How to Screw Up a Product Line

ProductLineScrewUp4by Paul O’Connor

When I began my career in product development a few decades ago, I simply didn’t understand how easy it is to screw up a product line. I was envious of those managers overseeing product lines. I thought managing established lines didn’t cause people to lose sleep worrying about how to develop and launch new stuff. They needed only to manage pricing, promotion and push on a sales force.

Now, with much study and experience that accumulated into humility, I can say I was naïve. I learned how managing an established product line is a tough job. And I learned how keeping product lines successful is not for the faint of heart. It’s because every product eventually dies. And, it’s crucial for organizations to create new offerings. This is risky, both for the business and to careers.

Yes, I have consulting roots that took me into some of the “greatest innovators” of the time. I worked with firms like Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Polaroid, Motorola and the old Bell Labs that became Lucent. I bring this up because even though they failed, they were recognized as great innovators. It was a badge of honor to work for these innovative companies. Every product development and innovation conference had at least one speaker from these companies. That’s what drew attendees. We needed to learn how the “best-in-class” did it. Little did we know that these best would soon fail. From a big picture perspective, we simply were not as smart as we thought.

Are we Better Today?

Flash forward to today, and I hear much the same. But now we’re told there are better practices. Apparently, today’s consultants know the exact approach to keep growth going. Open, disruptive, start-up, lean, and intrapreneurial approaches seem to be the solution. The problem for me is that I remember how each firm mentioned had new ventures and skunk works underway. They had intrapreneurial movements that eventually failed. And they had many radical innovations. But the methods we used were not enough. Getting out of their product line quagmires with innovation was nearly impossible.

Kodak is a great example. This company hired smart and innovative people. Look at their foray into diagnostic blood testing. They developed diagnostic blood chemistry they placed on 35 MM slides. The chemistry reagents embedded on slides were different for each diagnostic blood test to be conducted. It was creativity and ingenuity at their best. While Kodak sold the business to J&J Diagnostic’s (another of my clients) for about $1 billion, the whole venture could not offset all the bad stuff happening to Kodak’s core film product lines. In retrospect, you’d probably find that Kodak did many things you’d hope they would have done, even in the digital space. The problem was that they did the work too late. It was not for lack of methods they failed. It was because they were too late.

And that’s the problem. The most important aspect of strategy shifts is not a method, approach or guru-touted secret sauce. It’s the timing. The post-mortem on almost all failed product lines and companies would reveal statements like “we were bloody smart and knew what to do; we were simply too late.”

Mostly, the first reactive response to market and industry challenges is to tighten the ship using strong lean practices. This makes sense because the first intonation of shareholders is a loud demand for earnings, not revenue growth. Unfortunately, such lean methods are the approaches that create an inertia that holds back the needed product line and business transformations. Had they only started earlier, before creating “lean inertia,” outcomes would be different. Timing matters.

We’re left with a few key questions. How do companies build a capability to make strong, strategic, and timely product line moves? Should they do it with innovation or with other means? Who should be involved?

Proactive Product Lines

This is a leadership and governance problem. Ultimately it’s the leader’s face displayed on the cover of Fortune or Forbes Magazine when things fail. And the article will probably call out members of the board of directors. Failure is never pretty.

So here’s my advice to all product and innovation players and leaders. Be proactive. Be very proactive. And if your organization is already reactive to customers, markets, technologies, and industry change, triple your efforts. Do it at the product line level, the business unit level, and the corporate level. And recognize that smart strategy moves happen before feeling the pain. This demands urgency before the emergency. It’s a demand on organizational behavior and leadership to gain greater offense in product line strategies.

Good strategy moves for one product line may not offset major technology, industry, or economy shifts. A whole business unit may need to be involved. New products, new platform-levers, new markets, radical innovations, and new ventures may be needed. This requires a roll-up of good product line strategies. And it needs these good strategies to combine ­with, not separate from, new ventures and seed investments. Improving the full business growth portfolio matters much more than maximizing lean-driven project portfolios.

Go Ahead, Screw it Up

Want to screw up a product line? It’s easy. Simply remain reactive. Reactive responses invariably become too late to matter. Want to embrace proactive product line strategy moves? That’s harder but doable. First, build an organizational understanding of product line strategies. Then use this knowledge across product lines and your business unit.

I recommend checking out my white paper on Product Strategies and Roadmaps. Or for a deeper dive, you may wish to read my book The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy. Remember, good product line strategy demands urgency before emergency.


Book Product Line Strategy

Book – The Profound Impact of Product Line Strategy
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Whitepaper - Click to Download

Whitepaper – Strategizing, Roadmapping and Executing the Product Line

Whitepaper - Click to Download

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


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