Lean Startup at TracFone: Redefining Product Management

Ieasha Taitano of TracFone Wireless

Ieasha Taitano is an executive leader, practitioner, and facilitator who builds shared service practices in innovation, design thinking, and product management. She has led transformations at companies like Waste Management, Travelers Insurance, Cisco, and as Head of Innovation at TracFone Wireless. She loves helping people break through established behavior and patterns to find their creative brilliance in designing new and novel services, products, and models. 

When you joined TracFone, what did you see happening in terms of not just product development, but the culture?

When I joined TracFone, it was like a blank slate. They knew they wanted to freshen up and modernize the way they were approaching innovation, but they really had no thoughts on how we should go about it. They just called me up saying, “Hey, we have a lot of design thinking going on, and we have these agile teams and they’re kicking butt, but we feel like the area that is still not really flowing is breakout products. We know we have a really innovative spirit in our DNA and we want to honor it and figure out how to institutionalize it.” They already had demonstrated a big appetite for change. So we accessed the landscape and built on what we already had. We were able to leverage our agile transformation as an opportunity to redefine what “product manager” meant. We rolled out “TracLabs,” which modified the new product development process to incorporate critical Lean Startup and ideation tools like metered funding, growth boards, data-driven decision-making, and robust concept validation. By piggybacking on what the team was already doing, and being cognizant of meeting people where they are at – we were able to stand up a practice pretty quickly. 

What was the process like in terms of introducing Lean Startup as a new way of working?

I didn’t have to argue that we had to listen to customers and that the focus isn’t an exec’s big idea. We had a robust CX and Design Thinking group that already fought the good fight. Also, because we were already doing Agile, I didn’t have to argue with them that you shouldn’t try to execute a whole thing at once because that has a lot of risk. So many of the foundational, philosophical premises were already living and breathing at TracFone. But before Lean Startup, our governance and funding model was set up for execution. People would make unfounded predictions about products to get capital dollars to build. But then no one ever circled back and asked “Did this product actually perform the way we said it would ?” So we were wasting a lot of money every year building new products – making bets –  that we had little or no data validating how a customer would react. One of the major wins we had early on was convincing our executive team to use metered funding that was allocated via a Growth Board. That was actually our first step in this whole process because I knew if the team was allowed to continue getting funds in the old way, we’d never get them to change because they would have an alternative way to get money. 

Then we presented the main conundrum to our executive team: we have a 22 million person subscriber base. No matter how long you’ve done this, no matter how much industry knowledge you have, or how many products you have rolled out before, or how great you think your idea is –  there’s no way any human can accurately and consistently predict how 22 million people are going to respond to something. You just can’t. This is not because you’re good or bad at it, because that’s just an impossible task. We showed them it wasn’t really about being smart or not smart, or a good ideator or not good ideator. The metered funding and growth board showed the team that they couldn’t show up anymore and just say, “I have an idea, here is my speculative business case, please give me millions of dollars.” Now they had to come and say, “I have an idea. Here is the data indicating the customer reaction via validation testing. Here’s my business case based on the data I have collected. I would like a much more modest amount of money to go investigate the next level of fidelity.” And that naturally created this situation where if you ask once you’re going to get a yes or no, but if you ask more than once, now you have learnings to show. We used that squeeze tactic to bring everyone to the process. 


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