Strategy and Systems Thinking

Product Line Strategy and Systems Thinking

Learn how two thought worlds converge to ramp up your product line’s performance.

by Paul O’Connor

Systems Thinking

A systems view shows us how product lines are comprised of many parts. The forces between the parts drive the product line system. Product line management’s job is to create and alter the system parts and forces to push the line forward. And the velocity at which the product line progresses is crucial. It determines how much gain you’ll realize over time.

But one characteristic of systems is enormously helpful in driving better product line performance. It turns out there’s just a few parts that influence and control the whole system. This principle is true for all systems, not just product lines. No matter the number of parts or the system’s apparent complexity, a limited set of parts has a disproportionate influence over the whole.

This “key-part” principle enables teams to sharpen how they drive and improve their product line. They’ll improve a line’s performance more effectively by focusing on those parts with the greatest influence than by seeking to manage all system parts independently.

Product Line Strategy

A view of the product line from a strategy perspective is different. Or is it?

If you dig deep into strategy, you’ll find it to be all about focus. It’s about creating an intense, deliberate focus on the “right” things and then doing work in the “right” way and at the “right” time. I lay out the core elements of a good strategy in my book The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy. And throughout the book, my message is simple. You must create a sharp focus on a small set of strategy elements if you wish to drive outstanding product line performance.  I refer to these core elements when managed together as the Strategy-Essence. And I show how teams can influence the right timing of work across the core strategy elements using a dynamic Roadmapping approach.

The tie between systems thinking and product line strategy is powerful. And here’s a big insight. For every product line, the Strategy-Essence elements are also the critical system parts. And if they don’t match as one and the same, something is wrong. Your job will then be to correct the mismatch by changing the strategy, the system parts, or both.

Strategy-Essence Parts

There are three system parts that most commonly make up the Strategy-Essence and exert the most influence over a product line.

A Platform-lever or a limited set of levers.

Attribute Positioning across multiple products. and

Chain-link Alignment of all functions and contributors.

Plus, for some product lines, particularly in consumer markets, a Brand is another critical part. But you’ll see a single brand may cut across multiple product lines, and a single product line may cut across multiple brands.

In my book, I explore each of these critical product line system parts. I do this through discussion, examples and references, and much more in-depth case studies.

Strategy Unison

The most critical aspect of driving a product line’s performance is to create unison across these Strategy-Essence parts. The job is to create an intense focus on each and then orchestrate their interplay superbly. It’s because you gain a more significant boost to a line’s performance by managing Strategy-Essence unison than if you address each of the key parts separately.

There’s a common problem that blocks teams from creating intense focus and managing the Strategy-Essence unison. It happens when the product line team cannot gain agreement on specifics about the critical system parts. The lack of agreement can be both internal to a team or extend across an organization. Without a shared view on the critical system parts, driving the Strategy-Essence unison is only a fleeting notion.

Better Strategies

Recognizing the tie between key system parts and the Strategy-Essence is enormously helpful. This understanding helps teams create and carry out a good — much better–than–average — product line strategy.

The tie-in allows you to deconstruct the strategy using systems thinking. It enables mental models to figure out if your strategy will work. And it helps teams figure out whether the strategy will drive greater customer satisfaction, better cash flow, and a stronger competitive position. These are the three measures that determine a product line’s performance velocity.

Responsive Roadmapping

Good management demands insights and learning to feed the system continuously. The feedback enables teams to improve the system and mitigate performance issues. And it changes strategy execution from being static project management to being dynamic and flexible.

You’ll find slow or poor quality feedback will kill a product line. And you’ll see aiding the speed and quality of the feedback will drive continuous performance improvement. In the systems thinking world, managers commonly refer to such feedback as organizational learning.

Smart product line teams will manage the much-needed feedback using Responsive Roadmapping. It links a product line’s strategy with real-time execution. Teams build this approach purposely to create and use insights based on knowledge, facts, and experience.

Plus, Responsive Roadmapping focuses on a team’s work and decisions. It creates a deliberate view to improve customer satisfaction, create better cash flow, and build a stronger competitive position.

Learn More

If you’re interested in improving a product line’s performance, I encourage you to learn more about the three topics that I shared in this blog.

 Product Lines as Systems

 The Product Line Strategy-Essence.

 And Responsive Roadmapping.

And please contact us with questions or a request for more information. We’d be glad to help.

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