by Paul O’Connor
When I began my career in product development a few decades ago, I simply did not understand how easy it is to screw up a product line. In fact, I was quite envious of those accomplished managers who were overseeing established product lines. It seemed to me that managing established lines didn’t cause people to lose much sleep worrying about how to develop and launch new stuff. All they needed to do was manage pricing and promotion and then push on a sales force.
perhaps a decade too late with these activities. It was not for lack of methods approaches that they failed. It was because they were too late.
And that’s the problem here. The most important aspect of strategy shifts that companies need to embrace is not a method, approach or guru-touted secret sauce. It’s the timing. The post mortem on almost all failed product lines and companies would reveal statements akin to “we were bloody smart and knew what to do; we were simply too late.” For the most part, the first reactive response to market and industry challenges is to tighten up the ship using stronger lean practices. This makes sense because the first intonation of shareholders is to demand the maintenance of earnings, not the growth of revenue. Unfortunately, such lean methods are the very approaches that create an inertia that holds back the needed product line and business transformations. If only they had started earlier, before creating the “lean inertia.” The timing mattered. This, then, sets up a key question for all companies: How does a company become capable of making strong, strategically meaningful, and timely product line moves, with innovation or otherwise?
Proactive Product Lines
In many ways, this is a leadership and governance problem. Ultimately it’s the leader’s face that will be displayed on the cover of Fortune or Forbes Magazine when things fail. And the article will likely call out members of the board of directors. But that is a bit like saying that it’s the manager’s fault when an NFL team has a losing season. The players certainly have a responsibility as well.
So here is my advice to the many players and leaders out there. Be proactive. Be very proactive. And in so much as your organization is reactive to customers, markets, technologies, and industry change, triple up on your proactive nature. Do it at the product line level, the business unit level and at the corporate level. And recognize that proactive strategy moves should happen before feeling the pain that induces reactive moves. This requires an urgency before the emergency. It is a demand on organizational behavior and leadership to gain greater offense in product line strategies.
Because good proactive strategy moves within one product line may not be sufficient to offset notable technology, industry or economy shifts, the game must be played at the business unit and corporate level. New products, new platforms, new markets, radical innovations and new ventures must all contribute to a proactive orientation. This requires a roll-up of proactive product line strategies and roadmaps along with ventures and seed investments. The creation and ongoing work toward improving a business growth portfolio matter much more than the optimization of lean-driven project portfolios.
Go Ahead, Screw it Up
Want to screw up a product line? It’s easy. Simply remain reactive. The accumulation of reactive responses inevitably becomes too late to matter. Want to embrace proactive product line strategy moves? That’s harder but doable. First, build an organizational understanding of product line strategies and their roll up into a full business growth portfolio. Then implement this understanding across product lines, business units, and the corporation.