Flashback to June 2008 – Product Line Management – DNA Genotek

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Today’s story began as I watched Caroline Somers teach “Product Management” at the Entrepreneur’s Edge program of OCRI, a week of intensive half day sessions on how to manage a new company, or a new product line. As an industry veteran at Cassidy Bay Group, she outlined the challenges of clarifying market needs, and defining product solutions – the work requires a great deal of business experience as to “what we can sell” as well as deep enough technical insight as to “what we can build.”

Afterwards we talked about the role of “Product Line Management (PLM)” as one of the pillars of innovation success. Somers commented that “For many companies, more time needs to be spent understanding the customer’s problem and how your product will add value, and then translating that value into product attributes and features prior to the full engineering ‘development.’ Also, the skills required for Product Management are hard to find, the people doing the work have to have insights into market behaviors, sales experience, and a decent level of technical awareness.” Her training session provides excellent ‘how to’ insights on defining profitable products, plus a structured way to get things done.

Product Line Management (PLM) – DNA Genotek; an Ottawa Example

To get input from a local example, I talked with Ian Curry, the CEO at DNA Genotek. As a biotech company, DNA Genotek is in the business of technology for DNA collection and processing. One of the company’s assets, according to Curry, is “Our foundational platform that could be used in dozens of products – at the moment we have 3 product implementations in DNA and RNA collections, as well as processing of DNA. This could be expanded along the lines of new product variations for the existing value chain in our current markets, or new variations for new markets.”
In discussing the PLM work, Curry commented that “The key is – you need special people to do that job; I like to tell people doing PLM that they are at the center of a spinning wheel. From their position at the hub they need to lead every other functional group in the company with direction, vision, and decisions. A PLM professional has to be able to handle vast amounts of ambiguity – while being vigilant at searching for clarity. Then they need to make sure everyone on the spokes has clarity.”
As CEO, Curry mentioned that the ambiguity is often a big challenge – he likes to deal with this in meetings by asking “what is the vision” and see if that can be made clear. Then, in standard startup fashion, the company can pursue that vision until they discover corrections needed. “The corrections can then be made as you go, since we’re smart enough people to do that.”
Sales Channels
In product companies, says Curry, always think about “Can our existing sales force sell that product? There is a big danger here; it is easy to create a product that the sales force cannot sell. There may be reasons to go with a new sales channel, but it means we have to do the work to develop a new channel, or retrain the sales channel, and then we need to re-direct marketing focus.”
Gaining Confidence within the Team
The PLMs need to do some analysis and use some intuition, then make a decision on how to go forward – there has to be a bias to action. As they proceed, some individuals may be unhappy with the direction – “That is normal – they are worried about their spoke of the wheel,” as Curry said. But the PLM must gain the confidence of everybody around the wheel – they need to be convincing speakers, writers, presenters. Knowing how important the diversity of communication skills will be, Curry added that “When interviewing people for a PLM job, I always ask candidates to send me pieces of writing they have done – it doesn’t matter what the topic is, I want to see if they can write with clarity.”
Resource Allocation
At this stage DNA Genotek has most of its complex design and development work done, so they do not have to create complex products from scratch. The PLM, Marketing and Sales resources are now roughly 40% of the companies’ workforce – in a company of about 40 people there are 2 PLM “Product Managers” in marketing, along with the Marketing VP and a Marcom person – In sales there are about 12 people.

5-Stage Gate Process

At DNA Genotek, Curry and his team use a 5-stage gate process, outlined as follows. At each gate a “go” or “no go” decision is made:
Gate 1 – Preliminary market & product definition – The potential buyer is defined, with a problem to be solved, and some preliminary info on the economic value of solving that problem. Do we want to investigate further? At this stage Curry looks for a strategic fit with other products, including the question of fit with the existing sales channel.
Gate 2 – Develop the Business Case – This will include a demand creation and adoption model – driving a revenue, cost and profit outlook for the product. Is this going to be a successful business?
Gate 3 – Development of the Product – This is where a lot of PLM time is spent, where the rubber hits the road. Is development on track to meeting our customer expectations? Have we built the product that we need to meet our customer’s needs and build this business?
Gate 4 – Quality Assurance – Quality is making sure that we meet, and ideally exceed, the needs of our customers. Have we earned a 10 out of 10 on the key question – would you recommend us to your colleagues?
Gate 5 – Launch Readiness – Launching is getting the rest of the organization up to speed – Is the sales force trained; can they clearly articulate the value? Do they have detailed pricing? Does your marketing group have the website up and running, marketing materials and partners ready? Is the manufacturing operation ready to build the product? Can you accept orders; is the order system in place?
As a product moves forward through this process, according to Curry “The PLM cannot be afraid to make a mistake – no decision is worse than a wrong decision. Making course corrections is part of the territory.”

This article by Peter Fillmore, was originally published in SCAN – MARKETECH in June 2008.

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