Defining the Product Life Cycle: What It Is and Isn’t

By Brian Lawley, Pamela Schure

A product begins life as a small thought: a “what-if” spark that captures the imagination. But before a product sees the light of day or reaches the customer’s hands, it must go through a series of phases that involves all the departments within a company.

These seven phases capture everything that happens with a product throughout its entire life and all critical decisions that must be made. Following the product life cycle gives product managers a road map on what to do for their product as it gets closer to being released. Here are the benefits of using this process:

  • Clear decision making. The appropriate information needed to make a decision is available at the right time and presented to the people who have authority to make that decision.
  • Information delivery is consistent and complete. Everyone knows what to expect and where to look for it, and the information available is sufficient for the next phase to start off well.
  • Each phase is accounted for and completed correctly. Creating products is stressful. In the rush to get a product out the door, it’s tempting to skip a phase. A good process ensures that you don’t miss doing something and make a mistake that will be hard to recover from later on.
  • Product management and product marketing know their role in each phase. These roles participate fully and appropriately during each phase. They know what they need to complete to ensure a great product. Both roles support delivering a complete product using the whole product concept.

Phases and gates

The seven-phase model uses a phase-gate approach. Each phase consists of standard tasks that must be accomplished. Different departments and functions are aware of their work during the phase and the deliverable they bring to the party when the decision is made at the end of that phase.

To complete a phase and move on to the next one, the product must be scrutinized at a gate. The gate is a decision based on the work in the phase. The figure shows the phases and gates of the product life cycle. At the gate meeting or approval session, the company can decide to move forward with the concept or product, put it to one side, cancel it, or ask for more information. Critically, the information for a gate decision ensures management can correctly evaluate the risk and opportunity of investing significant money or resources.

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Conceive to retire from AIPMM Product Management Body of Knowledge (ProdBOK) Version 1

Seven phases of the product life cycle with phases and gates.

Mapping phase-gate to Agile methodologies

A phase-gate process is well known and commonly used in the development methodology called waterfall. In waterfall development, product management describes a product and then hands it off for product development to create. When the development folks are finished, they hand it off to quality assurance. There’s no explicit review loop during the develop or qualify phase that allows teams to catch mistakes or misinterpretation. In reality, there are continuous reviews during each phase between project team members to make sure that the product is still on track and to deal with out-of-bounds issues as they arise.

Phase-gate processes are great for making sure that the right thinking is done at the right time with the result that products are more successful. In software development, many companies have shifted to Agile development processes. There are different versions called scrum, Lean, and kanban. The following figure compares what product managers and product development are doing when under both waterfall and Agile.

prodmgmt-waterfall
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Agile versus waterfall work in the plan and develop phases.

Here’s how to use Agile with a phase-gate process. Agile is great at managing the uncertainty and risks of software development. It isn’t great at keeping track of the long-term direction your product is headed during development. The strategic context provided by the conceive and plan phases keep projects on track as the focus is on a longer time horizon.

The big difference between Agile and waterfall development methods is in the level of product detail defined in the plan phase. Under waterfall, every detail is supposed to be defined before the engineers start. In Agile, the high-level market needs and the problem that the product should solve are defined during the plan phase. The actual implementation details are left for product development and the product manager or product owner to flesh out as the work proceeds. The figure shows that under Agile in the develop phase, the product manager is still refining requirements. They then work with product development to plan the next small chunk of work (called a sprint). And then the development team proceeds to design, code, and test before coming back to define the next sprint.