Monday, October 25, 2010

Building Product Value-Guidance for Product Managers

In life we talk about building personal wealth. In business we talk about building shareholder value. It's time for product managers to start talking about how to build product value. Value Driven Product Management (VDPM) is the organization, coordination, and execution of activities focused on growing the net value of products and just like there are principles for growing wealth and shareholder value, there are principles for growing product value. In this post I offer a framework for understanding the essence of VDPM.

The Value Driven Product Management Pyramid

I recently reread "Building Wealth" where L. Thurow lists what he believes to be the truisms that provide the foundation for societies, companies, and individuals to build wealth. I couldn't help but see the parallels between building individual/social wealth and building product value. I looked at Thurow's  truisms through the Value Driven Product Management lens and found that much of the framework and principles apply to improving the value of products.

There is an unfinished pyramid on the pack of the dollar bill with a glowing eye at the top. The symbol was placed there by President Roosevelt in 1935 to represent economic strength and durability during a time when America's wealth was anything but that. The unfinished pyramid symbolizes the possibilities of the future and the glimmering eye represents the ability to see what must be done next.

Here are the layers of the Product/Service Value Pyramid

The Eye: Value Driven Product Management
Social and Environmental Consciousness
Value Driven Decision Approach
Product Value Advocates
Innovation and Knowledge Management Systems
Value Driven Culture
Base of Pyramid: Value Delivery Systems

Before we get into the layers themselves, there are a few truths that we posit from the beginning:

Truth #1
Product Managers must be willing to cannibalize old products with new products. If managers aren't willing to give up on old products, competitors will make the products obsolete for the manager.

Truth #2
Product Managers can attain high profit margins and large rates-of-return by exploiting product value disequilibriums that result from technological innovations, under-serviced markets, and evolving social trends. All other prospective product management actions yield marginal results with a low rate-of-return.

With these fundamental truths in place let's look at each of the pyramid layers to see what other truths we can find that can help product managers attain the top of the pyramid.

The Base: Value Delivery Systems
Every organization has a way of doing things. The small business will likely have the efficiency and style of the business owner. The larger organization is build upon legacy processes, methods, and culture. If we think about these characteristics as "business genes", we might say that businesses are predisposed to have certain strengths and weaknesses that are very dependent upon their market. If the business moves to a new market, some strengths might become weaknesses, and visa-versa.

Truth #3
Every organization has a genetic code for delivering their products and services. The secret to success is finding markets where the products' strengths make them exotic and where weaknesses are irrelevant.

Value Driven Culture
There is no shortage of literature that talks about continuous improvement. Lot's of business say that it is part of their culture and in the drinking water. The major distinction of a value driven culture is that continuous improvement activities are not pursued based on perception, but because there is strong evidence that the actions will have a direct impact on the customer's willingness-to-pay (product value) and/or reducing costs to yield a positive change in the net-value of a product offering.

If an action reduces cost, but also reduces the customer's perception of value by more than the cost savings the result is a negative net-value change, which results in less profitability because prices must drop to yield the same demand and results in customers seeking out other alternatives for the same price.

Truth #4
There is no institutional substitute for individuals who know how to grow customer value (see figure below), which is done by improving willingness-to-pay metrics (product value) and/or reducing costs to yield a positive net-value change.

Innovation and Knowledge Management Systems
An innovation in the truest sense is an artifact or concept that is new to the world and improves upon a legacy artifact or concept by either improving performance (think product value) or reducing cost (think product cost). Innovations can come about by accident or systematic discovery, but in nearly all cases they come about through the use and/or the application of knowledge. Businesses need systems to keep track of lessons learned and accumulated knowledge whose immediate implications may not always be clear to ensure the wheel doesn't need to be continuously reinvented.

Truth #5
Innovative ideas come from both knowledge and creativity. Any organization that values structure, policies, and rules above all else will not be creative, but without the right degree of order, innovative ideas and knowledge vanish. 

Product Value Advocates
"There are more cowboys in Detroit than all of Texas!" This is what one automotive industry expert had to say about the cavalier style of auto executive decision making throughout the last several decades. The data were there to suggest that reliability and fuel economy were becoming ever increasingly important in the decision calculus of auto consumers, but because auto companies lacked the proper analytical tools to sense and assign the proper level of sensitivity for these automotive attributes the opportunity was lost.

There are many studies that suggest that people often fall into decision traps because of our limited working memory, limited abilities in cognitive reflectiveness, and limited abilities related to comprehending the true probabilities of uncertain events. When decisions get complicated and we don't have a decision framework we use over-simplistic decision heuristics. Sometimes the result of these poor decisions yield a good result, but what we really want is a good decision based on a framework that gives clarity of action.

Although analytical tools have their place in decision making, the use of intuition is critical to check assumptions. If the analytical tools are to be trusted (and used) by decision makers, models must be transparent so they can be checked with intuition. Balancing analytics with intuition is the job of a skilled analyst who has the proper analytical tools and a solid understanding of decision analysis. I like to call these individuals Value Advocates because they can use their specialized knowledge to detect and communicate value improvement opportunities in a credible way.

Truth #6
Use intuition AND analytical tools to make good value driven decisions because either used alone can be very risky. Product Management teams need both experienced managers to provide intuition and value advocates who know the analytical value tools to reduce risk and provide clarity of action.

Value Driven Decision Approach
A decision is an irrevocable allocation of resources. You don't actually decide to buy a pair of shoes until you pass money to the shoe store. You don't actually decide to go on vacation until you're on the airplane and past the point of no return even though you've purchased the ticket-you could change your ticket to make a trip for reasons other than vacation.

We make decisions every day ranging from what to wear to work to what home to purchase. Whatever the decision, it is clear that the level of consideration that a decision warrants is based upon the level of risk associated with that irrevocable allocation of resources. Will your taste in fashion change after you purchase the shoes? Would you rather spend your money on a new pair of skis rather than go on vacation to the Caribbean? In our personal lives there is no escaping the results of our decisions and therefore we are very careful when making big decisions-those that require a significant amount of our resources.

When it comes to product management, the level of decision analysis should also be directly related to the level of resources to be allocated. While working for a manufacturer of specialized aircraft I often heard complaints from managers that information gathering for decision analysis was "too much work", but if you asked the executives whose careers depended on flawless strategic decision making, their response would be, "That's the way its must be!"

Truth #7
Managers who are interested in building value into their products and services will use Value Driven Decision Analysis. Managers who are on rotation, have plans to move on after decisions are made, or who don't have a true stake are more comfortable making decisions with a limited level of consideration.

Social and Environmental Consciousness
Now more than ever, companies are being held accountable. This accountability is directly related to the ability of stakeholders to organize and get messages out when companies take actions that negatively impact society and the environment-even if these results were unintended or unknown.

In the past it took investigative reporting to get the word out, but with the advent of social networks and media, the message gets out and the implications to the business can be swift and unforgiving.

Truth #8
Negative social and environmental externalities must be understood and quantified when possible so they can be included in the product planning decision calculus. Failure to do so leaves the business open to legal liabilities, political controversy, and societal backlash.

The Glowing Eye: Value Driven Product Management

It should be clear that Value Driven Product Management (VDPM) is more than just a few neat ideas, its more than neat analytical tools, and it applies to all types of products and services. Indeed, to be a value driven product management requires that several modern day management principles be interwoven into the culture and organization. Specifically, VDPM is the organization, coordination, and execution of activities focused on growing the net value of products. 

One of the core enabling capabilities of VDPM is the ability to quantify the critical value metrics as depicted in the chart below as they are the key to managing the fundamental metrics of product value, product cost, and pace of innovation.

What I've offered in this post is not meant to be all inclusive of what VDPM is supposed to be, but simply a framework for understanding the essence of VDPM.