Don't Get Stuck on Product Defense

It’s 2014, and IBM’s Enterprise Content Management software practice, built around the very successful but aging FileNet on-premise document management software, is feeling the heat from the Cloud. Dropbox and Box, among others, are starting to bridge into the Enterprise and poach customers.

As a response, IBM puts together a team and issues a mandate — build a cloud-based product to compete with Dropbox and Box.

So the new IBM team does what most good product leaders do when they plan a product — some version of a cost-benefit analysis. What should we put in the product that enhances the core value of the product the most and costs the least to build?

This works well, but using this filter alone ignores a very important part of the roadmap equation: your competition. A properly paranoid product leader knows that there are other people like them out there building similar products, and those people probably have more resources and are at least as smart as you (and may be better-looking too).

One very simple way of looking at your product roadmap from the perspective of competitiveness is to ask a basic question: which features are offensive, and which are defensive?

Offensive features are features that further enhance your differentiators, things that your competition doesn’t have and can’t easily make. They press your winning advantage.

Defensive features are features that your competition has that you don’t, where you’ve admitted you must fill the gap in order to compete better. These plug places where you are leaking customers.

Mark every feature in your roadmap as offense or defense. Be honest with yourself. How does your game look? Is it balanced? Is it too focused on only offense or only defense?

There are many ways to match your mix of offense and defense to your market position, but the main sin you want to avoid is playing too much defense. If more than 1/3 of the time your team is spending is on defense, you are starting to “chase the competition” and that is where products (and their companies) go to die.

The IBM Team built and launched a product called IBM Navigator. I got to use it, and it was a good product. The promotional video is still up on YouTube.

The problem was that the product was 95% defense. “Build something to compete with Dropbox and Box” had become “Build something like Dropbox and Box.” And as such, it was dead on arrival. A year later IBM smartly decommissioned Navigator and announced a partnership with Box.

So check before you build a product, check while you build it, check after you’ve won and are tempted to sit back and stop pressing your advantage.

Stay (mostly) on offense and if you have to lose, lose making something unique.