Products and Product Lines: The Difference Matters

There’s a major difference between product and product line thinking. And it’s costing companies a lot of money.

Do you know the difference between a product and a product line? I’m sure you do, but do you recognize that how you address the difference can make or break your business?

A product delivers a single feature set that gives benefits to a customer. It can be physical, a service, or digital. Or it may be a combination of types. Product lines are groups of related products. A product line delivers multiple attribute sets.

The difference is simple. A product is singular and product lines are plural.

Strategy and Impact

The difference between a single product and a plural product line doesn’t seem important. At least not until you probe how the difference impacts a strategy. That’s where it becomes notable. It affects your planning, your decisions, and the work you carry out. Most important, it affects the impact of your offering.

Consider how your company innovates. Do you create one product at a time? Or, do you innovate an entire line of products in a continuous flow? Do you create one feature set at a time? Or you coordinate many feature sets across multiple market segments?

How businesses tackle the product versus product line difference is critical. Companies that innovate at the product line level fare much better than those that innovate one product at a time. Not that single product innovation is bad. Rather, it’s that product line innovation is so much better.

Sadly, many management teams don’t use good product line thinking. They don’t set up smart product line strategies. And they don’t drive innovation to gain leverage across a line. This can be dangerous. And it can be costly.

It’s common to see companies treat a product line as a simple roll-up of products. Some managers give no concern to the gains available from platform-levers or positioning products across market segments. It’s unfortunate because that’s what makes great product line strategies.

Product Lines and Portfolios

And you’ll see organizations place projects from different lines within the same development portfolio. Their goal is to launch one product at a time, as quickly as possible. The goal isn’t to drive a product line with repeated success over long time periods, another hallmark of good product line strategy.

Product lines are not an arithmetic sum of individual products. It may look like that when you do sales accounting. But product line dynamics are more algebra than arithmetic. The synergy across products should yield a greater impact than the sum. Each product boosts the others. It does this by targeting the full set of product features and blocking competitors. You shouldn’t decide a line’s strategy by adding up the products.

Gaining Leverage

A top goal in product line strategies is to gain leverage across products. This gain is from platform-levers that deliver two distinct benefits. First, it allows companies to develop products faster. And second, it gives each product greater performance at a lower cost. A single product offers no leverage. And if you treat a product line as a sum of single products, you won’t build leverage. That’s not helpful.

Single product thinking also creates difficulty for non-product roles. For example, sales and the supply chain may be forced to work in different directions to support disjointed products. Without a coherent plan, cost mount and work slows. It’s not a situation leaders want.

One versus Many

You’ll hear much from software vendors about product roadmaps. That’s the single-product roadmap. Because that’s all they offer, they’ll be quick to tell you how great it is. And I’d agree it’s an advancement for single product development. Unfortunately, it’s a distraction from the greater gains you’ll get from whole product lines. Let me share some facts.

Consider the differences between single products and product lines. Look at how strategies and roadmaps differ. I lay these out in tables 1 and 2.

Table 1: Single product versus product line roadmaps.

Product Roadmap vs. Product Line Roadmap

Table 2: Single product versus product line strategy.

Product Strategy versus Product Line Strategy

Making a Difference

Embracing product line thinking will boost business performance. It demands a smart strategy with a coherent roadmap. And every organization can learn these key tools. But the first step is to understand that sticking to single product thinking limits your possibilities and your potential gains.

The next time you hear someone say they wish to create a product strategy or 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 product line’s strategy and execution?

If a manager cares only about project management, she’ll want a singular product roadmap. But if she wishes to improve the impact of multiple products in multiple markets, she must embrace the plurality of product lines. That calls for product line thinking and a different strategy with a different roadmap. There’s a big difference.

To learn more…
Want to learn more about Product Lines, their strategies and roadmaps? Please consider the offerings below. Or, better yet, contact me directly.

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Book The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy
Buy at Amazon

Masterclass
Creating Powerful Product Line Strategies and Roadmaps
Orlando 6 Nov 2019

 

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

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