As Steven Haines first told me, “strategy first, roadmap second.” There is a step between the two – deciding which problems you will focus on solving with your product. Strategy defines the context for product strategy, and your product roadmap is a planning (and communication) tool for executing your product strategy. Understanding how problems are framed in your market is critical to developing a successful product strategy.
Ted Levitt Whole Product Model
CGM Problem Framing Example
A CGM system is a continuous glucose monitoring system. It enables people to monitor the levels of glucose in their body (“blood sugar” colloquially) by measuring the levels which are present in interstitial fluid where the sensor is inserted as shown above. For healthy people, this value is stabilized and maintained by your body. When you eat food, your blood sugar levels go up, and your body creates insulin which then allows your cells to absorb the glucose for conversion into energy. People with type 1 diabetes (like myself) do not create the required insulin and therefore have to inject insulin to maintain healthy glucose levels.
This article will not in any way provide medical advice, or even have the goal of educating people on type 1 diabetes or other diseases which would cause a person to have to manually intervene to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. As a good product manager, I will focus on a single user population – people with type 1 diabetes – although there are other diseases (and trauma) which can cause someone to benefit from using a CGM.
It is sufficient for this example to know only that a person with type 1 diabetes can die or experience a diminished quality of life if they do not effectively manage their blood sugar levels, either acutely or chronically. A product manager making decisions about how to create or improve a CGM could apply this adaptation of Ted Levitt’s whole-product model to add insights to their investment decisions.
My sincere apologies to anyone who may find this topic disturbing. As a person with type 1 diabetes, it may be that I am less sensitive to the stark realities than others. I hope I have been adequately cautious.
Framings of Four Problems
In the model, we frame each market problem (for CGMs, for people with type 1 diabetes) as being one of
- Table Stakes – no product which fails to solve this problem will be considered as a potential solution
- Competitive Jockeying – a factor by which multiple products compete to be perceived as better than the others
- Differentiation – a problem which one competitor solves, unlike all other competitors, in an attempt to re-frame how customers view the problem space
- Disruption – solution to a problem distinctly different than all others, to the point where it redefines what it means to solve the problem
As a reminder – since this is an example, the following are fictional clarifications based entirely on my own biases. We can imagine that research was performed which led to the following assertions as if they were interpretations of data. They are intended only to illustrate how problem-framing works, and to be logically consistent with each other (a good criterion for an example).
Table Stakes – Minimum level of CGM accuracy
All measurement systems have a level of accuracy associated with them. Managing blood glucose levels is a bit of a misnomer – as a complex system, it is more accurate to think of our actions as influencing blood glucose levels than managing them.
However, in order to influence the system by changing its inputs, we need to know in which direction – and by how much – to influence. Accuracy of measurement is critical to making the right decisions.
If we’re being pedantic, the true table-stakes problem is informing the treatment decision such that it is more likely to be a good one. Think in terms of the alternative “signal” which is “I feel (physically) like my blood sugar is too high, I should lower it” or “I feel like my blood sugar is too low, I should raise it.” In the case of the CGM, we tend to simplify the conversation in terms of the solution approach (a more accurate measurement contributes to a better decision).
This dangerous trap is real in every product context I’ve seen, and is one version of the “curse of knowledge” which comes from already “knowing” a relationship to be true. This trap is at the core of why we treat buyer personas as distinct from user personas. The key is to differentiate the problem manifestation from the underlying problem. The reality of the market is that this particular relationship (accuracy is required to improve treatment decisions) is treated by our target market as a truism today.
An insufficiently accurate CGM will be rejected outright, and never make it into the buyer’s consideration set of possible solutions. When planning a product roadmap for a CGM, it is mandatory – and mandatory in a first release – that the accuracy level be “good enough” for the target market segment.
Competitive Jockeying – Duration of CGM accuracy
The nature of CGMs is that (currently) measurement technology is implemented through chemical interaction with a sensor. A side effect of this approach is that sensors have a duration during which they maintain a particular level of accuracy without becoming inaccurate.
When making a purchase decision, a buyer would decide that – all things being otherwise equal – a CGM which provided accurate readings for a longer period of time without need for user action is a better one. I’ve written multiple articles addressing the characterization of this type of problem in the past, succinctly described as a “more is better” problem. Longer accurate life is better than a shorter one.
From a market point of view – the competing solutions are either better, worse, or equivalent to your product – with respect to this isolated dimension. Your prospective customers make purchase decisions across a complicated (or complex) set of criteria. Your future users determine if they are satisfied or happy or delighted with your product also through multiple criteria. We isolate them because we make investment decisions one at a time (improve this by a little, and that by a lot) and combine those decisions into a roadmap.
Jockeying implies a dimension of time, and a race. Intentionally, and it is why I use this term when teaching this approach to framing problems. Over time, your competitors are investing to improve their products while you invest to improve yours. Over time, your customers and users change their expectations as well. This is why roadmapping is difficult to do well, roadmaps truly combine both the why with the when.
As each competitor announces an update or a new model, they will be competing with “our product is now the best” messages. And then another product (maybe yours) will pull into the lead. Like being in a horse race, jockeying for position.
Differentiation – Remote monitoring of glucose levels
One way to differentiate in the CGM market – in the past – was to solve the problem of helping other people to manage their blood glucose levels. Parents of small children; care givers for the infirm or elderly, or people who cannot be relied upon to make good decisions for themselves. There are times when the person who is making the decision (to attempt to increase, decrease, or maintain current blood sugar levels) is not the person wearing the CGM.
The first CGM to enable someone else to be continuously updated was creating differentiation in the market. Suddenly, for a subset of customers, there was only one viable solution. Because that competitor redefined the market to include the ability for someone other than the person being monitored to have the monitoring information in a timely fashion.
Now that multiple CGM solutions exist to make this possible, it is no longer a differentiating aspect. In fact, for those populations of customers, remote monitoring has become a table-stakes capability.It is important to remember that today’s differentiator will not always be a differentiator.
Disruption – Treatment recommendations
In the table-stakes section above, we hinted at what might be disruptive – a product which violates what we already “know to be true.” This curse of knowledge causes all of the competitors to focus on a particular manifestation of the make good management decisions problem – sensor accuracy.
We can acknowledge that sensor accuracy is only a means to an end – good decisions. The accuracy of the sensor is not implicitly valuable, the good decision is valuable*.
The level of ambition of the team – and the vision for the product – should be the guiding light for choosing to frame a problem as “make better decisions” or “eliminate the need for patients to actively make decisions at all” by creating a self-regulating system.
A CGM which frames the problem in an entirely different context in this way is one which potentially disrupts and redefines the market. While reaping the rewards of being (temporarily) the only solution in this radically different framing.
This example hopefully combines with an exploration of the concepts to help appreciate how we as product managers and strategists should set the context for the development of roadmaps, prioritization of investments, and execution of work.
The combination of market framing and problem characterization is effective to define not only a product which is valuable to users and buyers, but a product which they are more likely to select than alternatives.