In a past life, I held the position of a product manager for a company that was the leader in a substantial and mature industry. As a product manager, I learned many things:
- First I learned that the product manager role in any organization is extremely hard work and not for the faint of heart. I mean, who would even want the job of being in the middle of demanding customers, unruly salespeople, tentative engineers, anxious operations managers, out of touch managers and cautious finance and accounting folks? Sounds like a perfect job for a middle child, which I am not. In addition, even though we had good market research, I always felt like I was running in circles, responding to the largest customer or market anecdotes without a good sense of the real market needs
- Second, I learned that responding to those counter pressures was the safest way to operate. While it was considered ‘customer focused’, in the end, our efforts often resulted in product features and pricing models that looked pretty much like everything else in the market, even though internally we felt we had invented something unique
- Last, I learned that working to make my product line truly ‘different’ in the market required skill, courage, leadership, and even a little luck.
In her book ‘Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd’ Harvard Business Professor Youngme Moon describes the concept of ‘category blur’. Her argument is that once a product category becomes a blur to customers, they start to adopt a consumption posture directed toward the category as a whole, as opposed to the individual brands within it. Professor Moon says, “We [buyers] no longer see the trees for the forest so we cop a stance toward the forest instead.” On the other hand, what she terms ‘breakaway’ products and brands deviate from these stereotypes in such a way as to cast doubt on the validity of the original generalizations.
The concept of ‘different’ implies the ability to compare and contrast one against another – for both customers and product managers. In order to deliver products that are truly different product managers must start with knowledge of his or her own product, production and pricing capabilities, etc. (the internal environment). At the same time they must have deep knowledge of the competitor’s products and capabilities along with buyer needs, perceptions and behavior (the external environment). In addition, since the external environment is constantly changing as customer needs change, competitors change, and technology and other trends drive change, the awareness of differences must be continuous. (Refer to the difficult role of the product manager above).
When we started working with one of our very good clients several years ago, the senior executive told me, “We have launched so many new products and product improvements over the years that have failed.” He added, “They not only cost money but hurt our reputation with customers, and we know that solid investment on the front-end is critical.”
It is the external environment where Line of Sight Group helps our clients. Our approach is to help product management professionals improve their effectiveness by collaborating with them to ‘out-smart’ their competition by identifying the disruption that represents opportunities and threats before their competitors do. We help them benchmark the competition, watch their ever-changing external environment and help them connect the dots. They apply the insight to close gaps to reduce risk and Identify ‘white space’ opportunities to make their products truly ‘different’.
As noted above, sometimes being ‘different’ requires a little luck beyond the leadership and hard work of a product manager. Sometimes that luck comes in the form of additional knowledge and insight – and it can mean all the difference.