Product strategy: Are you in the comfort zone, or where the magic happens?

Product StrategyOne of the things that always intrigues me is how markets evolve and what’s changing the rules of competition. My network is rich of business software companies that have been in business for 10, 20, 30 years on the one side, and start-ups that are pioneering their space and setting new standards of doing on the other side. It wouldn’t be a surprise to say there are different dynamics between the two groups. However, the question is: why?

It’s that question I’ll address in a series of blogs, in particular to answer the question: What does it take to be, and stay remarkable in the business software industry?

In today’s blog I address a different set of mindsets that impact your success in defining product strategy.

Let’s reflect for a minute

Where do you position your business software company: In the comfort zone, or where the magic happens?

In my day to day work with ISV’s around the world I continuously see a willingness to be ‘on the edge,’ and ‘innovative,’ but as we know only a few come up with truly transformative concepts and ideas. That doesn’t matter – to be remarkable isn’t necessarily about being transformative.

What it is about is being different and delivering value to both prospects and customers that’s worth making a remark about. That’s where the magic happens – at scale. And it’s exactly in this space where many business software companies neglect a big opportunity.

Here are three examples I regularly see – often all together in the same company:

1 – The big idea is missing

Many business software companies get stuck because they’ve lost their identity. They are in a category, following what everyone else is doing. It’s stunning to see how roadmaps of different companies feel like they developed in the same building in two different rooms with paper walls. You can almost predict what’s on each page. The reason: There’s nothing to challenge their status quo because there’s no north star. The big idea is missing, and hence the input to the roadmap cannot be challenged accordingly. Consequently, millions and millions are invested, keeping entire companies ‘busy’ without making a remarkable impact to their customers and prospects.

2 – The inability to make bets

Companies that thrive have a strong ability to focus and make an orchestrated impact to do one thing right. Companies that are in their ‘comfort zone’ spread their R&D budget across many different things – often stuff so small it’s not even worth publishing a press-release on.

One example that opened my eyes about eight years ago was my visit to Dreamforce in the year SalesForce introduced Chatter. That was the theme, that was the push, and that was the bet they made to drive remarkable impact in that particular year.

Two years later I was at Dreamforce again, and guess what – Mobile was the central theme, and Chatter would only be spoken about in a few of tracks, in hotels far from the main convention center. Not that it wasn’t important, not at all, but Salesforce had moved on – in its marketing, sales, and product strategy. Where 2010 Chatter had the bulk of the R&D, marketing and sales budget, the year after they moved it to the next big thing. Undoubtedly, the Chatter team would have had many more ideas to take things to the next level – but enough was enough. It’s not about more effort, it’s about more insight.

3 – Bottom-up allocation of resources

A challenge I often see is how roadmaps get loaded with ‘stuff’ that’s merely piling up from the backlog. It starts with maintenance that needs doing – technological, functional, and compliance, and then moves to upvoted ideas from customers, sales, presales, and product management.

It all feels undeniable, but there’s a big problem here: It’s slowly pulling you out of the magic zone into the comfort zone release after release, up to the point where no one cares anymore. Here’s why:

  1. It’s looking at investments from the rear-mirror (the ever-growing backlog)
  2. It’s prioritizing requests from your ‘key’ customers – the ones that bought it five to even ten years ago, not the ones you’d want to be ready for when they come to market next year or the ones that decided to not even invite you for their tender process last week.
  3. It’s focused on the short-term – often led by the deals you need to close this or next quarter. Obviously the long-term is about many ‘short-terms’, but the challenge with this is it’s a lagging signal that you are pulled into different (unwanted) directions because often the reason for creating contractual commitments has to do with the fact you’ve lost track of your ideal customer i.e. the one that would buy your product as is, and pay a premium for it.

The result of this all is that there never seems to be room to address the things you ought to do, to be and stay remarkable. The resources are allocated and will be ‘busy’ for the next six months or even year, and in the meantime, your ability to stand out in the market is further declining. It’s a vicious circle. You need to develop a discipline is to say no to ‘distraction’.

If you recognize these themes, the big question is: Where do you want to be – the comfort zone, or where the magic happens? Mind you that ‘the comfort’ zone is only a reference to the mindset within your company, not a state of doing easy business. Being in the comfort zone quickly results in entering the ‘not so comfortable’ zone of declining business, high discounts and unwanted reorganization efforts to align the bottom-line with the top line.

As Seth Godin recently quoted: “It’s not our lack of talent, it’s our self-talk and believe that comfort is a safer path.” There’s a way out though – find your spark and get back on the track to be remarkable. That starts with your acknowledgment to break the vicious circle.

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