The Quest for Value in a Serendipitous Journey

In the fabled lands of Serendip, three princes embarked on a journey filled with unexpected discoveries, each more enlightening than the last one. The English writer Horace Walpole, upon encountering this delightful story was so taken by the heroes' talent for stumbling upon discoveries by chance that in 1754 he coined the term “serendipity”. 

This ancient Persian tale beautifully mirrors today's quest for innovation and the essence of building products and platforms in today's innovation management. Just as the princes journey was marked by fortunate discoveries and thriving on guiding principles, startups and modern enterprises are finding that the richest innovations often arise from the unexpected and unplanned. 

This paradigm shift from the structured paths of project thinking to the expansive horizons of product thinking marks a critical transition in how organizations deliver value in an increasingly complex and unpredictable world. 

Project Thinking: A Map to Known Treasures

Imagine project thinking as a detailed map to a known treasure, with every path meticulously marked, almost predefined and every action timed to perfection. In this realm, leaders have to champion the art of execution, their eyes are set on efficiency and their hands are steering the wheel of discipline. 

Project thinking is deeply rooted in the quest for certainty and control. It revolves around the questions of 'when' and 'how,' with a strong emphasis on optimizing for immediate outputs. With its eye on improving operational efficiency within set boundaries and timeframes. The most important capability in this mindset is the ability to follow through with discipline, ensuring that influence and structured action translate into multiplicative results.

Like a caravan following a well-trodden path, project teams march towards predefined and planned outputs, ensuring each step is multiplicative in its impact. Yet, in their persistent search for completion, they may overlook the vast opportunities that lie just beyond the map's edge, leading to brave but unyielding efforts.

Product Thinking: An Expedition to Uncharted Lands

In contrast, product thinking invites us to set sail on an open sea, much like the voyages of the Serendip princes. It seeks to answer 'why' an initiative is worth pursuing in the first place, with a strategic emphasis on desired outcomes rather than just the deliverables. 

Inherently exploratory and customer-centric this mindset is not content with mere efficiency; it seeks and strives for effectiveness, leveraging insights and especially creativity to foster innovation. Simulation tools and techniques are employed to predict and shape future trends, making the approach exponentially impactful. Product thinking is predicated on the core value of empowerment — empowerment of teams to innovate and customers to receive ever-improving products. 

However, without disciplined execution, even the most creative plans risk ending up unused, gathering dust as missed market opportunities.

Imagining the innovators narrative of continual discovery with the help of Generative A.I.

Contrasting Paradigms: Linear vs. Iterative Development

The story of the three princes teaches us that the journey is as important as the destination. The divergence between project and product thinking becomes most apparent in their approach to development. Project thinking is linear and often constrained by its scope—once the project concludes, the team disbands, and the output is delivered, regardless of its current relevance. 

In contrast, product thinking is iterative and evolutionary. It acknowledges that a product is never truly 'complete'; it must be nurtured and adapted, responding to continuous customer feedback and shifts in the marketplace.

In the space between these mindsets lies the heart of innovation—a place where the unexpected is not just anticipated but celebrated.

Innovation Under Product Thinking: A Symbiotic Ecosystem

True innovation is a narrative of continual discovery, a story that unfolds with each customer interaction and every market shift. It cannot be forced into a rigid schedule—it needs room to grow and adapt. Product thinking provides that space by creating a symbiotic ecosystem where feedback loops from the market and customer base inform the ongoing development process.

It enables organizations to pivot quickly and effectively, ensuring that their offerings remain relevant and competitive. This approach not only cultivates innovation but also embeds it within the organizational culture, fostering a mindset that is always looking ahead, ready to embrace the next improvement or idea.

It's a philosophy that breathes life into the products, just as the ancient tales of Serendip have inspired generations to find joy in the journey.

Summary table on the different mindset

Project Thinking Product Thinking
Most Important Question When Why
What to Improve Efficency Effectivness
Success Factor Discipline Creativity
Secret Power Influence Simulation
Managerial Value Action Empowerment
Requirements Exhaustive Iterative
Approach Structured and Linear Iterative and Evolutionary
Managerial Frameworks ITIL Project Manager SCRUM Product Owner
Teams Temporary, Isolated Team Permanent, Dedicated Team
OKRs Revenue, CLTV Cost, Schedule
Decisions based on Rules Principles
Scaling Potential Multiplicative Exponential

Concluding Thoughts

As the business environment becomes increasingly complex and interconnected, the need for a product-centric approach in innovation management has never been clearer. Companies that adopt product thinking set themselves up for ongoing innovation and lasting customer loyalty.

Those who recognize the spirit of Serendip, those who accept that we are mostly dealing with the unknown also understand that value is not just in the destination but in the discoveries along the way. They also understand that principles act as guiding stars. They are not rigid rules, but beacons that light the way in confusing times. In a world that's always changing, these principles keep our journey steady and meaningful.

As we look to the horizon, inspired by the legendary princes, we see that it is not merely projects we are completing but futures we are shaping. In the embrace of the unexpected, in the trust in the guiding values and in the heart of serendipity, lies the true essence of approaching innovation and navigating the journey of discovery and creation.