The Missing Linchpin to Product Line Strategy

Most managers and executives know fast product development helps successful outcomes. There are two reasons for the push for speed. First, fast development is more efficient and less costly. And second, the sooner you launch a product, the better your competitive position.

While there’s not a 100% correlation between speed and success, the relationship is strong. So strong, many organizations have decade-long initiatives to push speed-to-market.

The Dangers of Speed

But here’s the problem. Speed does not mean you’re going in the right direction. With time, a focus on speed often places a company on a poor course. It induces many small product line moves, each judged acceptable. But together, they can sum to a large negative move.

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There’s another problem, too.  A focus on speed-to-market can cause companies to lean out resources. These can be the same people needed to make notable product line strategy moves and pivots. And the view is myopic when the focus is on development projects only. Companies miss a full view of market changes and technology advances.

The remedy isn’t to abandon speed. It’s to broaden the view to the whole product line strategy and needed business transformation. The problem is to figure out the best product line strategy. The challenge isn’t to conjure up the next development project or an innovation. But many managers only use the single-project conjuring approach. And that’s a mistake.

You’ll find what makes product line strategies and their roadmaps good in much of my writings.[1]  Such strategies work only when companies cast a view to the future. Seeing and agreeing on where you wish to take a product line is powerful stuff. In a future view, companies can improve the speed-to-market driver. They do this by adding two measures: speed-to-concept and speed-to-enablement. It’s more about what happens before development than during development.

But the world is a big place. The terrain of thoughts and insights before development is vast. To make headway, an organization needs to spot changes and build focus. And that’s where creating product line strategies and roadmaps come to play.

There’s a linchpin that connects development practices to strategy. And using it helps move product lines to the best course possible. It’s called an Innovation Charter.

A Strong Foundation For Innovation Charter

Research by Professor Merle Crawford showed how teams drive major innovations[2]. They do this when focusing on three goals. And most important, the research showed that using the three goals correlates to successful results.  The three goals are:

  1. To carry out a Purpose in strategy (a strategy move, pivot, transformation, extension)
  2. To achieve specific Objectives, and Roadmap milestones
  3. To meet Guidelines that help match the innovation within an organization and includes customer needs (often defined as Job-to-be-Done outcomes, and platform leverage.

Crawford’s insight is important. But many other product development advances were taking hold when he published his work. Most notable was the speed-to-market movement. And while Professor Crawford’s innovation charters took a back seat, a few researchers kept the notion alive[3].

Go forward a few decades, and you’ll see the innovation charter took on a new look[4]. Those in project and portfolio management will understand best. Advances in portfolio management set up a new need for innovation charters.

Portfolio Must Contribute More

Consider diagram 1 below. It shows a set of projects underway within a stage and gate development approach. Portfolio Management’s job is to get the best output from the full set of projects. But there’s a problem. It turns out that shuffling people’s time among the project has little effect on the portfolio’s value. To ramp up value (not just optimize resource use), you’ll need bigger better projects to enter the portfolio.

Products in Development Portfolio.

Diagram 1: Products-in-Development Portfolio. Progression of projects. Current Stage-Gate position versus time remaining until launch.

It’s not the development work that drives the most value.  It’s what happens in the front-end.

Here’s what makes innovation charters important. They enable companies to focus on finding, crafting, and creating bigger better projects. They drive the front-end. And when the deliberate focus connects with a great product line strategy, the results can drive major gains.

An innovation charter plays an important role, helping to form and carry out a product line strategy. It’s a target for innovation that defines a project. And the successful result of the project work is a well-formed development project.

It’s also important to include innovation charters in portfolio and roadmap practices. Like other project types, they need smart oversight and management.

Innovation Charters Based in Strategy

The new charter builds on Professor Crawford’s insightful work. Crawford’s three parts become defined by product line strategy. Or, the innovation charter works to change the strategy.

      • The charter’s objectives tie to the product line strategy. Plus, they’re shaped as roadmap milestones.
      • Each charter’s Strategic Purpose lays out a product line move or pivot that’s key to the strategy.
      • And the charter’s Guideline go much farther than suggested by Professor Crawford. They now spell out the essence of the product line strategy. This includes product attribute targets, defined through Jobs-to-be-done market analysis.
      • Guidelines also say whether a potential innovation should leverage an existing platform-lever or create a new one.
      • And the Guidelines declare what needs to align with non-product roles. Or, they suggest how the organization might change to support the potential innovation.

See an example of an Innovation Charter in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Example of an Innovation Charter. Notice the inclusion of Jobs-to-be-done Outcomes

In practice, innovation charters don’t lead to new products only. They are more versatile. Product line teams may change charters to target new platform-levers, technologies, and markets. These are the parts needed to create a good product line strategy.

I encourage every organization to learn more about innovation charters.  Your gain will be significant.

If you wish to learn more, see more examples, or obtain templates, please contact us.

Learn More

To learn more about innovation charters and product line strategy please check out these important resources.

Book The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy
Buy at Amazon

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Whitepaper– Good Product Line Strategy Matters. Here’s How to Create One.


[1] Book, Blog, Whitepapers

[2] Merle Crawford, Defining the charter for product innovation. Sloan Management Review, Fall 1980, 33±40.

[3] Two academics who were key to this work are Anthony Di Benedetto of Temple University and Christopher Bart of McMaster University

[4] I first published this in Chapter 4 of The PDMA Handbook 2 for New Product Development (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005), pp. 59-72. Credit should also be given to Beebe Nelson and Robert Gill.



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