Single Vs. Multi-Product Thinking

by Paul O’Connor

Multi-Product Mindset

Why The Difference Matters

The way we think about developing and managing products is fundamental to how our companies operate. Our mindset and thought processes form the rules and set the assumptions we follow.

The problem is that sticking to old-school Single-Product thinking hampers business performance. The old school paradigm in which most companies operate weighs down products and product lines, regardless of how smart we might be. And the pain is most acute for large and mid-size companies.

SINGLE-PRODUCT THINKING

Here’s the issue. Unknowingly, companies concentrate their focus on creating and advancing one product at a time. It’s a paradigm that underpins how managers think, the processes and methods companies use, and the rewards and accolades that drive behaviors. And by planning activities based on single-product thinking, companies come up short. The problem is that single-product thinking doesn’t match the multi-product game underway in every industry and market.

Single-product thinking limits possibilities and opportunities. It treats cross-product synergy as an afterthought. And it simply doesn’t deliver the benefits gained from multi-product thinking.

OLD-SCHOOL SHORTCOMINGS

A significant shortcoming of the one-product-at-a-time approach is that it foregoes opportunities to gain cross-product leverage. This is a powerful force that delivers greater product performance per development buck. And it does this across many products. But by focusing on individual products and squandering opportunities to create leverage, the single-product approach wastes energy and resources. The scary part is that many managers don’t realize they’ve lost this opportunity. Instead, they celebrate their success in delivering a single product. Unfortunately, when you are unaware, you’re also unconcerned.

Marketers who understand multi-product thinking quickly point out other issues with the single product approach. For example, when you stick with the old school thinking, you’re not likely to create product attributes that purposely position products to complement one another. Nor does the old way of thinking seek to deliberately block competition. Instead, the single product approach seeks to catch up to competitors or out-race them to the next great product.

NEW SCHOOL MULTI-PRODUCT THINKING

Companies have been forming the principles of multi-product thinking for several decades. Kernels of this more powerful approach are found in portfolio management, product roadmapping, and multi-generational product planning (MGPP.)

Yet these practices remain anchored in single-product thinking. Portfolio management focuses on delivering individual products faster. And both roadmapping and MGPP remain fixed on advancing independent developments.

But were fortunate that many companies have learned to push forward in the more sophisticated multi-product world.

APPLE AND M1

Consider the M1 and MacOS | iOS developments Apple has made over the last few years. These significant advancements internalized chip manufacturing and improved both the Mac and iPhone operating systems. These are not single product developments. Instead, these technological advancements are major strategic moves.

The M1 development affects many of Apple’s products and an endless list of apps in the Apple store. What’s critical to Apple is the leverage the company gains across many offerings in many market segments and over several product generations. It’s not a one-off, single product development.

A BIGGER GAME

Apple recognizes the game they’re in is not one of racing out individual product developments. They see each of their competitors advancing many products across many generations. The playing field is much bigger. And it demands many more engineering and marketing moves than what single-product thinking enables.

Apple’s actions underscore an important principle at the core of multi-product thinking. No company should expect to compete in today’s markets with just one product or in just one segment. You can’t expect to win continually simply by going faster and faster with one-off developments.  

 

PRODUCT LINES, NOT PRODUCTS

Companies can gain notable synergies when they coordinate critical technologies and deliver attribute-sets specific to market segment needs. But more important, the company must purposely orchestrate the flow and timing of offerings to maximize customer satisfaction, block competitors, and drive greater cash flow.

Leaders direct such work and planning to boost entire product lines, not just individual products. Those adept at the practice can scale brands, platforms, and support services while positioning products to block competitors and delight customers. And the approach yields enormous performance gains for both the product line and the organization.

PRODUCT LINES AS SYSTEMS

Understanding product line parts and forces is critical to mastering multi-product thinking. Each product is a part, as are discrete technologies and other resources. Together, they form a system. And the system is in play with internal and external forces such as leverage, market demand, and competitive pressures. Notice how Apple’s deliberate M1 and iOS advancements changed their product line system. Such moves don’t come from old-school single-product thinking.

PRODUCT LINE VELOCITY

In the multi-product world, the goal is to improve the velocity of a product line system’s flow. It’s the speed of the flow toward greater customer satisfaction, more substantial competitive positions, and better cash flow. The product line velocity is the critical OKR.

Orienting on product line velocity differs from what you see with single product thinking, where time-to-market is king. In the multi-product world, the job is to improve the product line’s velocity, and do it continually. Think of this as a meter on your dashboard. Your challenge is to travel the greatest distance toward improved customer satisfaction, stronger competitive positions and greater cash flow, and to do this in the shortest period of time.

Companies should seek to drive the velocity as high as possible. Your velocity is the distance you travel toward your goals over a period of time. This is not the old-school time-to-market metric that comes from single-product thinking.

COMPARING SINGLE AND MULTI-PRODUCT THINKING

The table below shares a few of the differences between single-product and multi-product thinking.

 
SINGLE-PRODUCT
MULTI-PRODUCT
OrientationA focus on one product or one concept at a timeA focus on sets of products, most often a product line
Future ViewSeeking the next great product… relying on creative discovery, intrapreneurs and lean startupsA focus on advancing the full Product Line as a System (PLaaS). Using systems thinking and creative thought to form strategy moves.
PortfolioPortfolio Management covers development projects only; seeks resource use optimizationPortfolio Management  at the product line level includes front-end projects and other product line system projects; seeking greater Product Line Velocity
Development FocusOriented toward fast development of MVP (minimum viable product),Focused on the maximally synergistic
platform-levers and multi-generation strategy moves… advancing the full product line
ConceptsFront end concept generation defines one potential product at a time, loose targetingFront end driven by coherent Jobs-to-be-Donemarket segmentation; purposeful concept targeting, purposeful strategy moves
SpeedA focus on a single product’s “Time to Market”Focus on Product Line Velocity - Continually seeking improvement
Multi-Generational PlanningMGPP for individual productsMGPP for both products and platforms.

SPOTTING HOW YOU THINK

Look at practices within your company and question whether they orient toward the single or the multi-product paradigm. Do the methods seek to advance one product at a time, or do they seek the best from many projects and products concurrently?

Observing single-product practices within your company is a first step forward. My hope is you’ll see the pervasiveness of old-school single product thinking. And if you understand how this differs from multi-product thinking, you’ll also realize how the old-school approach weighs down a company’s performance.

THE NOT SO GOOD, BEST PRACTICES

But because some experts refer to some single product practices as “best-in-class,” many of us don’t see the problem they cause. Instead, we may view such studies wrapped in professional presentations as sacrosanct. There’s an inherent problem with the approach many consultants and academics take to discern better or best practices. The questions they ask and the practices they evaluate are based on the single product paradigm. In essence, they’re measuring how best to develop and manage one product at a time, not entire product lines. Then some of us take that understanding and extrapolate it to mean “do more of it,” and all of your products will be “best.” This, however, is a mistake.

LEARNING THE MULTI-PRODUCT MINDSET

If your organization doesn’t yet embrace multi-product thinking, you’ll need more than this blog to change the company’s old-school approach. But I hope you and your colleagues realize that single-product thinking is a distinct mindset that limits your company’s performance.

The next time you’re in a meeting, ask yourself a few straightforward questions.

  • Is the topic on the table coming from single or multi-product thinking?
  • Do the attendees realize the underpinnings of the thoughts and frameworks that are guiding them?
  • Is there frustration with the limits of what’s achievable?
  • Is a single-product focus holding back your company from more significant gains?

TAKE THE LEAP

To learn more and take actions to advance your company out of single product thinking, please refer back to the written blog. You’ll resources, reference and services to help you take the leap.

Trapped in The Single-Product Mindset

Rethinking The Product Line

Product Line Velocity: Measuring The Flow

Responsive Roadmapping

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