Or, how passion and skunkworks can unlock innovation
I don’t write about work much but I felt this was worth sharing. At Kelley Blue Book we have a great product team and big plans. This story however is about innovation led by designers and engineers.
Like most decent-sized websites we have an ambitious roadmap and lots to do just to keep our business operating and growing each day. The upshot is we don’t always get as much time to work on disruptive ideas as we’d like.
This year we’ve opened up the gates for Skunkworks projects, and three have already come to fruition. I will show you one here, and talk about how we manage it.
About 6 months ago we decided to get into the vehicle classifieds business for ourselves. While we’ve been working on that, we’ve prioritized our focus around building a great shopping experience but we haven’t yet tackled the challenge of how to build a differentiated and incredibly useful seller’s experience.
Some of our engineers and designers wanted to move more quickly, and even more interestingly, noticed that private sellers would cite what appeared to be outdated or incorrect values when they listed their vehicles for sale. They found this not only on internet listings sites but even on vehicles parked with a “for sale” sign in the window.
So they got together and The Seller’s Toolkit was born.
What’s Seller’s Toolkit? It is a beta service that allows you to create physical window stickers or any variety of widgets, links or images that you can post on an internet listing, your blog or even your Facebook page. The common theme for all these is that you can verify the current Kelley Blue Book value for the vehicle as it is described by the seller.
This means that sellers who create listings with our toolkit can always present a current value and a shopper has a way to confirm the current value of the vehicle as described by the seller.
Here’s what a window sticker would look like:
Image of Window Sticker
That image above is a static capture of the printable window sticker. Try the QR code, the SMS code or the IVR number to the right. An example of the dynamic image that you could post into a classifieds site would look like this:
Actual Dynamic Image
Depending on when you read this you’ll note that the vehicle value may be different between the static window sticker I’ve posted and the dynamic image, and that’s precisely our point. Our values change over time - we update them weekly in many cases - and we wanted to find a way to help people have the most current value when they sell their cars.
Try Seller’s Tookit out for yourself, and we’re interested in your feedback. Check it out at http://www.kbb.com/sellers-toolkit
Skunkworks - The Process
We manage this kind of innovation through a Skunkworks program here at Kelley Blue Book. Like many scrum based product organizations, we plan both near-term and medium-term, and we maintain some degree of flexibility in our plans. The challenge is how to manage new ideas coming in so that you don’t lose focus on your priorities.
We’ve created a product council that meets twice a month and although these meetings have a very business focus to them, at any time engineers can present a working prototype that they’d like to add to our site and our business. We then decide whether to productize it. If we choose to move forward, we build it out and release based on an approach we set in that meeting.
That’s it - pretty simple really. It is engineer and designer-led, meaning that an executive can’t go ask a few engineers to hack something up for a pet project. I can’t ask for “some new and interesting stuff in the next quarter.” In my role I am not even told what the ideas are until they are presented to me, and I am discouraged from asking about them in any detail should I hear about them before they are formally shared. The team determines when they are ready to surface their idea.
Skunkworks - The Results
A common question might be whether the stuff that is presented in the product council is “buttoned up” enough to put on the site, and how much “massaging” has occured to make something like a Seller’s Toolkit a reality.
The answer: Each of the three skunkworks projects we have launched (including Seller’s Toolkit) have been modified very little from their original form in terms of design/concept.
The skunkworks teams - typically consisting of only 3-4 individuals a piece - do a very good job of thinking everything through. They then enlist the help of user testing, legal, QA and other teams right before they go live. And by the way, the initial management presentations are not debacles with engineers drooling on their shoes. They are compelling and succinct. After seeing the initial presentation for Seller’s Toolkit we showed it to a strategic partner without rehearsing anything with the team and said partner was duly impressed.
My engineers won’t do that. What do you do to create this environment?
Nothing overt. We have a product development model which emphasizes full discovery of customer needs. For KBB.com this translates into really understanding our end user’s needs. We widely share information that we gather during foundational research or user testing with our engineers - the designers are often involved with the research - and we encourage all team members to personally interact with customers.
So trust your designers and your engineers, feed them data and give them a little space. Good things will happen.