by Martha Heller

Six Easy Steps to Product Innovation

Mar 25, 20155 mins
CIOInnovationIT Jobs

To Dan Olley, CTO of Elsevier, articulating the problem is the key

Dan Olley Elsevier

As CTO of Elsevier, a global information solutions company, Dan Olley is responsible for the traditional IT functions of infrastructure and business automation. However, that only represents about 30 percent of what his technology organization does. The rest is focused on software product development. “With an ever increasing percentage of Elsevier’s revenue coming from online products, we have had to reinvent ourselves to compete with the world’s best product technology companies,” Olley says.

How does an IT organization that finds itself responsible for product innovation reinvent itself to become a world class technology division? That’s what I asked Olley when we last spoke. As the output of our conversation, I am proud to present six easy steps to product innovation.

Step 1: Know the problem and how you’ll measure success:  “It’s amazing how many times people say, ‘We’re going to build this great new solution,’ but when you ask them what problem they’re trying to solve and for whom, they are not always quite so clear,” says Olley. Defining a product or feature by the problem it’s going to solve for a defined group is the key. “We bring customers, and potential customers, into our ideation lab and test ideas with them before we build anything.  We work with them to define the real life problems they’re experiencing and how we can help them solve them. When we truly understanding what success looks like for our current and potential customers before we start, we can build products that deliver tangible value. This is something you can’t do in a vacuum; you have to get your customers involved.”

Step 2: Talk to non-customers:  When organizations are expanding, extending or upgrading existing products, they always talk to existing customers, but this is not enough, says Olley. “Many of our online products started life as new incarnations of more traditional offline products. Existing customers tend to tell you how you can improve what you currently do. This is important, but innovation often comes when you ask the people who should be customers, who have the problem you are setting out to solve, why they aren’t customers today. Existing customers give you enhancements; non-customers provide you with whole new areas of functionality.”

Step 3: Prototype with your existing and potential users:   Once you can articulate the problem and how you’ll measure success, “Build early, build quick and play it back,” says Olley.  “We do lightweight wire-framing long before we start full scale development.  We need to know if we have it right before we get started.”

Step 4: Go live with a minimum viable product:  “Your first version should be a minimum viable product, the least functional version that you can deliver while still solving the problem,” says Olley. “Your users will tell you very quickly what’s wrong with the solution and what else you need. If you build something bigger than a minimal viable product, you could be adding functionality that your users don’t need.”

Step 5: Deliver through small multi-disciplined teams: “Throwing projects from one group to another will not cut it when you are innovating with revenue generating products, says Olley.  Olley co-locates developers, UX experts, architects, and selected customers into a small team with a common understanding of the problem, the vision, and the commitment to deliver as one unit. 

Step 6: Do some reconnaissance:  Olley has an advanced technology team that is out in front of the product development groups, evaluating new technologies well before the development team is ready to apply them to a new product. “We are breaking in new technologies before we need them,” Olley says. “When our product groups are prototyping a solution, we have already evaluated, in a general sense, the set of technologies they will use.”

So there you have it!  Six easy steps to product innovation. Follow them faithfully and you too can become a world class innovator!


About Dan Olley

Dan Olley is the Chief Technology Officer for Elsevier. He joined the RELX Group (Formerly Reed Elsevier) in 2004 as Technology Director for RBI UK, heading up online product development, and has held successive positons since then. A leading champion of agile development and cloud based technologies and solutions, Dan led the early adoption of many such technologies, which paid off, providing technical flexibility and agility for rapid transformation. As part of the executive teams within RBI and now Elsevier, Dan continues to drive organic online product growth across the portfolio. Prior to RELX Group, Dan held technology and product development leadership roles with GM Financial, Wunderman Cato Johnson, and IBM, as well as a number of UK and international software organizations. 

About Elsevier

Elsevier – is a world-leading provider of information solutions for science, health and technology professionals, allowing them to quickly find the answers they seek. Elsevier accomplishes this by partnering with experts around the globe to develop world-class content, and delivering it in ways that fuel discovery, drive innovation and improve health care. The company is headquartered in Amsterdam, and employs more than 7,000 people across 24 countries.