Strategy and Product Roadmaps

Steven Haines, author of The Product Manager’s Desk Reference, recently gave a webinar on effectively using product roadmaps for the Technology Product Management Council at Forrester Research.  You should check it out.

Strategy First, Roadmap Second

Steven Haines (@Steven_Haines on Twitter), also founder of Sequent Learning Networks, presented at the most recent productcamp Austin, and one of his topics was about getting “past” the product roadmap to broaden your perspective.  Steven presented the ultimate why for product managers, why add stuff to a roadmap.  He presented some great insights and suggestions for thinking about your company’s strategy, measuring where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to be – as a company.  Given that perspective, decisions about where to focus your product roadmap become easier.

Steven addressed some of this in his recent webinar for Forrester. Scroll down on this Sequent page to the Webcasts and Podcasts section to download the audio and the slides.

One of several interesting topics Steven touched on was Marketing Myopia.

Market Myopia

One of the things Steven talked about in both presentations was the failure of the railroad industry (slides 6 &7).  He references a quote from Ted Levitt’s Marketing Myopia (first published in 1959!) to make his point.  The railroad companies thought of themselves as being in the transporting goods by railroad business, not the transporting goods business.  Imagine how things might have been different if they had taken a less narrow view.

I see another industry out there right now trying to avoid the same fate.  The companies that connect us to the internet created that capability by building on their previous businesses.  They provided scheduled, managed television programming to us over cable.  The internet required some two-way communication, so they adapted their delivery technology to be bidirectional (although asymmetric).  Competitors entered the space, and we now have an internet service provider “industry.”  You can pay for internet connection services from cable companies and satellite providers (who added “upstream” communication to their existing large bandwidth) and from telecommunication companies (who augmented two-directional communication with increased bandwidth) via DSL and wireless technologies.

Several dynamics are at play disrupting these industries – primarily as companies introduce solutions to customer delight problems.  Tivo decoupled the viewing schedule from the broadcast schedule of television, resetting expectations for everyone.  On-demand solutions from cable providers allow you to watch some content when you want (while Tivo and other time-shifting recorders) allow you to watch anything* on your schedule.

*Broadcasters can prevent content from being watched on-demand (even with Tivo).

Cordless phones allowed us all to detach ourselves from the wall-mounted phone (no more curling trip-wires stretching from the kitchen phone to the nearest closet) and talk “anywhere” close to the phone.  Cell phones allow us today to talk “anywhere” there is coverage, as long as we pay for the service.  Voice-over-IP telephony allows us to talk to people anywhere on the planet without paying the excessive fees that telephone companies charge for international calls.  Add a video-camera, and you can have a video-conference without expensive dedicated hardware.  Add software for collaborating, and you can have a meeting without travelling.  Instant messaging and SMS and chat rooms and Google Wave allow us to have “instantaneous” communication without the overhead of audio or video.  Social networks like Twitter, Ning, and Facebook are allowing us to form and enhance relationships and communities without the “co-location constraints” that have limited them in the past.

Companies like Leo Laporte’s This Week in Tech Network, are allowing us to engage and interact with our content by viewing live “television” shows, joining chat rooms (and soon, joining Google waves), or watching any of the previously recorded shows, when we want – all over “the internet.”  Leo just announced that you’ll be able to engage this community with a Roku box (e.g. watch on you television, not just your computer).

From the perspective of the internet service providers, all of these enriched experiences are “just dumb data” and represent a commodity product.  It jeopardizes their business models.

I see this as strongly analogous to the railroad industry becoming irrelevant because they didn’t adapt to their changing markets.  The railroad industry relied on barriers-to-entry to prevent competition.  Until highway travel became competitive, this worked.  The railroads offered better value than shipping by canal – you could ship to places without water, as long as you acquired a right-of-way and built tracks to that place first.  Trucks allowed you to ship anywhere, without having to build railroads first.

Cable companies allow you to watch content that they select, at the time that they choose.  That content is “produced” with large upfront costs, and everything predetermined.  The “dumb data” internet shows have a much lower barrier to entry.  Take Enzoology for example, Enzo is a nine-year-old boy who hosts “Animal Planet for Kids.”  Enzo (@Enzomonfre on Twitter).  He and his dad produce the show – Enzo is the talent and creator.  You should check out the most recent episode about Capybaras – surprisingly good.  Old Media is discovering him now, as he recently made appearances on Ellen and The Today Show.  The point is, that high barrier to entry is gone.  Shows like Enzoology will pull more and more viewers away from cable tv and to the internet to watch content (and to engage!).

Telephone companies allow you to have a real-time audio conversation with anyone, and pay prices that are decoupled from the cost of providing the services.  You can use Skype to have the same conversation over the internet for a fraction of the cost of using a telephone.  And with Skype, you can use video too.  The current barrier to entry for people is “talking from your computer” – and is reminiscent of being tied to that red phone on the kitchen wall with the stretched-out cord.  But that barrier will evaporate just like the stretched cord did.

Thinking Strategically

Both of these examples (railroads and internet service providers) cause us to think – what is happening to our industries, and what will be happening?  There is certainly value in becoming immersed in your market, understanding and solving today’s problems.  What Steven points out is that today’s problems are just a snapshot in time.  Yesterday there were problems (I have to talk in the kitchen where my mom can hear me).  Today there are problems (I have to sit by my computer to get the content I really want, when I want it).  Tomorrow there will be problems too.  And they will be different, because someone will disrupt your market (railroads killed canal boats, trucks killed trains, …).

What could disrupt your market, and more specifically, your value proposition?  What will?  OK, why don’t you be the one disrupting everyone else’s market?  Now – what’s in your roadmap to make this happen?

So, check out Steve’s presentation, and start thinking about the future of your market, not just the present!

15 thoughts on “Strategy and Product Roadmaps

  1. Scott,

    As someone who is in daily contact with major “old media” television properties, the general feeling among producers is that the network model is endangered. In fact, major media franchises are developing new shows under the assumption that network television as we know it won’t exist in five years. I want to give the networks more credit than that but their control over distribution is eroding.

    That is not to say that the economic model for on-line entertainment is viable – yet. But the train has left the station and Big Media will either adapt or die. It’s going to be an interesting decade when it comes to televised entertainment.

    1. Thanks, Ezoology fan, and welcome to Tyner Blain. Questioning the viability of the network television channels/shows adds another layer to the discussion. The viability of content aggregators is interesting too. The long tail (hyper-targeted content) seems to be in contrast with the scheduled broadcast of content model. This seems analogous to Seth Godin’s encouragement to focus on a niche market. That niche-market model makes sense when there is limitless capacity (watch what you want, when you want), and seems to break down when capacity is constrained (what do we show at 8pm on Thursday?).

      Thanks again

      Scott (@sehlhorst on Twitter)

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