Understanding Product Leadership

There are a number of different approaches and strategies that can be used to successfully reach excellent outcomes in product design. As Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersema outline in The Discipline of Market Leaders, there are three major value disciplines: operational leadership, customer intimacy, and product leadership. Here, we will examine some examples of the final value discipline: excellence in product leadership.

Beauty and Functionality: The MacBook Pro

As with any other relationship, the trust and reliability we have in our devices is complex and takes time to develop. We rely very heavily on our technology and spend a good deal of money on it, making brand loyalty particularly important for the success of these devices. Take, for example, Apple’s MacBook Pro. This product was designed with aesthetic simplicity and functional efficiency in mind, making it user friendly and resilient. The laptop’s solid aluminum case and plain features simplify the iconic shape of the product while also acting as an electrostatic shield. The conductive aluminum unibody acts as a huge electrostatic discharge (ESD) bed and minimizes the risk of internal component damage. The device’s mechanical balance means that anyone can easily open a MacBook with a single hand. This attention to detail continues within the design of the device’s internal components and modules, making for a laptop that is both functional and nice to look at.

But designing a beautiful product is not as complicated as mass-producing that high-quality product. Even at huge levels of production, all products manufactured must perform without a glitch, and their performance should not degrade over time. Design for manufacturing (DFM)—which allows manufacturing of a product at a very large scale—is more of an art than a science.

System-level tests and validation must occur to ensure the product’s end-of-line performance meets predetermined criteria, and the manufacturing of the product must be qualified for every integrated module and subsystem. Iterative prototyping and validation can also be a useful technique for refining this process. Manufacturing is an incremental process, and identifying errors early enough in this process can help a company improve this process in the next increment. The fast-moving and competitive technology market demands that companies reach the production-ready level from the first prototype in a relatively short amount of time. This urgency can make it very challenging for tech companies to achieve excellence in product leadership.

Navigating Product Complexity: NASA’s Spacecraft

This sense of urgency can be especially challenging for high-tech industries. Developing new products for the space exploration industry is especially costly and time consuming. Gene Kranz’s famous line from Apollo 13 says it all: “Failure is not an option.” Similar organizations in different nations have struggled to achieve the level of success that NASA has. Each NASA mission requires a tremendous amount of effort from numerous engineers, researchers, and scientists, and the quality of the spacecraft designed by these teams is key to NASA’s continued success.

Though spacecraft is one of the most complex machines in the modern era, it can still be viewed as a product as a whole. In general, at the system level, a spacecraft consists of a main carrier, which manages the navigation, communication, and power of the ship. The required instruments must all be carried onboard the main deck. Even more challenging is the fact that all submodules on board must perform their dedicated tasks perfectly while surviving the harsh environment of space. There is no option for repair once a ship has been deployed, taking the challenge of spacecraft design to a whole new level and leaving no room for failure.

When working on a spacecraft, engineers must employ unique techniques. Before signing off on a product, they perform intense testing, and multiple redundancy modules are incorporated for critical parts to increase the confidence level for the product. To solve any design issue, engineers and designers must understand the root cause of the problem—traceability is therefore critical. The results of the rigorous testing are recorded and kept for reference, and the design undergoes several iterations, tests, and refinements to minimize risk. With many boxes to tick and a limited budget available, smart choices are paramount to successfully designing safe and efficient spacecraft.

Product Excellence vs. Product Leadership

As Apple’s MacBook example suggests, achieving excellence in product leadership usually results in increased customer intimacy. By constantly delivering products that not only satisfy the needs of customers, but that also exceed their expectations, a tech company like Apple can gain trust and increase brand loyalty.

In the case of a more complex product, however, product excellence must be pursued while keeping cost optimization and operational excellence top of mind. Institutions like NASA, which does not focus on the mass production of its technology, must instead focus on achieving excellence by creating products to the very highest standard possible. While most corporations start with the goal of product excellence in mind, each company must understand its own specific needs in order to eventually demonstrate true excellence in product leadership.


the author

Omid Rostamianfar

Omid is a hardware lead at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.