A Powerful Game-Changer
Innovation, Product Development, and Product Line Strategies
Colleagues have told me my narrative on product line archetypes sounds too good to be true. But it is true. And it fundamentally shifts how we think about products and innovation. Take the time to read and ponder what I am saying. I bet you’ll never look at innovation, product development, and product line strategies the same.
Quick! You need to master an understanding of product line archetypes before your competitors figure it out!
– Paul O’Connor
Most product line managers recognize their product line is a system. They also understand the products and services they sell, although important, are just some parts that comprise their product line system. What is not so clear to managers is how every product line has a root system type that defines how the product line works. We call this the system archetype[i].
Archetype Behavior Patterns
The archetype is a product line’s basic architecture. It sets up how the systems’ agents and actors interact and behave. The outcomes then affords the system’s performance. Product lines of the same archetype have similar behavior patterns and drive outcomes in a same manner. Managers structure their organization to support and boost the system’s behavior pattern. And they canvas-out business models to do the same. It’s a crucial characteristic of any product line. But first, you need to understand why your product line archetype is what it is and how to use this knowledge to improve your line’s performance.
Product line systems build from their starting archetype. We influence and guide the system’s build-out by adding and changing products. We can also move into new market segments and combine new technologies to form new product features. While a product line system’s structure always changes, its core behavior pattern will not. It stays the same so long as the archetype doesn’t change. Therefore, how a team orchestrates its product line must tie to its line’s archetype.
An Adaptive and Dispositional System
Your product line system’s archetype may seem like a nice-to-know fact. But It turns out it is crucial knowledge that can help or hinder strategic moves. When competitors introduce a new-to-the-industry product line archetype, expect market dynamics to shift. We often refer to this shift as a market disruption.
Product lines are complex systems. They are also adaptive and dispositional. This means they will change or adapt in a resilient response to outside factors. It also means managers cannot guarantee the system’s results. They can, however, influence the system’s disposition toward desirable outcomes. And that’s what we do by guiding the system and responding to the outcomes as they emerge. We boost those outcomes we like and squash those we don’t.
It’s crucial to know your line’s archetype if you wish to influence and guide its performance. This understanding helps managers make sense of what’s happening to the line. It also anchors sensibility into the decisions, judgments, and choices that push actions forward.
A product line system’s structure is never permanent. All lines change, even though at different rates. Commodity product lines may change at a glacial pace and some high-tech product lines may better resemble a fruit fly’s 40-day life cycle. Yet, the system archetype always links to the product line’s performance. We don’t use the archetype to declare it a fixed structure.
The Product Line Stack
But what defines the archetype? The answer is the product line stack[ii]. This set of objects differs from the simple stack affixed by single-product thinking. See Figure 1.
Figure 1. Single Product Stack compared to a Product Line Stack
In the product line stack diagram, you’ll notice the platform-lever[iii] is at the center. I use the term “platform-lever” instead of the generic term “platform” to identify these components specific to product lines.
The stack suggests how the product line works. Technology building blocks add to the platform-lever to form products, which then match up to customer needs within market segments. The way the parts work with one another defines the system’s behavior pattern. These relationships and the behavior pattern arise from the system’s archetype.
The most critical system agent in the product line stack is the platform-lever or, often, a set of platform-levers. These leverageable objects are the backbone of the product line system. The system’s archetype and the line’s behavior, therefore, depend on the platform-lever(s) in use.
Changing Platform-lever Types
If you change a dominant platform-lever’s type, you’ll also change the system archetype and its behavior pattern. Recognize though, product lines often have a handful of platform-levers in use, often different types. The product line’s performance depends on how well these platform-levers work combined. It’s the platform-lever combination that defines the system archetype.
It’s important to understand that a platform-lever is not a natural phenomenon, although with time a platform-lever may form naturally as the complex system is adapting its way forward. In business systems, though, it’s dangerous to wait for natural adaptation. Too often, bankruptcy proceedings arrive first. Instead, product line teams must proactively and purposely promote a system part or set of parts to be platform-levers. An assignment as a platform-lever is a deliberatechoice followed by actions that create an intense focus on it.
Organizations gain intense focus by setting it into their organizational structure and the roles and responsibilities of all contributors. You’ll see the focus on the firm’s methods and practices and the systems and tools they use. You’ll also see the focus implanted within the development and management processes that help promote progress. All orient toward increasing the resulting leverage.
Should managers associated with the product line not agree on what the platform-lever is, then the object or set of objects is unlikely to garner an intense focus. Without intense focus, don’t consider the object to be a platform-lever.
It’s a line’s multiplicity of platform-levers that defines the system archetype.
Consider how this plays out for Tesla in the EV market. I choose to discuss Tesla because its product line is well-known and the media give us extensive coverage of every strategic move it makes. The media coverage gives us much information and a familiar automobile context.
I can’t affirm Tesla’s EV platform-levers because I have not seen firsthand the intense focus given to them, nor do I have firsthand knowledge of the firm’s inner workings and behavior patterns. But it appears from public information their EV offering has a product line stack with at least four platform-levers.
Table 1. Tesla’s product line system archetype is composed of a set of platform-levers.
Combined, Tesla’s platform-levers form their product line’s archetype. It differs from what you’d find as the archetypes for product lines at traditional internal combustion engine companies. Most impressively, the archetype affords Tesla the ability to make and sell EVs profitably. No other Western EV manufacturer comes close.
Sometimes it’s best to see the beauty of a product line system and its archetype through a competitor’s eyes.
Jim Farley, Ford’s CEO, shared with us how Ford’s EV challenges differ from Tesla’s challenge. In an interview, Farley said Ford lacks a vertically integrated component-sensor-software platform-lever, one that Tesla exploits to its fullest.[i]
Farley explained how Ford’s practice is to play vendors off each other to reach the lowest price and highest quality for each component. The problem for Ford is that each car has 150 or more major components. These may be as simple as door locks or as complicated as continuously variable transmissions. Each has sensors and controllers, and each needs software to make them run. The software, unfortunately, is unique to the part. Plus, it’s written (probably outsourced) by each supplier. Not only do the 150 parts have a mishmash of software languages, but they also need different operating systems and use different data formats. It’s a near-impossible task for Ford to integrate everything at a reasonable cost and within a reasonable timeframe.
Then too, Farley notes the vertically integrated platform-lever also enables Tesla to operate its cars on a 48-volt standard instead of the 12-volt 100+ year standard on which older companies find themselves stuck.[ii] This simple change affords Tesla’s skinnier and lighter wires and greater efficiency. Ford adds more cost and nearly 300 pounds more wire to each car compared to what Tesla adds. Then too, the voltage and wiring enable Tesla’s EVs to run 5 to 10% more efficiently than Ford’s EVs.
In another interview, Farley bemoans Tesla’s advantage in selling cars to customers without dealership middlemen[iii]. While car dealership salespeople tell customers how much we need them, all research suggests the opposite. Not surprisingly, every state in America has a dealership lobbying group that, with little surprise, has politicians creating laws that mandate a dealership’s role. These middlemen believe that if they can’t compete against an archetype, they should make it illegal.
Florida’s Governor DeSantis recently signed a bill demanding all EVs must sell through dealerships, except for one brand. You guess it. Tesla. Staying a few steps ahead, Tesla’s chief potentate Elon Musk bypassed the law by aiding DeSantis in his presidential bid. That move work out well for his company.
Each platform-lever contributes to defining the line’s archetype. If you wish to figure out your line archetype, you’ll also need to figure out its platform levers. Table 1 below lists some different platform-lever types and explains how they differ.
A chemical reactor, paper-making machine, just-in-time automation
Scale or flexibility
A computer motherboard, a system’s core controller, common design components
An automated bank teller, an automated car wash
A software operating system, Integrated application software
Versatility within the intended domain
A unique pharmaceutical, molecular structure, formula, complex system
An optical fiber network, social network
A roofing system, a closet connection system, integrated automation equipment
Adaptability in use, multiple uses
Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning
Bank loan screening models, search engines, voice recognition
Intelligent and integrated HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) controls
The data structure, stack, queues
Hybrid and Combination
An automotive assembly (with engine and frames as separate platform-levers)
ChatGPT, Large Language Models, Generative, Self Learning, Self-coding, Self engineering (generative CAD-CAM) product data creation, iterative optimization
Speed of insight and information, creation (generative AI), self-improving (learning AI)
When we use a standalone technology only with one platform-lever, you may consider the technology to be part of the platform-lever.
A platform-lever reaches its status only when there is an intense focus on it seeking to drive greater leverage. Calling something a platform-lever (without the intense focus) doesn’t make it one.
What appears as separate platform-levers may be working in unison as one platform-lever. The leverage the line gains is often greater when there’s only one focal point. This makes the set a single platform-lever.
Read more about product line platform-levers HERE.
Leverage and Value
A platform-lever’s value accrues from the leverage it affords[vii]. Think of this as a scaling issue. At greater scale and use, the cost of per-unit performance declines, and the speed of delivering these attributes within new offerings increases.
In the product line stack, notice how the platform-lever (s) connects with Jobs-to-be-Done Verb-Based segments. The more jobs within different JTBD clusters a platform-lever resolves to the delight of customers, the greater its scalability and leverage. This also depends on how customers view the importance of the job outcomes the platform-lever satisfies. We may think of platform-levers as engineered or technical objects, but it’s their superiority in resolving JTBD outcomes that gives them value. Without outcome satisfaction, an intended platform-lever serves no purpose.
Teams fall short when they don’t understand how their customers’ job outcomes cluster into Verb-Based segments. They’re left with platform-levers dependent on serendipity. This undefined footing may be acceptable for entrepreneurs and start-up teams. But for big companies seeking to transform an existing product line and its archetype, the stakes are different. Knowledge about JTBD outcomes is far more critical. Failing to connect platform-levers to job outcomes can be costly and fatal to careers.
No matter the industry, the system archetype plays a profound role in how a line performs. Consider why this connection to performance plays out as it does. Several important reasons become apparent.
A product line’s system archetype controls the line’s behavior patterns. The behavior pattern reveals how best to manage the product line and how non-product functions should best interact with the line, its agents, and its actors.
The product line archetype relates to a business model. Change the product line archetype and you will need to revisit your business model. This connection is the flip side of business models. It shapes how all functions should interact with the product line’s parts and forces.
When you change a product line system’s archetype, you are “transforming” the product line. A product line transformation changes what is important and how best to manage the line, and means the business model must also change.
If you shift market focus but keep the archetype the same, you are “pivoting” the product line. Market pivots do not demand operational or business model changes.
In complex systems, a strategy is an “enabling constraint.” It guides you toward where you’d like to take the line and away from where you don’t. Strategy also reflects a product line archetype. If you change a line’s archetype, i.e., transform the product line, you will need to change the line’s strategy.
Non-product line functions should align with and afford greater gains to the line than teams can deliver otherwise. To do this, contributors must conjure up, shape, and carry out relevant and coherent actions. The line’s archetype sets a baseline for judging the relevancy and coherency of actions.
If two or more lines within a business unit have different archetypes, there will be conflict in how best to operate. Each line may experience less than stellar outcomes. Such conflict displays in turbulent decision flows. It also shows an inability of non-product functions to boost each product line. Archetype conflict may also result in the business model’s degradation. This self-created weakness is a vulnerability that competitors may choose to exploit.
Harvard Professor Clay Christiansen promoted Disruptive Innovation theory. What Professor Christiansen didn’t recognize is that Disruptive Innovations result only when new-to-the-industry system archetypes enter a market. All Disruptive Innovations will employ system archetypes that are new to an industry. That doesn’t mean all new archetypes will cause disruption. But all new platform-levers have the potential to form new archetypes and cause disruption in an industry.
“Learning/Living AI” has the potential to be a new platform-lever type. On its own or when combined with other platform-levers, this unique AI may create product line archetypes that are new to the world, not just one industry. We should expect, therefore, one or more newly formed archetypes to disrupt many industries. But while we may expect industries to be disrupted, not all tries will succeed. An inability to “transform” product lines will cause many product lines to fail when either trying to disrupt an industry or responding to others doing the disruption.
Change to system archetypes may happen within each of a firm’s ecosystem’s participants’ product lines. The ecosystem players with their product lines include competition, suppliers, and channel partners. Such changes across an ecosystem outside the product line’s organizational domain will create challenges and opportunities for all product lines.
Management teams should build a deep understanding of their product lines and their archetypes. They need this foundational knowledge to help organizations advance, pivot, and transform their product lines. They also need insights about archetypes to better respond to competitors who inevitably seek to be the archetype-afforded disruptors.
A deep understanding of product lines as systems and their archetypes changes what and how we innovate, develop, and manage products. These changes affect corporate innovation and product development practices and approaches. But they also affect organizational structures and their flexibility. It leads to how we improve our product line’s performance, and how we form and carry out strategies.
Plus, you’ll see major changes to the digital transformations we have been working on for the past few decades. The new understanding enables greater contributions from non-product line functions. Supply Chain Management, Finance, HR, and Sales may afford new offerings with attributes previously unachievable.
Companies need to improve the outcome of current products and service offerings while adding the ability and capacity to advance, pivot and possibly transform their product lines. The change does not call for companies to stop what they’re doing and start doing something radically different. Rather, it directs companies to build from what we’re doing and add new orientations, approaches, and methods. These are changes most companies do not yet embrace.
Archetype and Affordance
When companies manage product lines as complex systems, they induce many changes. The shift enables companies to foster the insights to advance, pivot or transform their product lines. And it pushes teams to garner new product features and new offerings matched to customer needs. Teams create and carry out these actions and strategic moves through the interplay of product line systems and ecosystem parts and actors.
The coherence of actions rests on a team’s understanding of its system’s archetype and behavior pattern. This knowledge enables deliberate guidance. Plus, it aids judgments, choices, and decisions to boost work and information toward stronger outcomes.
Product line teams and business executives must recognize product lines as complex systems. They must understand how their product line’s archetype and the archetypes employed by others will alter their business. These insights can alter the product world for your company, your customers, and your competitors.
[i] The term archetype is used across many topics. You’ll often find it used to describe storytelling and themes, or problems that may have unintended consequences. I use the term in specific relation to product lines and their nature as complex systems.
[ii] The product line stack uses the familiar software system stack and their diagrams to illuminate product line system parts and their relation to one another. The product line stack is a static view (a starting point, slice in time) of a product line roadmap.
[iii] Platform-lever as a term is used instead of the single word ‘platform’ to draw attention to object or set of objects being internal to the product line and enabling leverage – more performance bang for the buck, and faster development time with lower cost of incremental product development arising from the platform-lever.
[vii] When I use the term affordance, consider this boosting the system in a way that is more than alignment or enablement. It the added gains to the system and its outcomes that otherwise could not be realized.