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Design Thinking Is A Key For Product Management

Muthuraj Thangavel, a Product Manager at SAP Labs and a senior coach and mentor for the topics of Design Thinking, Customer Engagement & Business Model Innovation. Passionate about new product development and business innovation, he holds a USPTO patent and is a recognized speaker who has delivered impactful sessions/talks in various SAP conferences, NASSCOM and other forums.
We managed to catch him despite his busy schedule for an informal chat on his career, interests and passion for Design Thinking (DT).

Q: As a Product Manager, Design Thinking Coach, Speaker, Executive MBA student and a father of a daughter, how do you manage to tame time?

Time is the trickiest thing in this equation. All of these could demand my presence and contribution at the same time and hence a good amount of planning is required. I would not say that I have mastered time management, but am trying my best here to manage with many opportunities/new challenges that keep coming my way versus the available time. Prioritization is the key. Also, I should admit that without my wife Nandhu’s support none of this would be possible at all.

Q: If you had to explain Design Thinking to a little child, how would you do that?

I would not even use the word “Design Thinking” to them. I would just let them experience how they can empathetically and creatively solve problems.
Actually, I had even taken a DT workshop for kids. Took them through a much simplified version which enables them to be empathetic, think and see things differently and be problem-solvers right from a young age. Working with kids is always fun and a lot of learning for me as well. Especially, they are very good with creativity. In one of the workshops, one kid, to solve his partner’s problem of carrying a heavy bag, proposed that he would put an “anti-gravity” material in the school bag. When the bag is carried on the shoulders, it wouldn’t pull down but would just be floating and following 🙂

Q: How do the PM & DT avatars of Muthuraj complement and benefit each other?

My passion towards the topic of Design Thinking transformed me from development roles to a product management role. Design thinking enables me to have effective customer interactions, define the right problem and have an experimental mindset, which is a key for product management in the cloud and agile world. Today, startups and corporates globally have adopted/started to adopt Design Thinking in their product development and business practices.

Q: What do you focus on delivering in your Design Thinking workshops?

My design thinking workshops are always focused towards helping participants develop the right mindset for creative problem solving and picking up new skills. Generally, for corporate participants, I have to spend more time on effective end-user interaction, and for startup participants, more time on helping them validate their assumptions [many a times, they had their whole solution based on a bunch of assumptions].

Q: How important is it for product managers to adopt Design Thinking?

I would say that Design Thinking is very important for product managers and it helps in many places. For example, even in a traditional product management, there is a lot of customer interactions. But, Design Thinking can help in deriving patterns and deeper insights from those interactions, go to the root cause of why they asked for something, find the right problem, and hence the right solution to the problem.

Q: What does the future hold for Design Thinking as we look to design more intelligent systems with artificial intelligence, machine learning and data?

That’s a very interesting question. One of my customers has also asked me the same: “Do we need workshops and 1:1 interviews? Can you not find insights directly from our years of business data and design solution based on it?”
There is a tight correlation between Design Thinking and Machine Learning that we can see. Machine Learning, for example, is also an iterative approach. It analyzes and learns (from data), finds hidden insights, evaluates and gets you the answers that you require. But it is not one or the other; actually, most steps can go in parallel and the combination can do wonders for your product.

Q: What according to you are the important skills needed to become a successful product manager?

 A product manager, dubbed as the mini-CEO of the product, needs a variety of skills. The key ones from my perspective include influencing without authority, design thinking, identifying opportunities from new technology & trends, and more importantly, having a passion for the product being built.

Q: Do you apply Design Thinking principles in your personal life?

Yes; it has helped me a lot in personal day-to-day issues as well. It gives me the ability to be empathetic, think about the real cause behind issues and get creative about solving them. Even for my wedding event planning, I used design thinking to plan the experience for the audience!

Q: In the little free time that you may have, what do you generally do?

A: Listening to music energizes me. Also, I’m a foodie! During my business trips within/outside India, I love to explore and try local delights.

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