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The Product Lifecycle, an introduction

If you work at a startup, or a small company, chances are this three letter acronym is alien to you. However once you graduate to a mid sized company, with multiple products, and, more importantly, multiple divisions or business units, the construct of a PLC is inevitable, and even welcomed.

PLC is an acronym for Product Lifecycle. It is usually a 6 – 8 step process with gates or checkpoints to move from step to step.

The concept is simple: in a large organization, with well defined functional groups (i.e. marketing, finance, engineering, sales, production or operations) the PLC ensures that all groups are working towards a common goal or endpoint, that the stakeholders have enough information to execute their roles, and – most importantly – there is some oversight and accountability (also known by “governance”).

While the names of the phase groupings may vary as well as the actual steps and deliverable in each phase, depending on the consultancy who brought it in (or senior manager’s prior experience with it), but the steps are:

The PLC isn’t a straight jacket, but instead it is liberating, removing the uncertainty, and sharing the responsibilities across the functional groups. As a PM you should embrace it
Qualifying Opportunity – the initial investigation to begin a program. A marketing person does Voice of the Customer, engineering might do some early proof of concept (can this even be done). The output is either a concept form or a “thin” MRD. Expect this to cost a little bit of money, a couple of business trips by your Product Manager/Product Marketing team, and a few hours of an engineer’s time tops. The hard gate here is the “Concept”, and the marketing documentation should define what needs to be built, who will use it, how large that market might be, what competition is out there (or for greenfield, who’s bucket will we be stepping in to build a market. Additionally, there is likely to be some engineering work to do a proof of concept. This is often needed when the product concept is truly new, and not derivative.

This is primarily owned by Product Management with significant help from Marketing. Engineering is tangentially involved, although if a prototype, or proof of concept is deemed needed, they will have tangible deliverables.

Development – Where the real work gets done, taking the prototype or PoC, and making it a product, learning and refining along the way. This usually is the longest phase, and often has many revisions of the specs and requirements. This has several sub-phases, building a formal prototype, building one or more alpha systems (functionally, look and feel close to the final design) for internal testing, and a formal beta build and test.

Don’t forget things like documentation, maintenance manuals, spares strategy (board level, or FRU’s), supportability, defect tracking and correction. (You can tell I have spent a lot of my life in hardware) All these considerations must be addressed prior to commercial launch.

This phase is dominated by Engineering early, and engineering/operations near the close of this phase.. That said, Marketing can’t take a vacation. Late in this phase they begin the real work around the go to market plan, promotion, segment marketing, roll out strategy, and much more. Of course, Product Management is central across this phase.

Commercial – Where Engineering hands off to production, and operations. Ramping up production of products (in the hardware case), or scaling capacities for web services. Engineering is responsible for a clean transition, and production engineering picks up all responsibilities.

Marketing launches the product, announces it to the world, does promotion, trains sales, ensures that the systems are in place to take and process orders, and begins the sales ramp forecasting.

Engineering reverts to maintenance and continuous improvement (or evolution) of the product, under the guidance of the product manager.

Heavy lifting by Marketing, and operations, with cooperation from the Engineering team to drive a smooth launch.

Obsolescence – An often overlooked, yet critical final phase. Plans for an orderly transition first to end of sales, then end of support, and ultimately the true heat-death, end of life.

Within each of these high level phases, are a series of smaller groupings of activities. Organizations will adopt, adjust, or alter these macro tasks to fit their needs.

Regardless of the final configuration, the PLC brings rigor and reproducibility to the product development process, and helps guide investment.

Summary

The Product Lifecycle provides a convenient, applicable framework to the processes around developing products. As companies get larger, and have distinct product groups, business units, and the like, a PLC process us useful to keep programs on track.

Product management is intimately involved, and is indeed the common thread across the entire lifecycle. While it might seem a bit prescriptive, and overbearing, it really is a contractual agreement between the functional groups, and you ignore the process at your own peril.

Many product managers stress about the phase gates, and that is natural. However, channel that stress creatively, and use the process to bring some chaos, spread the responsibility where it belongs, and you will be viewed as a hero. Trust me on this.


Cover photo by – Sandis Helvigs

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gander2112
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Written by gander2112

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