Product Versus Product Line

Roadmaps & Strategies

There’s a major gap between product and product line thinking.

By Paul O’Connor

Stop for a moment. Do you know the difference between a product and a product line? Of course, you do. A product is a single offering with attributes that deliver benefit, satisfaction, and delight to customers. A product line is a group of products, each related to one another. Together, the products deliver sets of attributes. And attributes confer benefit, satisfaction, and customer delight. Consulting gurus may wordsmith this differently. They may, for example, switch out customer satisfaction to solving problems or gaining utility. But the key difference remains the same: products are singular, and product lines are plural.

There’s nothing earth shatters in recognizing the plurality of product lines versus the singularity of a product. At least not until you probe how this difference impacts decisions, work, information flows, strategies, and business models. Take innovation, for example. Does your organization innovate one product at a time? Or, does it purposely innovate to advance an entire line of products? Is the orientation toward creating attribute combinations that meet sets of customer needs, wants, and wishes?

The Adept Group’s research and experience confirms the importance of how businesses manage change and their array of product characteristics. Yet we find the methods and approaches companies use a static approach. They create and manage innovation using a single-product orientation. It’s up to smart managers in these firms to bridge the single-product world to pluralistic product lines dynamics. Unfortunately, a major gap exists between the good product line thinking and how whole organizations support innovation and product management. This gap is harmful.

A common view is that a product line is merely a “roll-up” of related products. And many managers merge product line management into portfolio management. They see a line’s developments the same as a portfolio of individual projects.

Software used to track and manage products collects individual project data to display information about the product line. The hierarchy is for multiple products to roll up into product lines. Then multiple product lines roll up into a product family. Therefore you sum the individual strategies to get the product line’s strategy. Simple. Right?

Yes, it’s simple. But it’s also a mistake. That’s because it’s not an arithmetic sum. A product lines strategy’s dynamics make it more like calculus. And synergy among product should yield greater impact than the sum. The thinking is also backward. Good product line strategies should target each product’s attributes. Companies shouldn’t decide the line’s strategy by adding up the products.

Product lines also gain leverage from a common factor across products. I refer to the factor as a ‘platform-lever.’ You measure leverage by looking at its two parts. One is each development project’s speed. The other is a ratio of each product’s attribute performance to delivered cost. Sure, every company has nuances, and must adjust these measures. But leverage is important. And treating product lines as a sum of single products doesn’t drive leverage.

Single product thinking also makes life difficult across an organization. Single product randomness can be perplexing. When product lines lack coherency, non-product functions struggle. Sales, supply chain, and operations get pulled in different direction. They loose ability to align their actions and decision with the product line.

One versus Many
Consider some differences between single product and product lines . Look at strategies sand roadmaps. I lay out their differences in tables 1 and 2.

Table 1: Single product versus good product line roadmapping.

Table 2: Single product versus good product line strategy.

Making a Difference
Creating good product line strategies with sharp execution roadmaps is important and valuable. Every organization can learn it and set it up. The first step though is the single product orientation is damaging over the long run.

The next time you hear how someone wishes to create a product roadmap (singular) think for a moment. What are they hoping to carry out? Do they want to have a single project summary? Are they seeking a resource review for many projects? Or, are they seeking to improve a full product line’s strategy and execution? If all they care about is project management, it’s likely they want a singular product roadmap. If they want to improve the impact of multiple products, it’s product line strategizing and roadmapping that they should embrace.

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