Expert Advice for Product Managers (Part One)

The Product Manager's Handbook

At the end of every chapter of The Product Manager’s Handbook, I included an interview with a prominent business expert or consultant. Each offered a different perspective. Here are snippets of their words of wisdom when asked for their key tips. This is the first of a four-part series of expert advice for product managers.

The Many Sides of Brand Management

Mark Rothwell, 
Brand and product management expert

Mark Rothwell, AVP-Brand & Consumer Marketing, American Family Insurance

I think the best professional advice I ever received is: “Remain curious and tenacious.”

The best personal advice is: “Always be empathetic.”  That’s great advice for being a successful brand manager because it ensures that you always view things through the eyes of your customers.    

Product Managers Can Be Growth Leaders

Scott Davis
Brand consultant

Scott Davis, Chief Growth Officer, Prophet

CMOs and senior executives are clamoring for strategic growth plans that go beyond the budgetary considerations of dollars and cents. McDonald’s growth plan, for example, has four or five growth imperatives—McCafe being one of them—designed to help the company win in the marketplace.

Product and brand managers need to think in that same way. What are the five major imperatives you need to tackle to actually achieve your growth goals? What are the growth levers—the drivers that are going to take your company forward?  If you can answer those questions, you will be in a leadership position to tackle your firm’s growth agenda.


Financial Advice for Product Managers from a CMO

Mark Phillips
CMO and former product manager

Mark Phillips, Chief Marketing Officer, GE Healthcare

Good product managers do not need a finance degree or to be experts in finance. However, they should have financial skills sufficient enough to do two things: (1) determine the best pricing strategies; and (2) make solid business cases to justify a new product and/or additional distribution and marketing strategies for their products.

The above two items require the individual to be proficient with spreadsheets, have a basic understanding of an income statement (P&L) and be familiar with the basic concepts of break-even analysis and price waterfalls. There are other more sophisticated tools out there, and other financial concepts that would be icing on the cake, but these are the necessary basics. In today’s world, at a minimum, if you are a product manager, you better be familiar with this basic set. 

When I was a product manager, and now as a CMO, I spend a great deal of time working on business cases for everything from new products to new sales teams, and of course, marketing dollars! The finance involved is not sophisticated; however, you do need to understand how your company looks at a P&L and the key elements that drive it. No need to get into taxes, interest, and other corporate assessments. Just be able to walk from sales revenue to gross margin to contribution margin to operating profit. And of course, a great product manager will know how much a sales person can drive the ultimate sales of their products, how much a sales person will cost, how many marketing dollars you would need to be successful.

Lastly always befriend your finance team. A positive relationship with them can take you a long way…

Become a Business Partner with Finance

Doug Vaughan
Finance expert for product managers

Doug Vaughan, Finance Executive, Board Member

Clearly understand the income statement for your product. Understand revenue and any deductions from revenue. Deeply understand the product’s cost structure and all the other costs (such as sales, engineering, bad debt) associated with bringing the product to market. 

Understand the concept of return on invested capital and how that applies to managing the product on an ongoing basis (“What is the trade-off between inventory and service levels?”), as well as how that applies to investment decisions (“What is discounted cash flow?”).

Pricing. Be able to understand a price waterfall as well as how to map features and benefits versus price for your product and versus competitive products.

Forecasting. Understand how to use your firm’s financial forecasting process to spot trends in product line profitability and then take the appropriate actions based on the data.

If you have a good finance partner, make them a part of your team and involve him or her in everything you do.  If you don’t have a good finance partner, demand one.

Capture Market Knowledge through Anthropology

Paula Gray
Marketing research expert for product managers

Paula Gray, Director-Research & Knowledge Development, AIPMM,The Association of International Product Marketing and Managemen

As so many companies design and market their products in a global cross-cultural environment, it’s important for product managers to learn about those geographic regions and their cultural characteristics. Without specific training and education in anthropology, a product manager can still find out some key factors that affect and shape the lives of those customers, such as some commonly held beliefs, values, customs, major taboos and the region’s predominant religion. Though this isn’t a deep study, the knowledge will help product managers gain a more complete understanding of some of the findings of an ethnography, and it will allow them to better represent the voice of those customer’s needs. 

I think it is also important for product managers to conduct their own informal observations of customers whenever possible. They need to get face-time with these customers in order to gain an understanding of the complexity of these individuals. This informal observation can add insight and a layer of firsthand knowledge to augment the product managers’ own perspective.

Next month, on the first Friday, I will provide part two of the expert advice series.,

Expert Business Model Advice

Since this is the fifth Friday this month, I am adding another “Writer’s Choice” post. This time I’m sharing expert business model advice.

Business Model Renewal

At the end of every chapter of Business Model Renewal, I included an interview with a prominent business leader or consultant. Each offered a different perspective on business models. Here are snippets of their words of wisdom providing expert business mode advice.

The Importance of Developing a Business Model Portfolio

(Mary) Kay Plantes, Ph.D.
Expert in business models

Kay Plantes, Principal, Plantes Company, LLC

The speed with which product and service commoditization arises in today’s more open economy is remarkable. Price transparency, stronger buyers, supply chains that can copy anything, excess supply, the global recession and slow recovery—there are many forces behind the acceleration. Collectively they are shifting the basis of competition from individual products and services to business models as business models are harder for competitors to copy. I always tell my clients, “Every industry has its Wal-Mart, the lowest cost business model. If that’s not what you want to be or can be, avoid becoming your industry’s Sears. Think like Target – build a different business model.”

In industry after industry, barriers to entry are melting away. Industry boundaries are disappearing, competitive advantages are becoming obsolete as new ones arise and products and services are easily copied, thanks to supply chains that can recreate anything, seemingly overnight. In these turbulent seas, the most important question leaders can ask is: Do we have the right business models and how must we evolve them?

To secure year-in-year-out consistent performance, leaders must build a rich portfolio of business models, evolve these business models so they remain strong and then sell off the highly matured business models to make room for investing in emerging ones, like IBM did in selling off its personal computing and other commoditizing hardware businesses to make room for its Smarter-Planet service business. Leaders must build platforms that are leveraged by these business models, platforms that both advance efficiency and enable the company to offer its customers hard-to-copy benefits. And leaders must think about how their businesses relate to the external ecosystem of which they are a part, as competition is increasingly between ecosystems—the Microsoft world or Google world—and  not just individual companies.

“…[I]n today’s open economics, great execution is no longer sufficient for survival or success. Great strategy—the design of your business models, company, and ecosystem—is now a necessary ingredient for success and a key to capturing the many wonderful opportunities that today’s open markets create Make design an ongoing process that is separate from the planning work you must also do to make this year’s financial targets.”

Sustainable Growth without Radical Change

Bob Arzbaecher
Executive skilled in business model renewal

Bob Arzbaecher, Chairman, Actuant Corporation

  1. Look for incremental versus transformation change.  Execute on enough incremental changes over a few years and you will look back and decide you created transformational change.
  2. Focus on cash flow and ROIC.  Other metrics should support this overarching focus.
  3. Focus on what your customers are saying.  Do you have processes to capture accurate Voice of Customer (VOC)?
  4. Emphasize emerging markets. Where are your best opportunities and what might emerging markets do to your existing business model?

The Significance of Strategic Foresight in Thinking about the Future

Peter Bishop
Strategic foresight expert - valuable skills for business model renewal

Dr. Peter Bishop, Executive Director, Teach the Future

I guess the key learning is that you cannot predict the future.  We all know that, but we try to do it anyway.  So, a dose of humility and caution are more important than clarity and certainty.  Forecasts are always based on two things – data and assumptions. The data is usually not a problem, but most assumptions about the future have plausible alternatives, each of which leads to an alternative future scenario.

Rather than emphasizing accuracy, one should emphasize learning—that the future is a complex, unknown territory that will occur in surprising ways.  Competitive advantage is not to predict the future accurately, but to learn as quickly as possible how it is evolving and to approach it with all plausible assumptions in play.  It’s a strategic discussion about what is happening and what could happen that promotes understanding more than just information.

On the planning side, it’s less about technical processes for achieving goals and more about unleashing the aspirations of the people in the enterprise to make their mark by doing something interesting and valuable. 

Innovation From the Context of Business Models

Dave Franchino
Innovation and design thinking expert

Dave Franchino, President, Design Concepts

I’d just offer up both a cautionary tale and some encouraging words. Innovating the way in which you make money can be among the most difficult types of innovation to pursue. The problem is that business models are typically ingrained deep in the DNA of a firm, and the bigger and more complex the firm, the more ingrained and intractable the inertia around that business model. Just in the last year [recent past] we’ve seen the demise of Borders and the bankruptcy/sale of Blockbuster, two firms that were unable to revise their business models to suit a changing competitive landscape. There is an encouraging point to this risk, though. I have found that in general, no matter how the landscape for your business changes, there are usually ways to morph and alter your business model to leverage your competence and expertise and remain relevant. The best companies have found ways to do this, and both their product offerings and their business models often bear little resemblance to what they looked like originally. By leveraging the tools and methods used for products and services innovation, I think firms can think of novel new ways to both add and extract value.

Decision Making is a Critical Part of Leadership

John W. Conover, IV
Executive skilled in large-scale business model renewal

John W. Conover, IV, JWC4, LLC

Leaders must seek out feedback from those with different opinions and experiences. When planning a project, initiative or investment, you have to ensure you aren’t insulated. If you’re surrounded by “yes” men and women all the time, I believe your failures will be greater than your successes.  [D]ecisions should be data-driven to the extent feasible, to make certain that decisions are as intelligent and informed as possible—with the realization that risk will always be present. In the end you need to take the input, make a decision, and act. As leaders, we need to have a bias for action.

[Regarding employees] you have to trust them to do their job. Hiring excellent people, investing in their development, aligning on the vision and clearly understanding the boundaries are the keys to success. Let your employees make decisions within those boundaries. They are closer to the action and to the customer than I am. Empowered employees are more satisfied, develop faster, and create a learning organization culture. In a learning organization, we create a safe environment where contrarian views are encouraged, and even some failures—driven by the right motivators—are celebrated. There is a clear correlation between employee engagement, customer satisfaction and corporate profitability.

Here are my three final thoughts today:

First, now more than ever we need to stay focused on the customer. By watching our customers and understanding their issues and preferences we can create solutions for their unmet needs.

Second, the organization needs to stay nimble. Invert the corporate pyramid and put the customer on top. Quickly and efficiently bringing those solutions to market will create sustainable advantage.

Third, the leadership team needs to be diverse. As the rate of change in the world continues to accelerate, an organization needs to be broad in its thinking. A leadership team with broad skills and broad life experiences brings the diversity of thought that provides the depth of thinking required today.

The Importance of Leadership Talent Bench Strength in Business Model Renewal

John Malanowski
Expert in leadership talent bench strength in business model renewal

John Malanowski, Human Resources Officer Virence

Transactional leaders maintain the status quo and don’t easily recognize the competitive threats and external factors that can quickly erode a business model. Transactional leaders work well where an organization has an “operate-for-cash” or low-growth business model.

Transformational leaders, on the other hand, act with speed in separating those business issues that are beyond their control from those that they can do something about. Transformational leaders then drive change by visible leadership. People emulate their leaders. Successful transformations are built around relentless focus on a few broad strategies, the right organization structure, top talent, and engaging front-line leaders in the need for change. Transformational leaders know how to pull each of these levers through experience. Not moving as fast as you should, could cost competitiveness.

[L]earning as a leader should never cease. Great leaders seek out big problems as opportunities to continue to differentiate themselves and hone their leadership skills. The leader who creates a compelling vision for change, and models the behavior that is critical for success, will be a catalyst for change and have a followership that can transcend organizations and generations.

Don’t hesitate to confront transitions head on. Change brings opportunities. Be the change you want to see happen in your organization and lead from the front.

Don’t hesitate to confront transitions head on. Change brings opportunities. Be the change you want to see happen in your organization and lead from the front.

Cracking the Real-World Code for Linking Strategy with Implementation

Scott Lingren
 Expert in linking strategy and implementation

Scott Lingren, Schunk Xycarb Technology

I would not underestimate the commitment and investment needed by everyone in senior leadership and management to make the execution of a strategy successful. The preparation and rollout workload are on top of the regular challenges of the job and often occurs at times that seem the least convenient.

Carefully evaluate the challenges and reasons for failure. Acknowledge upfront that these things hit every leadership team in every industry no matter how good the strategies and the teams implementing them are. Work through details of how you, your teams, and your partners must address each of the fail points in a consistent manner, with the goal of either neutralizing each problem or turning it to your advantage. Be ready for this. Get your teams ready for this. Surprise is the enemy; take the time to anticipate problems so you can get out in front of them.

Orchestrating Business Model Renewal through Effective Organizational Change Initiatives

Joan Finley, Ph.D., PMP
Expert in orchestrating business model renewal through organizational change

Joan Finley, Ph.D., Enterprise Transformation and Governance Leader, AbbVie

Change agents are critical to engaging the people who are involved in the changes that leaders and stakeholders are driving forward. They are the opinion leaders (who proactively engage those people facilitating the new paradigms) and the human bridge from the past to the future. As bridge-builders, change agents must determine what needs to be in place for successful and sustainable change to occur. They become the support system—the safety net—for those in the organization as they go from denial, to exploration, to acceptance, to inspiration and being drivers of change. They are the underpinnings of any successful change as they inspire collaboration and camaraderie through social connectedness.

For change to occur effectively and in a timely manner, it is imperative to acknowledge both the leaders and the workforce. Application of positive change management techniques can drive innovation and change in a sustainable manner. I also advise that executives be patient with the workforce and model the change they wish to see.

Practice Random Acts of Kindness

The other day at the gym I overheard a snippet of a conversation. “For Lent I’ve decided to practice random acts of kindness.”

Now, I’ve heard of people giving up chocolate for Lent. I even heard news broadcasts about a man who had given up beer for Lent, and another man who said he gave up everything EXCEPT beer.

But doing more random acts of kindness as a resolution? What a great and relevant idea!

Random Acts of Kindness

I decided to research the topic and came across the “official site.” It’s owned by The Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) Foundation, a small nonprofit that invests resources into making kindness the norm. While there were no suggestions about using this as a Lenten activity, it did provide a host of kindness ideas. I also learned you can sign up to be a RAKtivists®, short for ‘Random Acts of Kindness activist.’

The definition of Random Act of Kindness

Wikipedia offers the following definition:

A random act of kindness is a nonpremeditated, inconsistent action designed to offer kindness towards the outside world. The phrase “practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” was written by Anne Herbert on a placemat in Sausalito, California in 1982. It was based on the phrase “random acts of violence and senseless acts of cruelty”. Herbert’s book Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty was published in February 1993 speaking about true stories of acts of kindness.

Random Acts of Kindness in the News

With all the bad news we hear all the time, it’s nice to take a step back and focus on some of the good stuff.

Here is a partial story from Channel 5 News in Seattle, Washington:

Police departments across the U.S. are challenging one another to surprise people with random acts of kindness in a campaign coined “#OperationPayItForward.” 

It started when a stranger surprised two LAPD officers by paying for their food at a restaurant. The two officers wanted to pay it forward, so they filmed a video of themselves paying for three cars behind them at a fast food drive thru window. 

LAPD posted the video on its Twitter account, challenging the New York Police Department to perform a similar act of kindness.

NYPD followed through, posting a video of two of its officers treating customers to free pizza, “cause everybody knows we got the best pizza,” one of the officers said.

The random acts of kindness challenge continued to police departments across the country.

Here’s another human interest news story from the Champaign, IL News-Gazette:

ELLEN HARMS
Volunteer, Daily Bread Soup Kitchen

“A woman came into the Soup Kitchen, distraught because she had lost her shoes. It was a cool autumn day, and she was wearing only a thin pair of socks.

“She insisted that her shoes, a pair of pink Crocs, must be somewhere in the building, although she also thought that someone might have stolen her shoes.

“One of our volunteers quietly began talking to the woman and calmed her down. The volunteer then checked our lost-and-found box, and she even searched the bathroom with the woman.

“Finally, she was able to settle the agitated woman down at a table with a plate of food, a steaming bowl of soup, a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. What I noticed next was heartwarming.

“After she ate, the woman without shoes walked out the door wearing a new pair of shoes and smiling broadly. Shortly after the woman left, the DBSK volunteer walked to her car — wearing only her socks.

“She was smiling too.”

What can you do?

An act of kindness doesn’t have to be large or impressive (although it can be). And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time (although that’s okay, too). It must just be sincere. Here are 20 ideas that may have been posted on various websites (or that just sprung into my head).

  • Pick up litter
  • Hold the door for a person carrying boxes
  • Stop to allow a pedestrian or bicyclist to cross the street
  • Compliment a stranger
  • Bake cookies for the elderly
  • Surrender a good parking spot
  • Include a shy person in your conversation
  • Forgive, even if it’s hard
  • Listen without judgment to those who disagrees with you
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt
  • Offer to help
  • Volunteer at a local nonprofit
  • Send a thank-you note that’s deserved but not expected
  • Smile at others, even when you don’t feel like it
  • Give up your seat on the bus
  • Babysit for free
  • Be a Good Samaritan
  • Engage in a conversation without reaching for your phone
  • Relinquish your spot in line at a store or restaurant
  • Hold the elevator

Obviously this is list is incomplete. Since these are random acts, there can ‘t be a full list. The point is, try something. Then keep the kindness flowing.

Everyday Mindfulness

I felt eyes boring into my back as I walked along the wooded bike trail near my home.

It was early morning, the air crisp and clean. There was no noise other than the sound of my steps and the gurgle of a creek. I was alone, but yet I wasn’t. Stopping, I did a 360° turn, scanning all directions.

Who—or what—was watching me?

The crack of a twig drew my eyes upward and I saw a large white owl. Its head swiveled slowly as I walked. I had found my watcher.

Eerie though it might have been, it was also an epiphany of sorts. I had been paying attention to the present moment.

I had been mindful.

But that wasn’t always the case. I used to pride myself on my ability to multitask. I was always in a hurry, my mind filled with thoughts about the past and future. But rarely the present. Not only did I miss out on things, I was always tense and stressed.

My first step to corral my thoughts was to take an improv class. With plots, characters, and scenes made up on the moment, I was forced to be present in the now.  But it wasn’t enough.

Later I took a photography class from a colleague, Chuck. While on an outing to the arboretum where the students were encouraged to take pictures, I continued my rushing around. Chuck put his hands on my shoulders and told me to slow down–to pay attention to the big and small things that were right in front of me.

It was my first glancing connection with everyday mindfulness. I decided to learn more about it.

What is mindfulness?

In the simplest terms, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment. That includes being aware of your thoughts, emotions, and sensations. By being aware without judgment, it gives you time to avoid jerk reactions.

Lifehacker provided the following as one of 20 definitions posted on the Positive Psychology Program website.

“Mindfulness has many synonyms. You could call it awareness, attention, focus, presence, or vigilance. The opposite, then, is not just mindlessness, but also distractedness, inattention, and lack of engagement.”

Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, was quoted with this definition on the same website.

“Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way.”

I really like his last phrase. We can appreciate and regulate the flow of information in our mind in a more conscious way. It can be hard, but awareness is the first step toward everyday mindfulness.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

Science has discovered several physical benefits of mindfulness. Five of the most commonly cited are:

  • Decreased stress—lower anxiety levels and a feeling of calm
  • Greater ability to deal with illness—both worry and symptoms can be reduced
  • More control over illness recovery—due to increased self-kindness and decreased rumination
  • Decreased depressive symptoms—enhances ability to regulate emotions
  • Improved general health—helps improve behaviors related to physical well-being

The number of articles describing the impact mindfulness has on the brain has been increasing. According to a 2015 HBR article:

Recent research provides strong evidence that practicing non-judgmental, present-moment awareness (a.k.a. mindfulness) changes the brain, and it does so in ways that anyone working in today’s complex business environment, and certainly every leader, should know about.

To test your awareness of the various health benefits and claims, take this 10-question mindfulness quiz on WebMD.

How is everyday mindfulness practiced?

The basis of most mindfulness practices is the focus on breathing. Concentrating on inhaling and exhaling slowly—paying attention to the movement of air through your body—focuses the mind on the present. It can be practiced at any and all times throughout the day. Sometimes it is spontaneous, and at other times it is combined with meditation or yoga, both of which tune into breathing.

Mindfulness is becoming mainstream, even being used in situations you wouldn’t expect. The New York Times explained its role in the military.

Mindfulness — the practice of using breathing techniques, similar to those in meditation, to gain focus and reduce distraction — is inching into the military in the United States and those of a handful of other nations….the troops who went through a monthlong training regimen that included daily practice in mindful breathing and focus techniques were better able to discern key information under chaotic circumstances and experienced increases in working memory function. The soldiers also reported making fewer cognitive errors than service members who did not use mindfulness.

The neuroscience of mindfulness involves, in part, strengthening a part of mental capacity known as “working memory” — a short-term, moment-to-moment catalog of tasks understood by scientists to effectively hold only a few pieces of information at one time.

As working memory clouds through overload, decisions become jumbled and reactions more impulsive. Breathing-induced focus lets people home in on the task at hand. But it does take practice.

Still not convinced?

Everyday mindfulness is not voodoo. It’s not new age mumbo jumbo. It has value for the average person, the average manager, the average employee. And Psychology Today has shared the Top 10 Reasons Why Mindfulness is Cool.

10.  It’s free.

 9.  It helps us accept things that we cannot change.

 8.  It’s accessible to all of us, regardless of our spiritual beliefs.

 7.  It’s supported by research as being helpful (but it’s not a panacea).

 6.  It can be done without any extraordinary effort.

 5.  It encourages us to trust in our own experiences.

 4.  It helps us get over our selves.

 3.  It allows us greater flexibility in living.

 2.  It can be done anytime, anywhere.

 1.  It feels nice(r).

When you’re done reading this, pay attention to your present moments. Slow down. Take time to practice everyday mindfulness.

Product Platforms: Definitions and Pros and Cons

There are two very different types of platforms: digital platforms in technology, and physical platforms in other fields.

Digital Platforms

A digital platform is an ecosystem designed to enable different groups to co-create value through “plug-and-play” capabilities. The technology infrastructure of the platform touches customers and developers beyond the firm’s boundaries. LinkedIn, FaceBook, Google and Amazon—in fact most technology businesses—have platform-based business models.

Physical Platforms

Physical platforms in other industries refer to product family or product portfolio platforms intended to reduce manufacturing and development costs for new products. In this case a platform is a common architecture, collection of assets, component designs, subsystems, or other elements shared by several products.

Example Automotive Platform Strategies

The automotive industry is well-known for its use of shared platforms across various car models. By using the same chassis for different vehicles or using modular sub-systems or common components, companies can improve time-to-market and cost efficiency. And the use of the approach has escalated. Volkswagen, prior to the diesel hit on its reputation and profitability, had designed a mega platform strategy which was considered by many in the industry to be a game-changer. As described in a Carscoops article:

Both analysts and the auto industry believe that the MQB could prove to be as revolutionary as Henry Ford’s production line or Toyota’s “just-in-time” system. VW has been working on it since 2007, [its investment reaching] nearly US$70 billion. Considering that Morgan Stanley estimates it will result in annual gross savings of US$19 billion by 2019, that’s money well spent.

Since the MQB is designed for models with a transversely-mounted engine, VW also has two other aces up its sleeve: the MLB platform, for models with longitudinally-mounted engines, and the MSB, for premium rear- and all-wheel drive models from Porsche, Lamborghini, Bentley and, probably, Audi too.

So that makes a total of three modular platforms, each designed from the outset to use a huge set of common components and be able to accommodate gasoline, diesel and even hybrid powertrains.

Over the past decade, other car companies worked toward similar cost-cutting measures. Just Auto suggests that General Motors will be following a plan “to use ten core architectures, many of which will have shared modules, for all future vehicles.”

It’s worth noting that the internet of things is affecting even the car companies. Connectivity is central to many of their growth strategies and they will be using global technology platforms in addition to vehicle platforms.

Both types of platform strategies are important, but the focus here is on product platforms.

Pros of product platforms

There are many benefits to using a product platform strategy: reduce overall costs, force a long-term perspective, and build on customer loyalty.

  • Reduce overall costs. Use of common components and subsystems can reduce overall, long-term costs and leverage available resources to be more efficient and effective. Given that the components and subsystems have already been debugged and tested, the resulting products should have higher quality. Since platform development occurs less frequently than product development, major platform decisions do not need to be made as often. This has the potential to foster lean product development.
  • Force a long-term perspective. Since product platforms are intended to “fit” many future products, the approach is designed to accommodate future product expansion. This forces a long-term perspective and has the potential to open up diversified revenue streams.
  • Build on customer loyalty. As customers develop preferences for certain platforms, they may become more loyal. This can be especially true in situations where the customer would need to change behavior to use a different platform.

Cons of Product Platforms

On the other hand there are potential drawbacks: high upfront costs, risk of platform obsolescence, risk of platform recall affecting numerous products, and potential duplication of effort.

  • High upfront costs. The upfront costs of platform design and development can be significant. As indicated in the Carscoops article, Morgan Stanley estimated that the upfront costs of the VW mega platform strategy was in the range of $70 billion. Significant savings have to be forecast to justify the investment.
  • Risk of platform obsolescence. The difference between platform planning beforehand and launching derivatives from an existing platform is one of timing. With a platform strategy, the architecture for the foundation of several future products is decided in advance. The potential risk is that the underlying assumptions were flawed and the foundational approach won’t work as planned. And product platforms are not necessarily evergreen. If they become obsolete and are not periodically rejuvenated, the derivative products also risk obsolescence. Therefore product platforms need occasional updating.
  • Platform recalls. There are also quality considerations. If there is a product recall necessitated by a problem in the platform, a greater number of products will need to be recalled than would be the case without the platform strategy.
  • Duplication of effort. Some platforms provide the common architecture for offerings of different product managers. Unless there is strong communication between product managers, there may be duplication of efforts and reduced cost savings.

So as with all strategies, product managers have to weigh the positives and the negatives to make the best decision for their product line.

Product Strategy & Roadmaps

Excerpted from Product Strategy & Roadmaps by Linda Gorchels

Scenario Development: A Tool for Strategic Foresight

What is strategic foresight?

It’s the disciplined study of the future. It’s a strategic thinking process rather than a strategic planning process. As such, it goes beyond traditional economic, statistical, and business forecasting. It goes beyond extrapolating current and past trends. It may apply scenario development as a tool.

Why is foresight important?

We live in an increasingly complex time in which the connections between past, present, and future are often unpredictable. People use foresight to help steer a course between the false certainty of precise forecast models and the chaos of ignored circumstances.

Several years ago, I attended a certificate program in strategic foresight at the University of Houston. The class comprised a cadre of individuals from the military, national security, think tanks, corporations and higher education. Highly diverse, but with a common goal: how to prepare for the future.

Every long-term decision is a bet on the future

Foresight methods, many of which were developed by the RAND Corporation, have been used for decades, particularly in the military. Unlike forecasting, in which individuals attempt to predict a singular future, foresight identifies several plausible futures to allow leaders to prepare for what might happen. The objective is to stimulate, inform, and prepare people for a variety of future possibilities.

Interestingly, the actions we take can shape the future. An excerpt from past promotional material from the World Future Society reiterates this point.

If one could predict the future with certainty, it would mean that the future could not be changed…Yet this is the main purpose of studying the future: to look at what might happen if present trends continue, decide if that is what is desirable, and if it’s not, work to change it…The ability to see and create the future is the essence of leadership.

I love that last line: The ability to see and create the future is the essence of leadership.

Think about it. The future is not predetermined. Each of us has the ability to influence some aspect of the future. (While I’ll focus on organizational foresight, the concepts can be adapted for personal foresight, as well.) Are you up to it?

Scenario development

A common tool of foresight, especially for long-term strategy, is scenario development or planning. It’s a way of envisioning alternative futures by telling stories about how the future might unfold for your particular organization. The goal is to increase an organization’s readiness for a range of possibilities.

Because the past may not be a good predictor of the future, scenario planning encourages organizations to consider how demographics, globalization, technology, and other changes will shape the future. By doing this, decision makers decrease the likelihood of being unprepared for discontinuities. They can challenge their own entrenched mental models and assumptions, and anticipate a broader set of future possibilities.

  • Define your focal issue

It’s impossible to study all aspects of the future all of the time. Some constraints are necessary to prevent scenario planning from disintegrating into a mushy pool of wandering. Frame the focus as an open question, such as the following.

  • What impact will artificial intelligence have on the internet-of-things for residential products over the next ten years?
  • What factors will reinforce or disrupt long-term care in the United States by 2030?
  • How and where will green energy evolve over the next quarter century?

Note that the questions don’t have a yes-no decision format. The goal is to generate a range of plausible futures that might include something that would be overlooked in a simple question.

  • Identify plausible catalysts of discontinuity

The next step is to analyze driving forces of change. There are many acronyms of topics categories to consider.

STEEP (social, technological, economic, ecological, political)

PEST or PESTLE (political, economic, social, technological, legal, environmental);

TIME (technology, industry, market, ecosystem)

Study trends in each of these categories, paying particular attention to inflection points. If the trends continued at a faster, slower, or a similar pace, where would each lead in the future?

  • Gather diverse perspectives

People need to push past their comfort-level box-of-knowledge for foresight. Shell Energy’s team for its Global Scenarios to 2025, for example, included both internal and external experts. Some of the internal authorities were the group’s chief economist, the head of its energy team, the chief political analyst, and members of group strategy and planning, among others. They also received insight from centers of excellence in academia, consulting, and think tanks.

Geraldine Wessing, Shell political analyst, points out that for most people…

“imagining the future and recalling memories both use the same area of the brain, which means we can only imagine the future as being similar to what we already know. One way of challenging our assumptions is by becoming aware of and understanding different perspectives.”

  • Create plausible futures

Now it’s time to create stories about the future. How do the drivers–the catalysts–relate to one another? Is a high extreme on one factor related to a low extreme on another? Craft the information into three to five scenarios, each with a description of a paragraph or two. In 2006, Sai Ma and Michael Seid published a disease management set of scenarios for 2020. Here is a partial description of one of the probable futures.

Multinational corporations that control pharmaceutical and health information technology have grown exponentially; much of the data used by these corporations is proprietary; patents continue to be rigorously enforced….In this world, players are very diffuse and each has little purchasing power….As a result, cost of treatments (drugs, surgeries) could be very high due to the lack of negotiation power and “wholesale” price.

  • Determine the implications of each scenario

Several plausible scenarios have been defined. It’s time to prepare a high-level strategy for each. What capabilities are required to execute each strategy? What gaps exist? What would be the risk posed by a particular scenario happening for which you didn’t have the necessary competencies?

Take a look at each strategy and see how well it would fare in the alternate scenarios. If you are fortunate enough to identify a strategy that is sufficiently robust to work under all scenarios, that simplifies the choice.

But it is more likely that the strategies are winners in some scenarios and losers in others. Look for common elements of all (or most) strategies and try to create a modified strategy that minimizes the risk of failure regardless of which of the scenarios comes to pass.

At the same time, keep abreast of any early indicators of progress toward or away from each of the scenarios. As mentioned already, the essential value of scenario development is an examination of a broader range of plausible futures than is the case with traditional business planning. Since most large organizations have a bias toward the status quo, scenario development may provide a gentle reminder that a current business model or strategy may not be the best option for all defined plausible futures.

The Many Benefits of Proper Posture

Did anyone ever tell you to “stand up straight” or “sit up straight”?

Check your posture right now. Are you slumping?

Modern living is having a dramatic (and mostly negative) effect on our posture. Being hunched over computers and cell phones, slouching, and a sedentary lifestyle contribute to a host of problems. But improvements are possible with better posture. And the benefits are worth it.

Mental Health Benefits of Good Posture

Mood. Improving your posture has several psychological benefits.  A 2017 study from the University of Auckland found that good posture helps ease depressive symptoms. Individuals with mild to moderate depression had more energy and a less negative mood after sitting up straight compared with others who slouched.

Self-confidence. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power poses explained how an expansive posture can activate a sense of power in the mind. Some research suggested it was due to positive changes in hormone levels, although that’s somewhat controversial.

Physical Health Benefits of Good Posture

Back. Maintaining a slouched position—sitting or standing—puts pressure on the lower back. Good posture helps maintain the natural curves in your spine.

Neck. A forward head posture, where the head is in front of shoulders rather than directly above, increases neck strain, and may cause headaches. Muscle imbalances arise as the body tries to adapt to the aggravating position. By maintaining a neutral head carriage, neck pain will be reduced.

Digestion. A slouched posture is suspected to hinder digestion. By reducing compression on abdominal organs, their functioning can be returned to normal.

Joints. Chronic bad posture stresses your body, making it harder for muscles to take the pressure off joints. It can lead to joint deterioration. Regular stretches and movement help “lubricate” joints.

Breathing. An American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation study (2006) found that bad posture affects breathing and lung capacity. Slouching restricts breathing volume. Correct spinal alignment improves lung functioning.

Fatigue. Bad posture can limit range of motion, leading to chronic fatigue. Proper posture might just provide more energy.

Perceptual Benefits of Good Posture

Posture not only affects how you feel about yourself, but also how other people perceive you. Right or wrong, posture is one signal of professionalism and success.

There’s an episode of Burn Notice (Season 2 Episode 7) which shows a clear contrast. Michael Weston (covert spy) poses as a chemist geek. Compare the change in body language from spy to geek. Note the differences in posture (straight versus hunched shoulders), walk (self-assured gait versus shuffling) and facial expressions (confident versus insecure). The person is the same, but the aura exhibited is different.

Tips on improving posture

Improve your work station ergonomics.  Given how much time people spend working at their desks, ergonomic improvements can help with alignment. Your feet should be flat on the floor, your wrists should be straight, and the height and location of the monitor should be appropriate for its size and the type of work you are doing.  See the Ergonomics Self-Assessment Checklist from the National Institutes of Health for more specifics.

Take frequent breaks. Apply the 20-20-20 Rule when working at your desk. Set a timer. Every 20-30 minutes, stand up and look at something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds. This will help your spine readjust and help reduce eyestrain. Working out a few times a week—or even more—is great, but you still need to move your body frequently throughout the day.

Stretch during the breaks. Focus on common tight spots. Do shoulder rolls forward and backward. To stretch your scapula, pinch the shoulder blades together while keeping the shoulders down. As a counter-stretch, place both hands on the desk, straightening your arms and rounding your back. Roll your neck. Twist at the waist by turning and grabbing the left side of the chair, then the right.

I came across Dr. Greg MacLuckie’s video a few years ago and found it useful for my own purposes. He recommends leaning into a corner (I use a doorway) with arms about shoulder height, palms up. The exercise opens up the chest to counteract the effects of slouching. This is followed by a scapula pinch, with head pulled back. I don’t always do it six times a day as he suggests, but I try to do it more than once.

If you’re still not convinced, here is a one-minute news video on the Health Benefits of Better Posture.

Myths and Realities about Creativity

People have a lot of different beliefs about creativity. And some are just plain myths.

Myths and Realities

Which side of the brain is responsible for creativity? If you said the right-side, you get partial credit.  For decades the right-brain meme has dominated articles on creativity. Creative people (thought generators) were often described as right-brained. Analytical people (logic-driven) were called left-brained.

It’s true that the two hemispheres of the brain function differently. And it’s also true that the spontaneous processing of those Aha! Insights involves more of the right hemisphere. This is especially true for emotional processing. But these insights represent just one type of creativity. And it doesn’t mean that ONLY one side of the brain was involved.

The right-brain myth stemmed from brain lateralization research in 1981. The technology at the time provided imprecise measurements that are now being fine-tuned. Rather than simply trying to engage your right-brain to think more creatively, it’s more about the ability of the different parts of the brain to work together. In 2017, an international research team discovered that top percentile creatives had stronger connections between the left and right hemispheres of their brains. Therefore, the more you can use your whole brain, and the more you can connect insights with data, the more you can stimulate creativity.

  • The Eureka Myth

The Eureka myth is the belief that creativity comes from a subconscious flash of insight. The myth conveniently glosses over the time and hard work that precedes the insight.  Sir Harold Evans, in HBR’s The Eureka Myth, discusses the problems with this fallacy.

The trouble with the eureka myth is that it causes managers and investors to overestimate the pace of invention and underestimate the fortitude required to move from the early stages of discovery to a marketable product. Thomas Watson, Jr., is one of the few who took—and took sustenance from—a more realistic view. In the 1950s, Watson struggled to move IBM from punched cards to computers, “something a hundred times faster that we didn’t understand,” he later wrote. What kept him going through this grueling process? He thought of the Wright brothers, moving doggedly from one problem to the next, “any one of which could have grounded them for good,” as Watson told it. In the popular imagination, the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk kicked off the age of aviation. But as Watson, a wartime pilot, knew, it took four more years of hard, secretive labor before the Wrights were able to demonstrate flight that was sufficiently sustained to convince a skeptical world.

Books often glamorize the moment at which a problem is solved by a particularly inventive solution. But without giving thought to the time and resources to get to that point, creativity may actually be diminished.

  • The DNA Myth

Many people believe that they are not creative because they were not “born” creative. A few studies of twins suggest heredity is involved to some extent, but effort can be just as important. In fact, creativity can be amplified when you build a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.

Carol Dweck, in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, explains that when you believe intelligence, creativity and other human qualities are unchangeable (fixed), you limit your ability to excel. On the other hand, a growth mindset allows continual evolution through experience, education, and personal effort. In the book, she quotes Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist: “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures … I divide the world into the learners and the nonlearners.”

Ingenuity can be learned, even though it is true that not everyone will become a gifted artist. You can nudge yourself to become more imaginative by purposefully building your capacity for life-long learning and brain development. Just as you may exercise your body to become brawny, you can flex your creative brain by being open to new experiences and perspectives.

  • The “I-am-too-old” Myth

There is no expiration age at which creativity shrivels and wilts. In 2011, George Weiss invented the word game Dabble. He was 84 at the time, and was believed to be the oldest mobile app inventor in America. Benjamin Franklin is credited with inventing bifocals in 1784, at the age of 78. While Thomas Edison filed most of his patents when he was in his 30s and 40s, his patents continued to 1931, the year he died at the age of 84.

The flip side of “I-am-too-old” is “I-am-too-young.” This may not be as big of a stigma because youth is correlated with most characteristics of creativity (curiosity, resilience, open-mindedness, etc.).  However, they may lack some relevant domain-knowledge. The key then is to work with others.

Take 13-year-old Gitanjali Rao, for example. The Colorado grade-school student was named America’s top young scientist (at age 11) in 2017 for designing a small, global device for testing lead in drinking water. Two years later she had earned a spot on the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 list. According to the NPR article about her, she was motivated by the Flint water crisis. She worked with scientists in the water industry to create a working prototype consisting of a card-deck-sized box containing a battery, Bluetooth and carbon nanotubes. Data is sent to a smartphone app. A lab manager at Denver Water is working with Rao to test and improve the device.

  • The Creativity-can’t-be-Learned Myth

Similar to the DNA Myth, this misconception arises from the belief that creativity is a magical, mysterious, unstructured essence. There are no concrete rules that work universally.

True enough.

Nevertheless, experts know that the rhythm of divergent-to-convergent thinking stimulates idea generation and refinement. They know that incubation is an important part of the process. And they are aware that flow, iteration and goal-setting can be instrumental. These are concepts that can be taught and adapted to fit individual styles.

Don’t trap yourself into believing that you have to be like Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs to be creative. Yes, you might be inspired by them, or learn new tactics from their examples. But to be creative, it’s best to springboard from your authentic self, your own creative Soul. What do you care about, or for some reason have heightened interest in, that can spark your creativity? And then get to work.

Developing the Business Case for New Products

Developing and defending a new product business case can be an intimidating task for many product managers.  Let’s start with two common myths.

Myth One:  The more a precise business case is, the more accurate it is.

Ironically, this is not true. Business cases rely on assumptions and estimates about the future: forecasted sales, customer intent, and expected costs. Adding more decimal points may provide the appearance of precision, but the reality is there is still a lot of subjectivity to the numbers.

Myth Two: A successful business case always gets funded.

A successful business case is one that helps make the right decisions. Keep in mind that the purpose of the business case is to determine the business potential for a product concept. Or it might be to determine what changes are necessary. But some product managers believe they HAVE to get approval. As a result, they are tempted to pad projections or become wildly optimistic on their assumptions. On the other hand, if they presents realistic data and truly believes in the value of the proposed product, it defines a successful business case and should be funded.


Definition of Business Case

What exactly is a business case? I define it as a structured proposal for investment in a new product. It will contain:

  • market requirements (i.e., needs or benefits)
  • general statement of the feasibility of building a product that addresses the requirements
  • discussion of the size of the opportunity
  • financial overview
  • resources required to address assumptions and risks

In other words, it provides the case (i.e., rationale) to support economic investment in the new product project. It may also suggest contingency plans if the assumptions become invalidated.

What’s the REAL Purpose of a Business Case?

The goal is to provide ammunition for decision-making. It should explain why other concepts were rejected in favor of this one.

Start with gathering data on market potential. Assess what factors increase or decrease potential market acceptance, and then forecast accordingly. The business case should predict the outcome if this decision is taken. Determine reasonable cash flow projections with rough probabilities of achieving various cash flows during an acceptable payback period.

Include Soft Benefits

Beyond the forecasted revenues and costs, there may be soft benefits to consider. These could include increased brand awareness, referrals, or higher customer satisfaction. For example, if the assumption is that a new product will prevent defection to the competition, the financial value of this business can be estimated.

Remember, This is a Proposal

The business case is a skeleton plan that provides the financial, competitive and market justification for the project. It is essentially an economic proposal for an investment, and should build from data. Think of a business case in the context of an entrepreneur compiling a business plan in an effort to get venture capital, or a loan from a bank. But in this case, the company is the “bank.”

Answer these questions. Why are you considering this concept at this time? Consider its fit with the business strategy, product strategy, and/or product roadmap. Is this a proactive or reactive product?  Will it fill a gap or open new opportunities?  What is the size of the opportunity and the expected financial performance? Is the concept manufacturable, and do we have the capabilities to do it? What might be the consequences of NOT pursuing this concept? What are the risks and how will they be mitigated? Don’t assume the answers to all of these questions are obvious. They might not be.

Components of the Business Case

Companies will require different content for a business case depending on the type of industry or product and on the needs of the individual business

The following figure lists the primary components and sub-components of a business case. Note that underlying all of them are your assumptions. Clearly state important assumptions and “pressure test” them against other people’s perspectives. What would happen to the outcome if these assumptions changed? Look at best- and worst-case scenarios. Challenge yourself as you examine your beliefs about each component of the business case.

Business case components

Framing and selling the business case

Assuming you truly believe in the proposed product concept, the business case should persuade management to pursue it. In other words, the information should be presented in a way that informs and encourages an affirmative “vote.”

The product manager may need to make a formal presentation of the idea to management.  In that case, it’s important to identify the “hot buttons” of each person prior to the meeting and come prepared to address them. Top management will be interested in the return (expressed by NPV or IRR) and payback. Sales executives will want to know the strengths of the product as compared with the competition. Operations executives will be concerned about design complexity and manufacturability.

Consequently, the product manager has to be prepared to address specific functional concerns in addition to providing a general overview. The most important factor in disarming adversaries is to get their involvement and buy-in prior to the final review. Marty Schmidt suggests specific approaches to these problems in his blog post, Your Business Case Critic: How to De-Claw the Cat.

Further information

Perhaps the most comprehensive source of information on building business cases is Marty Schmidt’s Business Case Analysis website. It provides a useful blog, along with links to Business Case Essentials (2018), Business Case Templates (2019), and The Business Case Guide (2018).

What is Pronoia?

Pronoia? What’s that?

I heard the term for the first time in a yoga class. It was introduced as an antonym to paranoia. Here is Wikipedia’s definition:

Pronoia is a neologism coined to describe a state of mind that is the opposite of paranoia. Whereas a person suffering from paranoia feels that persons or entities are conspiring against them, a person experiencing pronoia feels that the world around them conspires to do them good.

Pro and Con of Pronoia

This sounds good until it later references a paper by Dr. Fred H. Goldner in which he describes pronoia as a “delusion that others think well of [you] … politeness and the exchange of pleasantries are taken as expressions of deep attachment and the promise of future support.”

Ignoring the delusion part, I rather like the concept of pronoia, the feeling that the universe is on your side rather than against you.

As I tried to find more about it online, most of the information linked it to shamanism, astrology, and mystical experiences. Even a 1994 New York Times article provided a skeptical look at the concept. The psychological delusion aspect seemed to become more prominent.

Ouch!

I just liked the positive vibe of an antidote to paranoia! It seemed like a good follow-up to my well-being blog on gratitude last week.

I think I get it now. If we believe that others are conspiring behind our backs to help us, we give up control of our own role in life. But is that absolutely necessary? Isn’t the concept really close to a positive mental attitude, as described on Wikipedia?

[A] positive mental attitude is that philosophy which asserts that having an optimistic disposition in every situation in one’s life attracts positive changes and increases achievement. Adherents employ a state of mind that continues to seek, find and execute ways to win, or find a desirable outcome, regardless of the circumstances.

It’s all About Your Attitude, Thoughts and Emotions

Your thoughts produce powerful emotions. Especially bad ones. This was portrayed vividly in the opening paragraphs  of Positive Mental Attitude: 10 Mindsets for Happiness on the Live Bold & Bloom website of life coach Barrie Davenport.

You have somewhere around 45,000 negative thoughts a day.

Not just you — everyone does.

That’s about 80% of all of your thoughts. The vast majority of our thoughts are unpleasant, stressful, or self-sabotaging. Our brains are like a network news channel, only reporting the bad stuff with a sprinkling of good news to keep us from throwing ourselves off a cliff.

Wow. That’s a sobering premise. If your thoughts are creating miserable emotions, it’s time to take control. Here are the 10 suggestions Barrie provided in her article.

  1. Create awareness – notice when you succumb to negative thinking
  2. Break the spell – interrupt the mental looping of the thought
  3. Fill in the blank – redirect your thoughts
  4. Practice daily gratitude – be intentional in appreciating everything positive
  5. Stop reacting – consciously overrule knee-jerk reactions
  6. Find positive people – spend time with happy, uplifting people
  7. Have more fun – plan for relaxation and downtime
  8. Turn off the news – pay attention to inspiring news to balance the negative stuff
  9. Simplify your life – get rid of unneeded stuff, including those on your to-do list
  10. Spend time with family and friends – initiate meaningful family events

The Law of Attraction

Getting back to pronoia, it’s also a distant cousin to The Law of Attraction. This is a concept I first learned about by listening to a recording by Brian Tracy, perhaps 20+ years ago. And I still remember it. His website explains The Law of Attraction as follows: “You always attract into your life the people, ideas, and resources in harmony with your dominant thoughts.” He builds on this definition in his 2-minute video on the topic. He ends this solid quote:

You are not what you think you are, but what you THINK, you ARE.”

Brian Tracy

While the universe may not be conspiring to work in your favor, you can stack the decks by controlling how you think. Reign in your negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control what you think about it. Accept the reality of what is with a smile.