How to avoid born-to-die products

If there is one thing that characterizes the market today, it is its dynamism. Product life cycles are becoming shorter and shorter in order to adapt to changing market needs and competitive pressures. But there are still very complex products whose development cycles are very long, so they are at high risk of suffering the product manager’s biggest nightmare: a “born to die” product.

Let us look at the case of the market for space rockets to launch satellites. These rockets have development cycles of more than 8 years.  ESA and ULA have been the traditional dominators with a quasi-monopoly. When both launched the development of their new generation of rockets, SpaceX was only Elon Musk’s dream: to design reusable rockets and reduce the cost of launching by 50%. Hardly anyone believed it was possible. Traditional manufacturers launched their new developments with objectives and specifications suited to the old semi-monopolistic rules.

But sometimes dreams come true and SpaceX has succeeded, through component reuse, modularity and simplification, in reducing costs by 40-50%, so new products from traditional manufacturers are going to have a very serious competitive problem. Even more so with other new players who want to join the new market like Blue Origin.

Designing a rocket, like many other complex products, is not easy, so they will always have long development cycles. But there are ways to reduce the risk of “born to die” effect. I can think of a few examples:

  • Modularity: try to design generic modules and not specific products. SpaceX developed its large rocket (Falcon Heavy) faster by means of bonding 3 Falcon 9 modules. Another example that I have experienced first-hand is how Gamesa managed to reduce the wind turbine development cycle thanks to its product platform design strategy, whose modules are then used to quickly configure specific products for the changing needs of the market.
  • Development platforms: designing a game is complex and long if you want to develop all the tools from scratch. EPIC Games develops a creation platform (Unreal engine) with a long lifecycle to allow its customers to develop games in short lead-time. The idea is to move the most complex tools into the long cycle and leave everything to do with the user experience in the short development cycle.
  • Postponement: in products with a lot of customization and changing requirements, you can develop a generic product and develop customization kits in an agile way to meet market needs.

In conclusion, as the crystal ball for the product manager is not yet available, he or she should launch risk mitigation actions in cases of long development cycles and should closely monitor the product’s competitiveness at intermediate milestones and, in the worst case, recommend its abandonment.