Strategy: Answering The Where and How to Play Questions

The Importance of Product Lines

Where and How to Play to Win

Every business must decide where and how it wants to play.

Roger Martin, the famed strategist, showed us the answers to these questions are the essence of business strategy. In his 2002 best-selling book “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works”[i], Martin eloquently argues the key to success is to make sure your answers are concise, and the actions to carry out the answers are coherent and unified.

Product Line Indivisibility

Product offerings and innovation are always at the center of the Where-and-How answers. A product line strategy’s indivisibility makes it the linchpin of the answers. But understanding product lines as systems builds coherency and power into the answers. See Endnote [ii].

The product line sets market positioning, enables leverage, and creates the cornerstone of a business model. You’ll see that product lines are the most acted upon yet least understood business contributor in large businesses.

Consider how a product line team works to create products that satisfy customers. They figure out different customer needs and then design and transform bundles of technologies into bundles of attributes that match these needs. An astute strategist will notice that product line teams call on every strategy school to drive their success. There’s always a heavy dose of positioning and configuration, design and culture, plus planning and entrepreneurship.

Product Lines as Systems

In a systems view, you’ll see three work streams that a product line team must coordinate and push forward. One stream focuses on customer needs. Another stream creates products with deliberate attributes. A third work stream advances technologies to better match attribute sets to changing customer needs in various markets.

The work streams are foundational to a product line’s strategy and the execution of that strategy. Most importantly, a roadmap that reflects the product line system’s parts and forces lays bare many issues and opportunities in answering the Where and How to Play question.

Roadmapping Your Moves

Before creating a product line strategy roadmap, toss aside any thinking that roadmaps are only roll-ups of project plans. A product line roadmap is much different. It’s a visual map showing connections across technologies, products, and customer needs. These are three basic categories of system parts. The relationships among these system parts become clear as you populate objects into the roadmap’s three swimlanes. See Figure 1.

Figure 1 BASIC PRODUCT LINE ROADMAP  –  A Product Line Roadmap is a visualization or plot of how a product line team intends to carry out its product line strategy. The roadmap includes times and dates for completing key tasks, creating system parts, modifying system parts, and making strategic moves related to system parts and forces. A normal product line roadmap has three swimlanes: one for markets, one for products and platform-levers, and one for technologies.    See More

Roadmap Swimlanes

The swimlanes are graphic corkboards to place objects and depict a product line’s time-based flow. The top swimlane displays markets and customer needs. Next, the middle swimlane shows products or offerings and their attributes. The bottom swimlane represents technologies, readiness state, and technical capabilities.

Market segments populate the top swimlane. They provide much insight toward answering the “Where-to-Play” but not the “How-to-Play” question.

Many managers and marketing teams will say they understand the segmentation work that defines these objects. But there’s been a major development over the last few decades that’s changed this swimlane. We now know to add customer-defined “Jobs-to-be-Done” clusters to traditional segments. These clusters are sets of outcomes customers seek to gain by carrying out a Job-to-be-Done. See Endnote[iii].

Noun versus Verb Segments

In my book on Product Line Strategy published a few years ago[iv], I gave the two market segments distinctive names. I call traditional segments “noun-based” because we characterize these with labels such as geography, demographics, and behaviors. Noun-based segments reflect common characteristics among customers. I call the Jobs-to-be-Done clusters “verb-based” because it suggests the action customers seek to gain outcomes regardless of their Noun-based characteristics. A Verb-based segment is a cluster of customers that seeks a common outcome set. See Endnote [vi].

The research to discover verb-based clusters is not the qualitative VOC, UX, and user research needed to form specific products and offerings. Instead, verb-based research is an empirical analysis of how customers can be placed into groups based on similar sets of product-delivered outcomes. These outcome sets become targets for product line teams to create, develop, and deliver attributes via products and offerings.

The noun versus verb distinction also splits the roadmap’s market swimlane. Half of the swimlane will reflect noun-based segments, while the other half will reflect the verb-based segments. Both types are always present. You’ll find they have a many-to-many, not a one-to-one relationship.

The Where and How Questions

Understanding Noun-based segments gives much insight toward answering the Where-to-Play question. But the outcomes defined in Verb-based segments define targets for developing and delivering attributes. Deep insights about these targets and how to deliver attributes that match them are what define the playing field to answer the How-to-Play question.

The How-to-Play answer details the company’s approach toward developing and delivering attribute sets that match the verb-based outcome clusters. The answer should detail how the system maximizes and continually improves customer satisfaction, free cash flow, and competitive positions.

Recognize how, with all things equal, you’d rather compete in growing noun-based segments. Growth forgives mistakes, while decline exacerbates them. But other factors also matter when answering the Where-to-Play question. How-to-Play feasibility and the resulting impact directly link to Verb-base segmentation.

The Big Difference

Here’s the kicker about segmentation. Noun-based segments are standardized. You, your competitors, and industry analyst purchase the same reports detailing noun-based segments, such as geographies and demographic groupings. It’s unlikely you can gain an advantage over competitors only using information and knowledge about noun-based segments.

Segmenting markets by outcomes differs from the traditional noun-based approach. That’s because competitors don’t share insights about outcomes desired by customers. Nor do they share tradeoff models of multiple outcomes that reveal clusters of customers with similar sets of desired outcomes (see Endnote [v]). Plus, the ability of a company to deliver attributes (packaged as products in the product line) will differ even more. The interesting insights gained from understanding outcome clusters are why winning the Where and How-to-Play strategy game should begin with smart Verb-based segmentation.

Understanding outcome clusters is also a powerful aid for advancing product lines into adjacent markets. This power is because verb-based outcomes cut across Noun-based segments. It turns out that common Jobs-to-be-Done outcomes can define customer clusters in adjacent Noun-based markets. The common outcomes improve the success odds of entry into the new segments.

When Jobs-to-be-Done outcomes in an adjacent market appear similar to those in core markets, you may find a close fit with the product line’s How-to-Play answer. The key, though, is spotting and understanding outcome similarities. The similarities may start as a hunch, but teams must validate their gut feeling with Jobs-to-be-Done research.


Product line leverage is another key component in the How-to-Play answer. This powerful system force connects to common “baseline” outcomes in multiple Verb-based clusters. Teams gain this force by deliberately creating a platform-lever. This system part is scalable and reusable. It delivers attributes that satisfy common outcomes within several verb-based segments. With a platform-lever in place, teams use technology building blocks (other system parts) to add other attributes. Each set of attributes is a product variant associated with the platform-lever. The result is faster and lower-cost delivery of products specific to each verb-based segment.

Higher-performing product lines gain leverage by using at least one of many types of platform-levers (see Endnote[vi].) Consider how engineering design creates a base component for different products in a line. For example, a computer motherboard may be a base design that allows other add-on modules that create several computers with unique attribute sets.

Scaling production of a design platform-lever creates products within the line with greater attribute bang per development buck. It also speeds the development of additional products. You’ll see design platform-levers in many product lines—for example, automotive engines, TV screens, and appliance core configurations.

Driving Leverage

Platform-levers find their placement on the product line roadmap at the center of the product’s swimlane.

Deciding platform-levers is perhaps the most important quest to answer the How-to-Play question. Creativity, Systems Thinking, and CapEx engineering all play a role. Consider how such thinking led to Tesla’s multibillion-dollar battery plants, the cornerstone of its How-to-Play answer. Or consider Apple’s decade-long journey to enable a “full-stack” approach with their M-series CPU chip. Both the battery and the chip are “How-to-Play” Platform-lever moves, and both match common outcomes that appear across multiple Verb-based market clusters.

Apple’s strategic move into CPU chips is interesting. It started with buying a small chip company that had great design capabilities. Apple never used that company’s chips. Instead, Apple wanted the company’s design capabilities. It then took nearly a decade to foster and morph the company’s capabilities to gain the desired leverage from the M1 chip platform-lever.

Technologies and Capabilities

The bottom swimlane in the product line roadmap displays capabilities and technology building blocks.

Smarter How-to-Play answers often call on several Platform-levers to work in parallel. For example, car companies focus on engines, transmissions, and frames as Platform-levers. TV companies leverage signal processing chips and software alongside HD screen production platform-levers.

Answering the Where and How-to-Play questions demands a thorough analysis of product lines and their strategies. But the answer should also flesh out needed support from internal business systems and practices that cut across functions not managed as part of the product line. These systems and practices should, at a minimum, align with the Where and How-to-Play answer. But it’s more helpful when the business systems and practice go beyond alignment and boost the product line’s performance more than it would gain on its own.

Chain Link Systems and Practices

I call functional and cross-functional systems and practices the links in a business strategy chain. If one link impedes the product line’s How-to-Play answer, it needs to change. If it doesn’t, the How-to-Play answer won’t be viable. As companies explore How-to-Play possibilities, teams must also explore how the links should advance to bolster the results. Such exploration is not just about avoiding chain-link conflicts. It’s also about discovering cross-link synergy.

Answering The Strategy Questions

Answers to the Where and How to Play questions are foundational to forming a strategy that drives superior business performance. Such answers must tie to insights about product lines, and the possible approaches companies might take toward customers, products, and technologies.

The key to great insights is having deep knowledge and understanding of all aspects of your product line, customers, and technologies. The job is to transform knowledge into value-packed insights. It demands applying systems thinking, data analytics and smart decision-making to product lines. That starts by laying out the product line’s part and forces and then seeing how the system drives forward toward greater customer satisfaction, stronger cash flow, and resilient competitiveness.

Learn More

Want to learn more about product line strategy and driving performance? Please contact us, we’d be delighted to share our tools and approaches.


[i] Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works

[ii] Product Lines as Systems

Product Lines as Systems is a framework that uses systems thinking to take apart product lines and rebuild them into stronger and better performing lines. The approach is based on deconstructing and creating product line parts and forces that comprise the line as a system. It’s an intelligent and flexible approach that ties directly to Product Line strategies and roadmaps. The objective of product line systems thinking is to drive greater cash flows, increase  customer satisfaction, and improve competitiveness.

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Also known as JTBD and Jobs Theory. This is a concept that helps product developers understand customer needs. It’s based on the notion that people hire products to do a job, not buy products. And it builds upon fulfilling customer-desired outcomes. The theory is credited to Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen. It extends thoughts on Outcome Driven Innovation developed by Tony Ulwick. It’s also been advanced to give insights into how people shop and buy products through intelligent work done by Bob Moesta. Jobs-to-be-Done aids developers to target the outcomes customers want.

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[iv] The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy

[v] Cluster analysis–Multi-variate cluster analysis

Multivariate Cluster analysis determines customer groups that share common Jobs-to-be-Done outcomes, regardless of noun-based segments. We use multivariate analysis to segment customers into clusters based on the desired outcomes per a Job-to-be-Done. Each cluster defines a target for an attribute set to be delivered by a potential product. The clustering task seeks to maximize each cluster (attribute target) while maximizing potential cash flow, customer satisfaction, and competitiveness across the full set of clusters (the entire product line.)

[vi] Platform-levers and their types

A platform-lever is a common factor that cuts across multiple products in the product line.  It  enables leverage in creating, producing, using, and selling related product offerings. There are several types of platform-levers used in product line strategies. They may be used singularly or combined with other platform-levers.

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