The 3 S's of the Product Lifecycle
A few years ago, I was in a rut learning-wise, feeling like I was going through the motions and keeping a bunch of product trains running on time, without actually moving the needle (because the needle was in a haystack). After the requisite amount of self-pity, I sought out one of my mentors and had a candid conversation.
I explained to my advisor that everything I was working on was on auto-pilot, and the exponential learning (i.e. drinking from a firehose sensation) that I had enjoyed in the role for so long was in the rearview mirror. His advice was really simple:
“Change your environment to match your preferred learning mode, or find a new role.”
There are essentially 3 distinct phases of a product’s lifecycle he said, and therefore 3 types of roles for a PM to tackle:
Let’s dig into each one.
A starter is on point to build a v1 product based on business opportunity / market need / customer problem. But what that will exactly look like is ever-shifting, and there is likely plenty of trial and error trying to pinpoint target personas. Bootstrapping (technology, solutions, users) is a recurring theme, and the focus is on navigating the journey to product-market fit.
A scaler takes a product with a clear use case to completeness. This means articulating the ideal user journey, removing any friction points, and identifying adjacent opportunities to expand into. This involves partnering with other functions (analytics, marketing, sales, support) to establish mechanisms such that the bootstrapping done by the starter can happen with less super-human efforts / serendipity. The outputs of this phase are lightweight frameworks and repeatable playbooks.
A sustainer loves zeroing in on systemic issues that prevent a business from humming. The key operating principles for sustainers are process, optimization, and process optimization. They evolve products to a point where multiple use cases can be supported and experimentation can happen at scale. Ultimately, they get things to a juncture where the organization can get back to start mode, completely a virtuous cycle.
Surprise! It’s easier to remember things in 3’s, but there is a 4th mode that a starter, scaler, or sustainer can end up in: sunsetting. It’s quite possible (and you should always keep this in mind going in) that a product doesn’t find a real fit, doesn’t achieve true scale, and doesn’t become the standard. In that scenario, it’s logical to re-assess a product investment and end-of-life-ing is a step every PM has to navigate.
Going back to my conversation with my mentor, it made me realize a 3 things:
you should introspect on your preferred learning mode
your preference can change over the course of your career
when you run a portfolio of products, you can have all 3
So how do you like to operate?
further reading / references
the Rule of 3 as a communication construct
an Elastic Product Team combines all 3 PM archetypes
the 3 types of PMs in terms of role specialization
childish drawing / interpretation