceptable? When will we know that we’ve arrived, or in other words, what does the end state look like when this problem is solved? And finally, how are we going to bring this about with our product?
Let me give an example to make it clear. The Radical Product Thinking format gives you a fill-in-the-blank statement to help you answer these questions. Here’s an example of a vision statement for a startup I had many years ago:
“Today, when amateur wine drinkers want to find wines that they’re likely to enjoy, they have to pick attractive-looking wine bottles at the wine store or try wines that are on sale. This is unacceptable because it’s hard to learn about wines this way and leads to many disappointments. We envision a world where finding wines you like is as easy as finding movies you like on Netflix. We’re bringing about this world through a recommendations algorithm that matches wines to your taste palette and an operational setup that delivers these wines to your table.”
That’s a product vision. It’s not grand, but it’s very clear about the problem and the change it will create for wine enthusiasts.
Exactly. This vision isn’t about changing the world for everyone. It can be for a very specific group of people. The clarity it brings is such that even if I hadn’t told you anything about my startup, by the end of the vision statement, you knew exactly what we were doing and why we were doing it.
Absolutely. So next up in the framework is strategy. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes, let’s discuss the problems we face today with strategy. Most company strategies I see usually read something like this: “We’re going to build XYZ in terms of a feature set or products. This will require an investment of X million, and we’re planning to launch it in these markets. The expected return will be such and such.” This type of strategy is quite vague, I’d say. So, what does a good product strategy look like instead? The mnemonic is RDCL, standing for Radical, where we ground it in the real pain points. The word ‘real’ is emphasized because we want to distinguish it from the imaginary pain points.
Firstly, we must ask the question, “What makes someone come to the product?” This question then leads to the ‘D’ in RDCL, which stands for Design. What is our solution to the pain that brings people to the product?
The ‘C’ stands for Capabilities. This involves asking, “What’s the underlying engine that powers this solution?”
Finally, ‘L’ stands for Logistics. This involves asking, “What is the business model? How are we going to support this product? What training is required?” All these questions about how we will deliver the solution to the customer are often overlooked. When we build products, we usually say, “Okay, first we’ll build a product and then we’ll attach a business model at the end.” Without thinking about it comprehensively, which is what we want to avoid with this question ‘L’. Let me walk through an example of how this RDCL comes together. If I go back to the wine example…
Yes, please do.
Our startup likely had a real pain point. People were coming to this product because if they wanted to learn about and try wines, they didn’t want to read magazines that used language that felt intimidating. They wanted to learn in an easy and fun way, and find wines that they liked. That’s the real pain point that drew someone to the product.
The design aspect comes in when I consider that I can’t ask you questions about your tastes by asking things like, “Alexis, how much tannin would you like in your wine and how much acidity would you prefer?” Those types of questions are difficult for most people to understand and answer clearly, right?
Yes, those are expert questions. Not many people would know how to answer them, maybe just 1% of people would be able to answer them with absolute certainty.
Exactly, so we ask questions that are much simpler. For example, I can infer how much tannin you might like based on how you prefer your tea or coffee. If you like it black, you probably enjoy more tannins than if you take your coffee with milk and sugar. Similarly, by assessing which fruits you prefer in a fruit salad, I can gauge how much acidity you enjoy on your palate. We can construct a quiz based on all of this. That’s the design.
The capabilities then involve mapping this to a set of wines. We have to create a database that correlates wine varietals, among other things, to such tastes. Then there’s logistics, where we consider our business model. We could charge a business model where you buy one wine at a time. But what we came up with was a subscription model, creating wine courses where you progress through the courses by tasting different wines and learning along the way.
These are examples of how this all comes together. I’ll give you another example of logistics – we didn’t have an inventory of wines we were supplying. So, we had to collaborate with partners who prioritized customer service.
We had to find stores that had their inventory and could implement this model using our approach. That’s another example of logistics. So, that’s a comprehensive Radical strategy.
I’d like to revisit real pain points. When you say real pain points and not imagined, does that mean you’ve verified that your users actually consider these as genuine pain points? How do you go about doing that?
That’s a great question, and it’s often where we stumble as product people or in innovation in general. We often assume that a pain point is real because we think it is. The formula for determining whether a pain point is real is that you must validate it. Validated equals verified plus valued. What this means is, ‘verified’ is when you’ve personally observed that someone has this issue. This could involve conducting user interviews or going out into the field to watch people in action to discern if they truly have this pain point.
But even when I mention user interviews, we can’t directly ask, “Is this a pain point for you?” People usually aim to please you and are likely to give you the answer they think you’re hoping to hear. A good user interview is one where you ask questions that seem neutral, but from which you can ascertain the pain point.
The second component, ‘valued’, is about whether someone is willing to give up something or invest something in exchange for having that problem solved.
For instance, even with a free service like Facebook, people are willing to invest their time into it, so there is some sort of an exchange. They’re willing to give up their privacy. We can discuss the ethics of this separately, but the question of verified plus valued is crucial in determining if the pain point you’re trying to address is real.
Absolutely, I understand. I really like the question, it’s very useful. Moving on to prioritization, could you talk about its importance and how it’s effectively implemented?
Yes, one of the things that often happens is that we work on a vision, and that vision often gets filed away for posterity. It’s like, “Okay, we’re done with that exercise. Let’s proceed with our everyday tasks now.” But prioritization is where we can bring that vision into our everyday decisions. This is incredibly important for leadership.
We often think that good leadership is about telling our teams what the top three priorities are. However, what I’ve come to realize is that good leadership is about being able to scale your thinking, enabling every person to understand your rationale for the trade-offs you’re making. This way, you don’t have to be in every meeting, but people know exactly what the right trade-offs are to make. That is what good leadership is.
So how do you do that? A lot of your rationale as a leader comes from years of experience and it’s often intuitive; you just know what the right trade-off to make in a given moment is.
The hardest thing for leaders is to communicate your intuition. In the Radical Product Thinking way, the way you do that is by recognizing that when we make these trade-offs, we’re really balancing the long-term against the short term. It’s the yin and yang of long-term versus short term.
In engineering terms, this yin and yang gets converted into an X and a Y axis. Your Y axis represents whether something is a good vision fit or not, and the X-axis represents whether something is good for survival or not. So now you have this X and Y of long-term versus short-term considerations.
Things that are good for the vision and good for survival are, of course, the easy decisions. But if we always just focus on these easy decisions, then we’re still being quite shortsighted. Sometimes we need to do things that are investing in the vision. This quadrant is where it’s good for the vision in the long term, but in the short term, it’s not helping you survive.
An example of investing in the vision could be spending three months refactoring code, or taking the time to do some user research.
Your customers might not see immediate benefits, but it’s essential to do for the long run. That’s an example of investing in the vision. The opposite of that, by the way, is taking on vision debt. Vision debt is where something is good for survival, but it’s not helpful for the long-term vision. An example of this is if your customer says, “If you build this custom feature for me, then I will sign the contract.” If you keep doing this, it adds lots of vision debt.
Over time, you may end up with what I call obsessive sales disorder. This is not to say that any of these quadrants are bad per se, but we have to be really mindful about how we’re making these trade-offs. As a leader, when you decide that you need to take on this vision debt, one of the most important things is even recognizing and telling your team that, “Look, I understand that we need to win this deal. We’re taking on vision debt.” By acknowledging that it’s vision debt, you’re not making the team feel like this is a top-down loss of confidence in the vision. At least your team feels like you understand the trade-off now.
Excellent. You even discuss in the book the idea of a survival statement. You can have a product vision statement, but you can also have a survival statement to help the team understand what you mean by survival at that moment in time.
Right, exactly. When we chart vision versus survival, one of the goals is to make these decisions less contentious. Instead of “I think we should do this” versus “No, I think we should do this,” when you plot vision versus survival, it makes the discussion more objective. Are we not aligned on where this fits on the vision fit, or are we not aligned on how this is helping us survive or making survival harder?
We’ve defined the vision with a lot of clarity, answering the who, what, why, when, and how, but similarly, we should define what it means to survive. For a startup, survival might mean financial survival—I need the money to survive. If I don’t bring in the money, either through fundraising or winning a deal, my product is going to die because of financial survival.
However, let’s say I’m in a big company. Maybe my company has money in the bank, so what kills my product is not necessarily financial survival, but it might be stakeholder support. Maybe if my bosses don’t approve of my product, then that’s going to kill my product, and so survival might be pleasing stakeholders. Writing a survival statement is really helpful to acknowledge what the short term means and to make these objective trade-offs.
Alexis Monville: It’s often difficult to balance the long-term and short-term aspects of a product. Now let’s discuss execution and measurement. How does it fit into the Radical Product Thinking framework? It felt a bit like you were making a case against the use, or maybe more accurately, the misuse of OKRs. Tell me more about that.
Radhika Dutt: Before we challenge OKRs directly, let’s discuss what we’re trying to achieve with execution and measurement. The goal is to determine if our vision and strategy are working. Execution and measurement are about creating a set of hypotheses for each element of the RDCL so that we can understand what our hypothesis is and how we’ll measure its success. Now, if we consider OKRs, they set a number of goals, like hitting 20,000 signups by the end of this quarter or increasing revenues by 20%. The philosophy around OKRs is about setting big, lofty goals that are challenging to achieve. But you have to step back and ask if they’re really helping measure if the strategy is working.
Alexis Monville: Right.
Radhika Dutt: As a product manager, I have all the data behind the product. If you ask me to prove that I’m meeting my goals using my product statistics, I have a lot of flexibility in showing that I am meeting those goals. However, what you really want to know is not whether I’m meeting those goals, but how the product is doing. Is the strategy working? Do we need to change our strategy? This requires a more collaborative approach. OKRs, on the other hand, don’t feel collaborative. They’re like an end-of-the-year exam. You either pass or fail, and the incentive is to show that you have passed. This misaligns leadership’s incentives with employees’ incentives. Instead, we want a collaborative environment where employees are encouraged to share what’s working, what’s not, and what hypotheses we’re observing. Maybe we need a new approach. That’s why, as I illustrate in the book, instead of OKRs, we need a collaborative approach to create hypotheses derived from our strategy and metrics for measuring whether it’s working or not.
Alexis Monville: I’d say there’s a misuse of OKRs. What you described could exactly be OKRs if implemented properly at a team or product level. Certainly not for individuals and not linked to their compensation, as that would skew the system entirely.
Radhika Dutt: I agree with you. Traditionally, people have wanted to use OKRs because vision statements were too vague, like “revolutionizing wireless.” OKRs were intended to provide a clearer narrative of the impact we’re trying to have. But expressing this solely in numbers can lead to sandbagging, where ambitious people set their goals lower for fear of failure.
Radhika Dutt: We definitely should not create OKRs for personal goals or for product teams because that leads to manipulations of statistics. Even at a company level, if we don’t implement OKRs properly, there’s a temptation to sandbag and avoid personal responsibility.
Radhika Dutt: If we don’t handle it right, there’s a fear of appearing as if one’s department has failed.
Alexis Monville: That transitions us nicely to culture, the last part of the framework. Can you tell us more about what you mean by culture and why it’s important?
Radhika Dutt: For innovation to thrive, we need a culture where people have a shared sense of purpose, autonomy, and psychological safety. The first two are covered by other elements of radical product thinking. The shared purpose comes from the vision, while autonomy comes from helping people understand how to make trade-offs. The last piece, psychological safety, is about creating a team culture where people feel they’re doing meaningful work, not distracted by company politics.
Radhika Dutt: It’s important to consider how employees perceive company culture because it might be different from your intentions. Think about culture on two dimensions: is work fulfilling or not, and is work urgent or not? When work is fulfilling and not urgent, that’s the most wonderful time at work.
Yeah, that’s what I call the impact and satisfaction and that’s always what I’m trying to drive. It’s to get to that quadrant of having an impact and I’m really satisfied by by the work I’m doing to get to that Impact.
Radhika Dutt: We want to maximize that quadrant of fulfilling, non-urgent work, and minimize others. One such quadrant is heroism, where work is fulfilling but urgent. Too much of this can be exhausting. The next quadrant is organizational cactus, where work is not fulfilling but urgent, like paperwork. The last quadrant is what I call the soul-sucking quadrant, where work is neither fulfilling nor urgent, such as feeling unfairly treated or unvalued at work.
Radhika Dutt: A good culture maximizes meaningful work and minimizes the other three quadrants. To create such a culture, we can use the elements of radical product thinking. Define the pain points that lead to time in the bad quadrants, then work on a strategy with hypotheses and measurements. Over time, you can measure whether your culture is improving and whether your team is gelling better.
I Really love it because then we can use the framework to improve the culture of the organization really consider the organization itself as a product that will serve the employees to help them do their best work I Really love that.
Radhika Dutt: Exactly, your organization itself is a product that serves your employees. You have a vision for that change, and culture becomes your product, your mechanism for creating that change.
Radhika Dutt: It’s about making better products and making the world better by creating those changes.
Radhika Dutt: Alexis, thank you for having me on this podcast. In terms of how people can reach me, there’s the Radical Product Thinking book, which is in bookstores. They can also learn more on the blog at radicalproduct.com. I always love to hear how people are applying the Radical Product Thinking approach to create change in the world. You’re welcome to reach out to me on LinkedIn to share how you’re applying Radical Product Thinking.
Alexis Monville: Radhika, thank you so much for joining us today on this podcast and for sharing your invaluable insights on radical product thinking. To our listeners, you can find a transcript of this episode, our references, and more episodes at emergingleadership.network. Join us next time as we continue our exploration into leadership, innovation, and the future of work. Thank you, until then, keep leading the change.
Radhika Dutt: Thank you.
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