Listen to the Interview
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing guests with incredible insights for us product managers and innovators and today’s guest cuts through a lot of noise and presents clear principles for creating more successful products. My guest is the Chief Innovation Officer and Vice President of Innovation for Snap-on, the leading global innovator, manufacturer and marketer of tools, diagnostics and equipment solutions for professional users. His role is to drive innovative products, solutions and processes that fundamentally change the markets Snap-on serves and enhance customer perception of its brands. He has helped to create, support and institutionalize a culture at Snap-on that embraces creativity, risk, change and fearless innovation. As you hear in the interview, prior to joining Snap-on, he spent 4 years in Marketing at PepsiCo, most recently as the Director of Innovation for the Frito-Lay Convenience Foods division. Before joining PepsiCo, he was Marketing Director of New Products at Kraft Foods. He has over 20 years of experience focused on new product development, marketing and innovation. His name is Ben Brenton and I expect you’ll find what he shared to be as valuable as I did.
We had to conduct the interview by phone, so the audio quality is a little different than normal, but not distracting.
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers and Innovators
- Tell us about your move from the food and beverage industry to SnapOn. I had earned a PhD in Food Science and Nutrition. I ended up at Kraft Foods in biotechnology doing basic research. After a couple of years, I moved to being a manager in product development. About nine years into my career, I made another move, which was to marketing. I continued to work on a number of products. A few years later I had the opportunity to join PepsiCo. Four years into my career there, I was contacted by SnapOn, who was seeking a role that was new to me – Chief Innovation Officer. I was hired to create a culture of fearless innovation constructed around customer insights. This might seem to be a weird transition as I didn’t know anything about metallurgy or the products. However, the essence of my work is putting innovation processes in place that can be used across any industry and keeping the customer at the center of innovation. That work is not unique to a specific industry. It’s also important to note that we’re not only a tool company for professionals – 40% of our business is software development.
- What are the key parts to the product development and management process you use? One of the first things I did was to make sure all of our product groups had a basic Stage-Gate process. This provided each group a product development process. After this, there were three guidelines that were put in place:
- All product work needed to be based on customer insights. This means product teams are out talking to end-users and watching them do their work. This creates an understanding of specific needs.
- We would check in with customers throughout the development process. Products used to be developed internally and then only shown to customers for feedback after functional prototypes that were ready for manufacturing were developed. Now we use rapid prototyping tools throughout the development process and get customer feedback early and more frequently.
- After launch, we circle back with marketing and sales people and assess and improve the delivery of messages appropriate for a product and the needs of customers.
- Do you have a story of a product’s journey you can share? One that reflects the need of observing customers (end users) involves an examination of the wind power industry. Technicians at times have to climb out of the generator housing and onto the nosecone of the large wind turbines that have three blades. The nosecone hatch has 4 bolts that must be removed and then the technician can climb into the nosecone area. We climbed several turbine towers with technicians and watched them do the work required to get the nosecone open. One of the climbs was in the winter. It was 15°F and the nosecone had ice on it. By making observations of the technicians doing their work, we were able to create a few very simple but valuable tools to make their work faster and safer. If we had only interviewed the technicians and discussed their needs, we would not have had the deeper insights that we gained from the observations. Another example emphasizes the aesthetics aspect of product design. After working with a set of customers, we learned that safety was important to them but they were unwilling to wear our existing safety gear. We created a new design for a protective face shield that looks like a skull. It instantly became a huge success and led to an entire product line of safety products.
- How do you create a culture of innovation at SnapOn? It is a never ending journey. If you don’t change the culture, innovation processes put into effect won’t have a meaningful impact. One thing I do, which some people find shocking, is I spend about four days out of each week with customers. With me are people from our product teams. I get them talking and interacting with their customers and learning directly from them. That is a key priority for us – getting product people out in the field with customers across the numerous industries we support. I also built an innovation center in 2009 that we expand every year. It is where we come up with ideas and do rapid prototyping. We built the facility near customers to make it easy to interact with them and have them participate in the innovation center. We also provide innovation awards to employees to recognize all aspects of innovation – creating a good idea, building a prototype, developing a new process, launching a product, etc. The awards are not just for successful products but to honor those employees who are helping in multiple aspects of innovation.
Useful links for product managers:
“No one ever makes a decision because of a number – they need a story.” – Amos Tversky
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.