“The journey is the destination. The process you’re in is the goal. Success is never defined by the outcome but by the process.”
– Paul Young
Why did every product we launched seem to feel different? And why were we struggling so much with this one in particular? We had a product lifecycle, although… it wasn’t documented in a playbook. That said, in my mind — we hit all the critical elements.
I thought we were in good shape, given that this was the next release of an existing software product. The strategy was complete, the build was in process, and we were ready to activate. But the team seemed lost about what to do next.
When I polled the team about the lifecycle, they disagreed with my insistence that we had one. In their opinion, each team acted independently, and as a result, we were lucky to ship on schedule, if at all.
To them, given the lifecycle was not written down or enforced, it might as well not exist. To not write down the lifecycle was a major fail on my part.
Companies of all sizes, public and private, make the same mistake. They claim to have a product lifecycle and even talk about a product lifecycle but don’t write it down or anchor product development, launch, and management in it. This leaves their team in the dark about the phases and expectations. I can say this for sure based on past lessons learned. If it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist. If you haven’t communicated and trained your team on it, it doesn’t work. And if you don’t hold to the management processes, no one will care.
Although there are many definitions of product lifecycle management (PLM), they all share common threads. In the world of a physical product, it’s the process of managing a ‘thing’ through the stages of its life, from development through decline.
In the software or digital world, it’s about managing code, the product, through the steps of its lifecycle from ideation to sunset. In either case, it’s a process often supported by software designed to drive consistency, predictability, and transparency through a product’s creation, launch, growth, maturity, and decline.
The product creation and evolution process is often noisy and chaotic due to the creative forces at play. Product lifecycle management brings order to the chaos and discipline to the decisions required at each step. It guides the team to repeatable outcomes.
Interestingly enough, I have been in the middle of many arguments with creatives and engineers on the value of having and managing a product lifecycle. It’s often an ironic conversation as all the key players involved in product development have their processes — design thinking, SCRUM, market planning, etc. They don’t oppose process at a local level; it’s the governance they resist — someone looking over their shoulder. The end-to-end thinking they claim cramps their style.
They don’t realize that without a process to govern across, products often fail to reach the growth phase, the team doesn’t make end-to-end decisions, and swirl often abounds amongst many other challenges. Beyond discipline and repeatability, the product lifecycle drives to defined steps, sets boundaries, calls out dependencies, and fosters collaboration.
No product lifecycle = no clear path to product growth and maturity.
While I never want to say anything I do is typical, product lifecycles are amazingly similar. They are distinguished in only the words they use to describe the phases: market development, market introduction, market growth, maturity, and market decline. Develop, introduce, grow, mature, saturate, decline. There are almost endless ways to describe the same thing.
That said, many miss an important and distinct phase, highlighted in the lifecycle below — Product Strategy. It’s not that they don’t describe some or all of the activities of product strategy, but in my experience, they are misplaced across the lifecycle phases instead of a distinct first phase.
Note that I prefer to take a contrarian approach and describe the lifecycle based on the teams engaged and the activities completed. So while I do agree there are the phases of market development through market decline, I also believe that isn’t the best way to describe the lifecycle as there is much more at play.
So without further adieu, here are the phases as I categorize them:
Product strategy aims to lay out a clear path to achieve the company’s objectives through a product. A path that shortens time to results, accelerates growth and reduces waste due to rework. As a bridge between business strategy and product development, product strategy has one primary goal — creating clarity.
Clarity around the product vision, market opportunity, end-to-end story, how to win, value to the user, metrics, objectives, and how the product contributes value to the organization. Product strategy lays out the case to decide whether to move a product into development. Product strategy is concerned with market development for new products and major model changes/releases.
Product development builds on the strategy phase by further conceptualizing the product, validating it, creating the roadmap, releasing the minimum loveable product, and iterating until you have a product ready for general release.
Product development is not synonymous with product management. It’s a distinct phase focused on launching a new product or new model/release, not iterating between models or versions. Product development is concerned with market development and market introduction for new products and major model changes/releases.
Product activation is another phase often missed, minimized, or folded into other steps. IMHO there are two sides to product activation — launch execution and demand generation. Launch execution, whether a new product or significant model/release, encompasses all the steps required to get a product in the market. This includes activities ranging from branding to operational readiness to brand review.
Demand generation is how it sounds — generating demand for a new product or release and setting the plan to sustain the demand for the product or new release during the product management phase. Product activation is concerned with market introduction and market growth for new products and minor/major model changes/releases.
Product Management (market growth, market maturity, market decline)
Product management as a function oversees the end-to-end product lifecycle; however, product management as part of the lifecycle is concerned with growth, maturity, saturation, and decline as well as the feedback loop between the phases.
Within growth, maturity, saturation, and decline, the product management phase are about pricing the product, scaling it, optimizing demand, ensuring user satisfaction, pivoting, iterating the roadmap, and deciding when its time for a new model/release or if its time to sunset the product altogether.
Essentially managing the product through turbulent waters to success until it’s time to make a significant change — e.g., a new release. Product management is concerned with market growth, market maturity and market decline for new products and minor/major model changes/releases.
I distinctly recall the cool fall air that day — the first signs of a chill on its way. It was a perfect setup for the mood in the room. I walked excitedly into my potential client’s conference room, but no one was talking. No chit-chat. Just silence. Great way to start the first meeting, I thought. I tried my best to warm everyone up. No response. Clearly, this was going to be a difficult discussion about an already challenging topic — product lifecycle management.
After 15 minutes of monologuing, the team started to open up. They were less interested in the methodology and more interested in how to put it in place. How to get adoption across teams. How I would help them use it cross-functionally. A couple of questions later and we landed on the problem. They were forced to use the methodology without a say. Top-down. And the teams resented it. The client didn’t need a product transformation; they needed help institutionalizing their chosen methodology.
In all cases, implementing PLM successfully requires input, influence, and support from peers and stakeholders. Product must align with design, engineering, and other critical extended product team leadership to be successful. Ultimately PLM is not a process that can be forced. Instead, PLM must be embraced and ownership shared.
After years of implementing, managing, and steering the product lifecycle at multiple companies, I can say the product lifecycle, and PLM serves two critical functions for the organization beyond the value of the process itself.
- Rallying the team. Teams wander without a process and guideposts to manage one of a company’s most important assets. Mini-processes emerge. Teams go rogue. Value and priorities are set arbitrarily. I’ve found the team rallies around product lifecycle management when they know everyone’s all in, it’s clear, and they move together.
- Creating stability, predictability, and repeatability. Let’s face it, the world and, as a result, our products’ environment becomes less and less stable each year. The product lifecycle and product lifecycle management create much-needed stability for teams. It also creates predictability and repeatability when launching new products or iterating.
There are entire books written on PLM implementation, so I clearly won’t cover the details here. However, there are a few key steps I want to call out that are often missed.
- Clearly define it. You must clearly define product lifecycle management, the product lifecycle, and the processes you plan to put in place. Run the definitions by someone outside the company. Do they make sense? To embrace the product lifecycle and PLM, the team must be able to own it and articulate it from memory. Simplicity and clarity are essential.
- Build a playbook. Success, stability, predictability, and repeatability come from knowing how to run the plays. Document the product lifecycle, its processes, and how you plan to manage it in a playbook clear enough for a new employee to pick it up, learn and dive in. If someone new can’t run the plays after reading them, you are missing details, clarity, or both.
- Train, train, train. Train and reinforce the methodology more often than necessary. Share case studies. Have other teams present successes. Hold lunch and learns. Conduct live training and make it available as a recording. The more time and training you invest in the team, the better the outcomes.
- Measure. Just as you would measure a product, measure the process. Is the process achieving the outcomes you are looking for as efficiently as possible? Would the team recommend the process to others (e.g., Net Promoter Score (NPS))? Hold yourself accountable. Hold the process accountable, and measure success. If it’s not working, iterate and adjust.
If there is one concept I can stress when it comes to the product lifecycle and PLM — it’s stakeholder buy-in. You need buy-in up, across, and down. Given that the success of PLM lives and dies with the team and your key stakeholders, you need to get them onboard.
PLM forced = PLM not followed.
Make its development, implementation, and governance a team sport.