Riffing on Differentiation – 7 Pieces of Advice for Product Managers

by: Doug Michaelides

A rapid energetic often improvised verbal outpouring; especially one that is part of a comic performance.

Merriam-Webster definition of “riffing”

OPMA logoLast week I delivered an improvised and somewhat comical keynote speech on product differentiation to the Ottawa Product Management Association.  OPMA is one of those great professional development and networking organizations that brings together smart people with a passion for their calling.  OPMA is ably led by Mark Lindsay and sponsored by Stratford Managers clients Macadamian Technologies and Ross Video (among others).

Following the advice of presentation skills guru Anil Dilawri, I spent 45 minutes telling stories:  stories about Apple (of course), stories about my experience at Nortel with a product called COMPANION, stories about fine white crystals (sugar – what were you thinking?) and stories about stairs, elevators and escalators.  My objective was to convince the audience that the responsibility for product differentiation falls squarely into their laps as product managers – I challenged them to step up or find another career!

Having thus endeared myself to my audience, I shared my stories, told a bad joke at Mark’s expense then mercifully wrapped up with 7 key pieces of advice for product managers:

  1. Differentiation isn’t so much a goal as an outcome of customer-driven design (thank-you Jony Ive).
  2. Not all competitive advantage is based on product differentiation.  If your product is a commodity (like Redpath sugar), focus instead on cost, operational excellence or customer service.
  3. It’s not the product marketer’s job to differentiate the product.  Since differentiation is an inherent product characteristic, the product manager is responsible for the Differentiate Value Proposition (in other words, it doesn’t matter how big your marketing budget is, sugar is still sugar!).
  4. Gather customer input to guide product development but avoid designing just for existing customers or a single lead account instead of an entire market (ie.  beware the tyranny of the lead customer).
  5. Customers don’t really know what they want.  They can react to your expert ideas but rarely come up with good ones themselves (thank-you Steve Jobs).
  6. Lean innovation and agile design accelerate the customer feedback cycle so it’s a viable way to innovate and differentiate.  The purpose of release 1.0 is to get to release 2.0 as fast as possible.
  7. Don’t obsess about being unique.  Being differentiated means being better, not best.  You don’t have to outrun the hungry bear, you just have to outrun your fellow camper (sorry Mark)

And because I invoked Apple and Steve Jobs during my presentation I finished with “one more thing . . .”

Don’t just aspire to keep up with someone else’s great ideas.  The job of a product manager is to create something simple and differentiated through superior customer value and user experience.  Feature parity is feature parody.

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