Trapped in a Single Product Mindset

by Paul O’Connor

Many companies created a complex problem for themselves. As they grew, they mastered a host of practices to innovate and launch new products. They advanced their staged-development and concept screening practices.

And they developed speedy Agile methods and a long list of creative techniques. All of this is great, at least it seems so.

The problem is that these practices focus on just one concept or product at a time. It connects to what I call a Single-Product Mindset. The challenge it’s created may not seem like a big deal because these practices worked for many years. They’ve clearly boosted innovation and product development results.

Now, however, a tsunami is washing over every business. It’s a wave of change pushing on product technologies and customer behaviors. And it’s forcing companies to re-tool how they create and develop new offerings. The problem is that single-product thinking makes dealing with the change more difficult than it should be.

Reinforcing Single-Product Thinking

It’s not the practices that are the problem. Instead, it’s the Single-Product Mindset the practices reinforce. And you’ll find nearly everyone uses it to guide their thoughts and judgment; you, your boss, and your boss’s boss. The one-at-a-time approach is woven into every business. We research it. We teach it. We even reward companies for carrying it out. It’s everywhere. And that’s a problem.

Seeing the Single-Product Mindset is like spotting a face or shape in a brainteaser picture. If you’re like me, you probably don’t see it at first. It’s there in front of you, yet hidden in plain sight. But that changes once you spot this common product development and management mindset. Now, you can’t stop seeing it. It pops out even more distinctly with each glance.

A Single-Product Mindset wouldn’t be so wrong except for one thing. If your competitors have a Multi-Product Mindset, you’re doomed. It’s because an intelligent Multi-Product approach is far more potent than a Single-Product approach.

Multi-Product Thinking

You’ll see the Multi-Product approach is more cost effective and delivers products quicker. That’s because it enables companies to coordinate work and carry out strategy moves. When competitors embrace this new approach, you’re guaranteed to have many headaches.

Sure, the Multi-Product approach takes more smarts and discipline. That’s true both in the trenches and at an organization’s top. But when set up and running, it’s powerful.

A strong Multi-Product Mindset unites an organization’s decisions and work. And it does this across products and processes, from front-end creativity through back-end product management. This unification is no small feat; but it’s important. You’ll find the Multi-Product Mindset to be truly powerful when organizations use it to align their decision flows and workflows.

Single vs. Multiple

Old-school single-product thinking works differently. It forces companies to stitch together different product strategies. And such stitching often falls short. It’s an “after-the-fact” approach that doesn’t help decisions and judgments, nor does it provide adequate guidance to work management and resource planning.

Don’t double-down on the old Single-Product Mindset. It’s far less effective than Multi-Product thinking.

What I’m sharing may sound like a rebellious act against the single-product innovation and development practices we’ve embraced. It is. But we need this rebellion if we wish to tackle the Innovation 4.0 tsunami and the changing markets that lie ahead.

Spotting The Single-Product Mindset

So, look for yourself. Consider how your organization carries out innovation and product development. Here’s a list of observations that suggest The Single-Product Mindset may be deeply seated in an organization. You’ll find that it’s well-embedded when:

  • Your Company is always searching for the “next great product” idea. Or when your management relies desperately on intrapreneurs and lean startups to pave a path to the future.
  • Your organization believes that idea screening is key to stellar product development. Or you hear a top manager say, “we need to improve how we screen products.”
  • Your portfolio management approach focuses on project management, not product management. Plus, portfolio decisions only account for development projects. Front-end work isn’t part of the portfolio.
  • Your teams carry out development, whether via waterfall practices, agile, or both, by seeking to push each product out the door successfully and with little regard for its impact on other products.
  • You’re encouraged to define an MVP (minimum viable product), not the maximally synergistic platform-lever or the next generation strategy move.
  • You see ideation and concept generation working to define one potential product at a time, not multiple offerings and pivots that boost entire product lines.
  • Your product offering – the full set of products made and sold – doesn’t gain leverage across products. Instead, each product stands on its own merits. When asked about strategic leverage, top managers claim the most significant gains come from people ― from talents, knowledge, and skills, not from products and strategic moves.
  • Your Company’s game plan for serving products to different customers is based on “what can be ready next” or “what the big customer wants.” It’s not based on “what’s best overall, in what order, and in what time frame.”
  • Your Company’s management’s mantra is “go faster and do more.” A call to “improve our entire product set” is more like background noise.
  • Your Company’s decisions and choices don’t reflect a coherent strategy. There’s only a weak connection between up-front technology research and in-market product management.

Enterprise-Wide Issues

Many management teams don’t know the extent to which a Single-Product Mindset holds back their organizations. They don’t see it as an enterprise-wide issue. And when they do, they don’t call it out as a problem. To make matters worse, top managers often believe their Single-Product practices are “best-in-class.”

Sure, this was true a few decades ago. But now that we’ve advanced into the third decade of the twenty-first century, the Single-Product approach is a burden to all except entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Markets, technologies, and whole business models have changed. If you work for a mid- or large-sized Company, it’s time to help your organization move beyond Single-Product thinking.

Stalling Needed Changes

Companies experience the burden of the Single-Product approach when they try to transform or pivot their product offerings. And such changes to product offerings can be critical to a business’s growth and survival. But the sad truth is that the one-product-at-a-time approach doesn’t allow these changes to happen quickly, if at all.

The restrictive single-product orientation often slows the change, and it weighs down the full product offering. You’ll see project delays and disjointed work. And unfortunately, technology advances and market shifts don’t stop to allow the Single-Product Mindset to catch up. It’s not surprising that some top managers see their only choice is to go around well-established Single-Product approaches to embrace independent work like intrapreneurship and lean startups.

The unintended outcomes of the Single-Product Mindset can be devastating. But they’re avoidable. First, though, you must spot that your Company is engulfed in the old way of thinking. Next, you and your colleagues must learn and embrace the Multi-Product Mindset. It’s that simple, yet it demands serious work.

Transforming The Product Mindset

Most companies, perhaps without knowing, have begun the transition to Multi-Product thinking. Portfolio Management and Systems Engineering go a long way. But these alone are not enough. You’ll find portfolio management to be project-oriented and waffles a great deal on full product line strategies.

Consider that most portfolio management reviews don’t include new concept generation work. This is true even though the most significant impact on the portfolio’s value is the output of front-end work, not the shuffling around of resources. And you’ll seldom see portfolio reviews flesh out systemic risks, those that cut across many projects and products. Management teams can’t address these risks because single product thinking obscures their view.

It’s impressive to see what companies have gained from systems engineering. It’s gone far toward integrating complex software and hardware, plus it enables smart reuse of technologies and designs. But systems engineering is often set up to fix problems, not to enable purposeful and more impactful strategy moves. This matters.

Detaching From the Past

The movement toward the Multi-Product Mindset is growing. At its core is a focus on setting up and carrying out complete and coherent product line strategies, not stitching individual product strategies to one another. The difference is that strategies for entire product lines seek synergies across products, markets, and technologies. Plus, they demand leverage from design reuse and operational scale. If you wish to understand the Multi-Product Mindset, it’s good to learn what makes one product line strategy better than another.

It’s neither healthy nor wise for a business to get stuck in the past. And the Single-Product Mindset has deep roots tied to the past. Now, Multi-Product thinking is much more relevant. But this new thought process may require notable organizational change. It takes more than a handful of thought leaders and influencers to take an online course. This is a new game for how an entire organization thinks, works, and makes decisions.

The scary part is that many management teams are pushing hard for their managers and leaders to embrace smarter practices. They want their organizations to foster an “innovative culture.” Yet they have little idea they’re also encouraging people to double-down on the single product mindset. They’re trapping their companies in old-school innovation positivity.

Step up and Learn More

Do you think your organization may be trapped in a Single-Product Mindset? If you do, I encourage you to learn more. Dig into why single product thinking is so limiting and what makes the Multiple-Product approach so powerful. Here are a few items to review and consider.