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Understanding the Focus and Challenge of Technology Lifecycles: Part 3

By Peter Gaarn, Senior Consultant, The Piras Group

Third segments in a series about leadership and the technology lifecycle. All segments can be seen on video or read. The first segment can be found at Understanding the Focus and Challenges of Technology Lifecycles: Introduction.

The Role and Challenges of Leadership Through the Product Life Cycle

We’ve discussed the key business challenges across the five phases of the product life cycle. The key business and leadership challenges through the phases are also closely intertwined, and in this post, we’ll turn our attention to the role and challenges of leadership.

Leadership on Main Street vs Early Market

Leadership challenges are very different between a large established company, like HP, and greenfield startup.  Often in large companies, the general manager or P&L owner is more skilled as an “execution” manager than an innovator.

The corporation managers can see the big picture of the business, but also track the details, and they are almost always not the right leader for finding the new breakthrough technology or product and embarking on a new s-curve. 

If they recognize this limitation in themselves, they can set up a separate organization, where the new product group or division can be developed under separate leadership. The execution manager’s role is to fund and protect the new group so that it has the resources and freedom to break the rules and find that next technological breakthrough. 

On the other hand, start-ups are often led by entrepreneurial technologists. They're innovators that have a vision for what’s possible and a passion for creating disruptions in the marketplace. They have the perfect mind and skill set for the early market/pre-chasm phases. However, as the product moves through the life cycle, it requires different approaches from its leaders and that’s what we will examine in this post.

Early Market Leaders

In the early market, the most important leadership role is to create an environment that's conducive to creation. This type of environment is what will attract the talent that will bring the product or technology to the marketplace. 

The best early market leaders are entrepreneurs who are motivated to take risks. They often trust their instincts, are flexible and can adjust quickly depending on the circumstances.  They are much more subjective in their decision making and are able to live with a high degree of uncertainty in planning and forecasting. Their focus is almost exclusively on developing the technology or product to early prototype or proof points so that they can continue to get investors to support their vision.

Early market leaders must generate the interest and excitement that keeps the product alive so that it doesn't die. This is a very different scenario than what happens inside of a large company where investments usually come from senior management. This stage requires specialized leadership because of the dependency on venture capitalists and angel investors and intense competition between emerging products.

Crossing the Chasm

The innovative leadership environment carries the product towards the chasm. As they cross the chasm and move into the bowling alley, there is a subtle shift in their priorities as these leaders now tend to spend the majority of their time with customers, promoting their technology/product and doing demo’s or other events to grow support and excitement.

However, their leadership eye is still on the prize of bringing the product to market and they remain flexible in how they can attain it. These leaders often pay little attention to their internal organization or processes, but do make high demands of their teams to generate the prototypes and proof points that will continue to encourage customers and investors to support bringing this technology or product to market.

The Tornado Phase

As the market segments grow and take hold, and the early signs of the tornado phase begin to emerge, this is where we see the first real shift in leadership. There is often a dilemma for founders who want to hold on to the top leadership role, but in most cases it becomes inevitable that a shift in skill set is required and many of those early market leaders become CTO’s supporting the technology vision as more mature operational leaders steps in to build the culture and organization required to survive the tornado phase.

It becomes essential that leadership shifts its focus to the operations, details, and complexities, and again, this is the phase where the seatbelts come on. The operational leaders must be able to see the big picture and at the same time focus on all the details, the processes, and the people to enable the business to execute effectively while keeping a focus on internal and the external systems, processes, and partnerships that need to be in place to successfully navigate the tornado phase. 

In this phase, it is all about execution. Most organizations in this phase remain functional design organizations because their functions have to get their job done, and in many ways, the operational leader needs to keep the team and the organization calm in the chaos and stress of exponential growth.

Main Street

Once the tornado phase slow and volume becomes more steady, the leadership focus shifts once again. In the early market and tornado phase, market share, revenue and time to market were vital, but this begins to shift to customer satisfaction, cost controls and margins. Skilled leaders can often make this shift, but sometimes it calls for new leadership as they focus more on analytics and data, particularly related to the customer experience to gain clarity on what business they're in at this point in time

Take again our example of HP Inkjet Printers. As they moved into main street, that product division became less and less about building printers. Printer production became a razor blade business and they were happy to break even and would happily gave away printers just to ensure the steady growth and income that came from the ink. 

The reason for the leadership shift to customer satisfaction is because at this point many competitors have entered the market and are attacking your market share, technology and margins. To overcome this, leadership’s primary job is to ensure that customers love and remain loyal to their products and services. 

End of Life

As the competition heats up, the leadership dialogue also shifts to what’s next, and how do we maintain our status on the next s-curve. This requires the leadership team to structure itself ambidextrously – maintaining a focus on main street and protecting its leadership position while also exploring the next big thing, even at the potential cost of cannibalizing its current business.

One key mistake that we see time and time again is that leadership teams try to develop that new technology or innovation within its existing organization. It fails because the existing mature operation tends to dominate and suffocate new innovation. It doesn't allow it to break rules, it forces it to use existing systems that may not be required and this is the critical phase that at this juncture.

Through this series, we’ve covered the key business challenges and leadership requirements at each phase. In our next post, we will review the common pain points and missteps in the technology lifecycle in Part 4 of this 4 part series.


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