Radhika Dutt, Author of “Radical Product Thinking”

What’s a “product”? Radhika Dutt argues it’s the mechanism for creating the change you want to bring in the world. She is my podcast guest this week and is author of Radical Product Thinking. Her vison-led approach applies to anyone who wants to create change, from human rights activists to entrepreneurs to corporate innovators.

“Each person in your organization should be able to use their own words to describe the problem you are solving, who you’re solving it for, and why it is valuable to them. When you start with that, you can align everyone to march toward the same goal.“

Listen as we talk about Radhika’s approach for creating change in the world.

Episode Details

Show Notes

What’s a “product”? Radhika Dutt argues it’s the mechanism for creating the change you want to bring in the world. She is my podcast guest this week and is author of Radical Product Thinking. Her vison-led approach applies to anyone who wants to create change, from human rights activists to entrepreneurs to corporate innovators.

“Each person in your organization should be able to use their own words to describe the problem you are solving, who you’re solving it for, and why it is valuable to them. When you start with that, you can align everyone to march toward the same goal.“

Radhika Dutt is the author of Radical Product Thinking, a book about systematically making fundamental change as opposed to simply optimizing the status quo.

She was inspired to write the book after noticing the same set of what she calls “product diseases” throughout her work in businesses big and small over the past 20 years. “It was the same pattern of mistakes as we were translating a vision into reality.”

Radhika found herself asking whether only gifted individuals such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk were capable of building world-changing products, and the rest of us were doomed to relying on cycles of trial-and-error.

Determined to answer that question, she and her team created a framework that empowered product developers of any kind to become leaders and changemakers in their organization.

Radhika’s research eventually culminated in her book Radical Product Thinking. A blend of inspiration and practicality, the book aims to answer the question: “How can we create change in the world through our products, and how do we do that systematically?”

She went further and sought to redefine the word “product” to mean “the mechanism for creating the change you want to bring.” From gadgets to services to causes to campaigns, Radhika makes the claim that anything that is vision-driven and created systematically is a “product”.

“Unless we have a really compelling answer to why is the status quo unacceptable,” Radhika says, “maybe there’s no reason for our product to exist. We should start with the question, ‘What does the world look like when we’re done?’”

Listen as we talk about Radhika’s approach for creating change in the world.



Amanda Setili (00:01):

Today, my guest is Radika Dutt. She’s the author of the new book, radical product thinking she helps organizations to develop and implement a clear methodology for building world changing products, not just products that optimize the status quo, not just incremental products. She has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering from MIT and teaches at Northeastern university’s business school. Welcome re Radhika.

Radhika Dutt (00:34):

Thanks so much for having me, Amanda. It’s great to be here.

Amanda Setili (00:37):

So tell me a little bit about why you wrote this book. What was your aim in creating the book radical product thinking?

Radhika Dutt (00:46):

Yeah, my reason for writing it was because, you know, I’m a seeing the same set of what I started calling product diseases over the span of like 20 years. What I’d found was, you know, I’d started companies and this was right out of our dorm room at MIT. And you know, I’d sold companies, but whether I worked in small companies and startups or larger companies, it was the same pattern of mistakes as we were translating a vision into reality, right? Like it’s just, there were so many new methodologies that were coming along. There was lean those agile, but in the end, you know, it wasn’t that we were fundamentally getting a better approach to building successful products. I was still seeing the same set of product diseases and that’s what led me to craft radical product thinking. So it was myself and two colleagues who got together and said, you know, is it just that there are a few people who innately have this gift for building world-changing products, like think of, you know, Steve jobs and Elon Musk.

Radhika Dutt (01:55):

And is it that the rest of us are just doomed to building products using trial and error and kind of, you know, fumbling our way through things, or is this a skill that can really be learned and can each of us systematically build successful products? And that was the burning question that drove us to craft this as a framework. And then we started testing it with organizations large and small testing it with teams. And we were really seeing that, you know, this was helping people build successful products. And so eventually this was why I decided to write the book because, you know, there were people reaching out to me saying, you know, you’ve created this toolkit, this framework. Can you show me an example of this old filled out? And so that’s where the need for this book was really clear to me. And why I started writing it.

Amanda Setili (02:44):

I don’t know if you experienced this, but when I’ve written a book, I have learned so much while writing it because I start out with a premise of you know, some information or, or problem solving technique that I want to deliver. And then I’ve got to figure, how would I explain this? Or how do you do it? Let me kind of demystify what I do naturally. And so I, I don’t know if you experienced that, that you kind of create a lot during the process of writing the book.

Radhika Dutt (03:11):

Absolutely. And I think what was just so interesting to me was that I wrote and rewrote the first three chapters. I truly lost count how many times and the book was better for it. Right. It was all of this rewriting was because, you know, how can I frame this in a way that we all just get it, that I wanted to make sure people didn’t see this as a book that was just about product management. It’s really not that it’s about how can we create change in the world through our products and how do we do that systematically? And to frame this in such a way that it wasn’t too abstract, but not, you know, a detailed technical book either like finding that right balance. So it’s inspirational, but practical it, it was a wonderfully rewarding experience that required writing and rewriting. But one other thing that made it super rewarding was the people that I interviewed.

Radhika Dutt (04:04):

There were some people including, you know, Margaret Hamilton who coined the term software engineering and she saved the moon landing. So I, I interviewed Margaret Hamilton and the head of Singapore central bank on his vision for how you wants to make finance a force for good. And one other such interview that truly was, I dunno, soul quenching, right? Was the interview with Claudette Colvin who was arrested at the age of 15 for defined bus segregation laws in Alabama and just her vision for change and how she created change systematically. Like all of these these experiences were incredibly rewarding.

Amanda Setili (04:47):

Tell me more about that example, because that’s a S it sounds like an example of something that wouldn’t normally fit in the category of product.

Radhika Dutt (04:56):

Exactly. And this is why, you know, I come back to the definition and wanting to redefine product. And that’s what I do in the book product is our mechanism for creating change in the world. So what this really means is that anything can be a product, whether you’re a freelancer a non-profit a social enterprise, a multinational corporation, or startup, what we have as a product and your product is that mechanism for creating the change you want to bring. So when we take this definition of product, you know, even if you’re a human rights activist or you’re, you’re in the civil rights movement, and you’re trying to create change, how are you creating changes is your product. And so what that means is we can create change very systematically by being vision-driven. And what that means is starting with a really clear vision for what’s the world that you want to bring about.

Radhika Dutt (05:52):

So, in this case, when I talked to Claudette Colvin, my first to her was, you know, you are only 15 when you refuse to give up your seat on that bus. This was by the way at nine months before Rosa parks. And yet history has completely forgotten about Claudette Colvin. And so I asked her, how did you do this as a kid, not even as an adult, when you knew, when you knew that the consequences could be really dire for you, and what you came back to, you know, was her vision for the world that she wanted to see that, that you wanted to live in. And it was one way, or we could all share the same American dream. And she talked about how she was just tired of adults complaining about how things were, but not doing anything about it. And she talked about how this was her vision, right.

Radhika Dutt (06:39):

And what she did not giving up her seat. She said, well, you know, this was an impromptu decision. So yes, that goes towards the vision. But what she did next right was much more systematic in terms of creating change. One, one thing that very few people know is that those landmark Supreme court case of Browder vs Gayle, which overturned segregation on buses and Claudette Colvin was one of four people who was you know, the plaintiff on this court case. And it wasn’t Rosa parks. It was Claudette Colvin who was very important in making in making this a Supreme court you know, case and segregation. And what was really interesting to me was also just kind of how she perceived her role. You know, what she saw was, even though she was creating all of this change she realized that she wasn’t going to be the person who was going to be accepted by both sides, by blacks and whites alike.

Radhika Dutt (07:51):

And so, you know what, in talking to me, she talked about why it was important for Rosa Parks to be that icon of the civil rights movement. She was one who had a lighter skin, was going to be accepted by all a middle-class woman. Who’s well-respected by all. Whereas Claudette Colvin was seen as this rebel, a kid, a teenager. And so this was just so inspiring that she had a vision and her actions were a translation of that vision into reality. And even in kind of making that trade-off in who gets visibility, it was all very vision-driven.

Amanda Setili (08:33):

So did you think about naming your books, something like making remarkable change happen or vision as a change driver or some, some other thing that would connote more the change aspect of it, as opposed to the product aspect of it?

Radhika Dutt (08:54):

You read those one of the options that I was considering, right. Where it could have been. I think initially I was toying with the idea of calling the book, make your mark, and this is how you can make your mark in the world. But you know, what I realized was that I could try to make this very generalized in terms of the title, and then hopefully, maybe some people latch onto it, or, you know, I can address a very specific and desperate need in the market, which was more about, you know, how do you build products that are world changing and successful and embrace responsibility at first, getting those people to be the, the evangelists for this seeing how this is much more generalizable. So starting with a dedicated audience and then generalizing it as opposed to starting with something that’s very generalized and kind of no one picks up on it. So that was the reason for radical product thinking, at least, you know, people who are building products desperately need to read this, because it’s a way both the building world changing products, but then also embracing the responsibility that comes with it.

Amanda Setili (10:05):

I think one of the things that it does is it elevates the product team to be talking really about the entire direction of the company or at least of a division or the innovation that’s going to occur. Because sometimes the product people you tell a really funny story, or I found it funny about this magic spreadsheet approach, where they identified, they had 150 different feature enhancements that they were trying to prioritize. And they came up with five criteria and everybody rated each of the 150 enhancements on the five criteria. And those spreadsheets spits out. So here’s your top five priorities and nobody understood the why. And so sometimes product people just get stuffed off in a corner where they’re just like, you know, work harder or get it out faster. You know, what we need these upgrades. And really what you’ve outlined here is a way for product people to be leading the charge, to be saying guys, you know, saying this to all functions, what do we want to create here? Like who do we want to be? I think that’s really exciting.

Radhika Dutt (11:11):

Oh, thank you. And I’m so glad that you, you saw that power, right. That product people can take on because we can really become the visionary leaders. We can take ownership of the vision and the strategy and this gives us tools to be able to influence across our own across the entire organization in a way that we can take on that leadership position. And I call it, you know, helping others use the force. It’s, it’s like, you know, we can create these Jedi mind tricks almost in a good way to get people to think like us and, and make the right decisions.

Amanda Setili (11:56):

I really liked your Mad Libs approach where you well, you can describe it to our audience, but it was a very simple way of getting people to just say, who are you building this for? What’s their problem? How does this address their problem and how are we going to do it? I mean, you can say it more eloquently than me, but it was so simple and so powerful. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Radhika Dutt (12:17):

Oh, thank you. Yeah. One of the things that I realized that we desperately need to challenge is the conventional wisdom that a good vision is one where you know, it’s it’s a big, hairy, audacious goal. You know, we’ve learned that a good vision is being number one or number two in every industry or being the leader in blah, blah, blah. And what I realized was often, right, it was this sort of a vision, this big fluffy aspirational vision, that was the root cause of so many product diseases. And in fact, you know, even our first startup, our vision was to revolutionize wireless, right? And it turns out that such a vision is completely useless because it really tells you very little about how do you actually go about revolutionizing wireless, or how do you go about being that leader in something, something, and what we need instead is the answers to some really profound questions, the answers questions of, you know, whose world are you trying to change?

Radhika Dutt (13:18):

What exactly is their problem? Why does that world need changing? Because maybe it really doesn’t need changing. And unless we have a real, really compelling answer to why is the status quo unacceptable? Maybe there’s just really no reason for our product to exist. Then we can answer, what does the world look like when we’re done? And finally, we can say, okay, and here is our product or our approach. That’s going to help bring about that world. And what I found was, you know, even when you know that you have to answer these who, what, why, when and how questions I had been in so many offsite meetings where, you know, you spend the day and I started calling this, that game of the vision, bingo, where you come out with a vision. That sounds very much like what you went in with, because everyone gets stuck in a game of wordsmithing.

Radhika Dutt (14:13):

And so this Mad libs statement really gets around that whole issue. It helps everyone do this as a group exercise where we can really answer those profound questions without getting stuck on the words. And by the way, because this means that we are not stuck on the words. It means that this vision is statement is something that is alive working vision, right? So it means that six months from now we can look at that vision statement and because we’re not attached to the words, we’ll be willing to revisit it and say, you know, is that still valid? Or do we need to edit it? And we can edit it in the span of just like a one hour meeting, because it’s this mad lib statement as opposed to taking a half day offsite for playing and bingo.

Amanda Setili (15:01):

So tell me about the step before you get to articulating it via the Mad libs approach, because, you know, when you read the lean startup, it, I mean, just as an exaggeration, but it almost seems like you can just start with a completely blank piece of paper and somehow feel your way to the answer, which is sort of ridiculous. But companies get stuck just thinking, who do we want to serve and what kind of problems do we want to attack? And there’s too much white space there. They’re, they’re kind of floundering for where do we anchor here? Especially if they’re doing something where they’re, they’re wanting to start a company, or they’re wanting to innovate in a totally new direction within an existing company. Do you have any kind of recommendations for how people can get anchored on one or two potential customer segments or one or two potential problems to address?

Radhika Dutt (15:58):

Yeah. And, you know, first of all, I love that you call this out Amanda S and you say that this is ridiculous, that we think that, you know, you just sort of feel your way to finding the right answers to these questions. Right. I think you’re exactly right. Instead of taking that approach, you know, once you know that you’re really trying to answer this using the who, what, why, when and how questions the step before you you’re able to answer these articulately is knowing that this is what you need to answer and therefore doing the necessary user research to be able to answer those questions. And one thing is, you know, sometimes you could even write out this vision statement just as a place holder or a stake in the ground to say, you know, this is what we think the answer is.

Radhika Dutt (16:52):

And then actually going out and validating this. And in terms of validating it, you know, I talk about how to me validation equals verified plus valued. This is the formula that I talk about in the book where, you know, something is validated only if we have both number one, verified it, meaning we’ve seen this problem exist with our own eyes, like talk to users. And we haven’t asked them necessarily, you know, oh, will this solve your problem? It’s purely to understand the problem and that we have observed that they have this problem. And the second piece is that we’ve understood if this problem is valued, meaning that, you know, someone is willing to either give up something or invest something in exchange for having this problem solved. So we have to test both verified and valued before we can say that, yes, this is a direction that we want to go down. And so until we have verified or valued it, this is really just a stake in the ground that kind of helps us define, you know, even where are we going and what questions do we ask?

Amanda Setili (18:09):

Do you sometimes start out with five or six stakes in the ground where you say you know, we’re either going to serve customer segment a and solve problem X, or we’re going to maybe address customer segment B and solve problem. Y and teams go out and validate the, each of those separately and then come back and prioritize and pick one or two.

Radhika Dutt (18:36):

So I think we’ve done this in in the context of finding who’s the right user persona. I think if we do this for industries, that is a much harder task. So to give you a more specific example, right, let’s say you’re building a warehouse automation solutions and you could address the needs of the beverage industry, or you could address the needs of let’s say groceries or frozen foods. I mean, every single industry has such different needs that the depths to which you need to do this user research, it’s very hard to do that. At enough depth to really understand what your solution leads look like for each of these industries and then have a coherent solution by picking one. Right? So I think that part is much harder to try many different industries and do user research across all of them.

Radhika Dutt (19:37):

Typically, you know, unless you have this infinite set of resources, you typically take one industry at a time to really get to that depth and then decide, you know, whether this is an industry that we understand enough about and whether we want to get into it or not. But once, you know, kind of which industry you’re going after, I think it’s really helpful to take this approach also an understanding the different user personas. So for example, you might have the user persona who may be the end user. Maybe this is the person who is actually operating this machinery and you work to really understand their needs, how they think about it, and you know, what their needs are, as they’re trying to let’s say, pack these boxes, for example, but then there’s the need of the supervisor, which may be different from the person doing the packing and the need then of the warehouse operator, who was a much higher level of manager who has different needs. So thinking about it across all of these personas to make sure your product is addressing all of those needs. I think that is possible to do you know, at simultaneously with different teams looking at it, for example,

Amanda Setili (20:47):

Right, right. I often encounter companies who are at that first stage where they’re just saying, well, gosh, we serve 10 different industries and we need a breakthrough product. That’s gonna, you know, fuel growth because everything we’re selling to these industries now is a commodity. So we don’t make much money on it and growth. Isn’t what we want to be. So we’re trying to come up with something new. And I guess there might be just kind of a quick screening exercise at the first where you say, you know, which industries are growing the fastest, which are the biggest, which do we understand the best, which do we have the best relationships? And maybe we could then narrow it down to one industry and then say, what’s their biggest problem. That’s not solved. And that’s where we get into your methodology, which is so powerful.

Radhika Dutt (21:35):

Yeah. I love that approach. Exactly. I think starting with that understanding of where do we really understand the market well enough and where this can be effective, where we can, based on that understanding, develop a clear vision for change for that industry. And then, you know, how do we translate that into action?

Amanda Setili (21:53):

One, two things I really liked about your approach was one. When you said you do the Mad libs exercise to get the basic idea on paper, the basic vision on paper, but then you expect people within your organization to use their own words to describe this, which I just think is great. It’s not about the words, it’s about what problem are you solving for who and why is it valuable? The other thing I think was really powerful was that you want each team or each function in the organization to have a vision statement that aligns with the whole organizational vision. Can you tell us a little maybe a couple examples of that, like taking a, a function and saying, how do we translate that overarching organizational vision into something that we do every day?

Radhika Dutt (22:42):

Yeah. There are two ways that I use this in organizations. So first, you know, let’s say you have different product teams and each product team is working on one product or, you know, different aspects of a big product. Let’s say, what is really useful is when you have each team craft their particular product vision, using this Madlib statement, you know, your vision starts to become an eight. It starts to become an API that you can use across these teams. Right. because at one glance at this vision statement, you’re able to tell what’s my answer to the who, what, why, when, how questions, you know, where does my product perhaps overlap with yours? And where are there similarities and differences. And so it’s, it becomes really easy to compare our different products in the portfolio, even if you’re rationalizing your product portfolio, having the sort of a vision for each product is really useful.

Radhika Dutt (23:42):

So that’s the first thing, you know, in terms of cascading this vision and being able to use this across product teams, having the same format is really helpful. The second thing is where you have different functions. You know, the thing is whether you’re in marketing or you’re in product you know, we, we really need a vision behind what we’re doing. Let’s look at the example of marketing, the same idea that you can’t just keep trying different things to see what works even in marketing. That just means a very expensive approach and a very confused message. Your marketing message has to be defined by a very clear vision. Like who are you targeting? What is the problem? Why isn’t the status quo? Good enough. And then how are you solving that problem? It’s that same kind of who, what, why, when, how questions that you have to address even before you start your marketing efforts. And so this is why it’s really helpful for the marketing team to be able to have a very clear vision. And it’s useful to compare that with a product team, for example, and the same for sales, and by taking this approach, it means that every part of the organization is truly aligned with what is the change we’re trying to bring about collectively as an organization?

Amanda Setili (24:58):

Yeah. So back to the marketing example, let’s take the warehouse example, and let’s say we were doing it for the beverage industry. And the problem you’re solving is you know, managing inventory accurately or whatever, when you translate that to the marketing organization. One thing that I found really interesting in your book is that you need to think about what feeling you want the customer to have when using your product. And I would think that the marketing department is part of that as part of developing that feeling, how do you use the right words and positioning so that people are kind of primed for that feeling they’re expecting when they open the box or open the open, the software that they’re going to have this feeling of everything’s going to be easy, or everything’s going to be a flow seamlessly in an automated way. So I don’t get calls in the middle of the night, whatever it is. So how would the marketing team take the original Mad libs style vision statement and translate it into what they do every day?

Radhika Dutt (26:03):

Yeah. This example that you gave, you know, of how should the users perceive it? You know, when I talk about this from the product perspective what I really meant there is that, you know, very often we, we want our users to perceive things in some way, like, for example, this, this example you gave of simplicity, right? That perhaps we feel like, oh, our brand is about simplicity and how easy this is. And that’s what we want to convey. I want us to think about it from the angle of the user, how does the user need to perceive your product? And simplicity may not be the right thing for the user. And I’ll you an example, you know, there are some engineering products where if you give the user simplicity, that user, as an engineer might feel like, you know, what your solution, this feels like this is targeted at someone in management.

Radhika Dutt (26:59):

Maybe this isn’t the right product for me, maybe the, the engineering user wants to see something that look and feel how they perceive it. Maybe they want to see something that gives them maximum control over what they’re able to do. And so whether it’s the product team or the marketing team, part of what we need to consider is how does the user need to perceive this? And therefore, how do we convey that message? And so part of this is, you know giving product teams the right set of questions to ask. So one of those in the strategies you pointed out is what does your product do to solve the problem, but second, how should users perceive it? And this is where it’s important for the marketing team and the product team to be able to really talk and communicate in terms of what is it that the user needs to perceive. And then how will you communicate that,

Amanda Setili (27:54):

That is great. What is it about your essential essence as a person that led to you going down this whole line of thought with your career? Like, what did you love to do when you were 11 years old, that you can still see in the work that you do now, if anything

Radhika Dutt (28:12):

There is absolutely one theme that you can see in the book. You, you see that, you know, in my bio I speak nine  languages, but I’ve also lived in many countries. I’ve lived in, you know, India, South Africa. In fact, I lived in South Africa during the transition from apartheid to democracy. And then in the U S I’ve lived in Singapore and I hold three different passports and nationalities used to have a fourth at some point, but the, the main thing is, you know, I see myself as a global citizen and my love for languages is part of that being that global citizen. And in fact, I, I spoke, I think four or five languages when I was 11 or 12. And so that same theme is what you see in the book. You know, for me, it was really important to write a business book that shared a global perspective.

Radhika Dutt (29:09):

You know, it’s frustrating for me very often when I see books that are written by tech bros for tech bros. And I wanted this book to be different where, you know, instead of just seeing a few visionaries as the white male type, you know, we think of Steve jobs and Elon Musk as visionaries, I wanted to share a different perspective. I wanted to share examples from around the world, on what I mean by world changing products and a very different picture of a visionary all the way from, you know, Claudette Colvin to the seven of literate who are all, you know, semi-literate came from poor backgrounds and who are women trying to get financial independence and not be dependent on their husbands and how they build a company that is given independence to, you know, more than 45,000 women. So that was, you know, this core theme of being a global citizen that you see in the book and where share a global perspective.

Amanda Setili (30:07):

Yeah. I love the example that you use for the vision, which you just discussed of the women who were making the pappadoms. So that was fantastic. I don’t even know if I’m pronouncing that right, but I do like the taste of it

Radhika Dutt (30:22):

And you were pronouncing it. Right. Okay,

Amanda Setili (30:25):

Good, good. Well, it’s been so fun having you on our show today. Thank you so much for coming. Where can people go to find out more about you and your work and to get engaged with your process?

Radhika Dutt (30:37):

So I, and thank you, Amanda. This was such a pleasure to be on your show and have this conversation. So about me, I’m on LinkedIn, but people can also download the radical product thinking toolkit it’s for free on the website, and you can get the book on Amazon Barnes and noble, or any bookstore near you. If you’re an international listener you can find it on book depository, which offers free shipping in so many countries. And then, you know, lastly, I just love to hear from people who are creating change and you know, want to share their stories of how they’re applying radical product thinking. So, yeah, I would love to hear a questions and thoughts from people and they can reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Amanda Setili (31:22):

Good. We’ll put that in the show notes. Thank you so much for coming today.

Radhika Dutt (31:26):

Thank you, Amanda. So great to talk to you. Bye bye. Okay.


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