A Platform Approach: The New Formula for Companies to Drive Continuous Innovation

Sudhakar Ramakrishna, Senior VP & General Manager at Citrix examines the shift from products to platforms.

Given the breakneck pace of today’s markets, a traditional 3-5 year product roadmap can’t hope to predict what customers will want, or deliver it when they’ll need it. How can you build a company that’s adaptable and agile enough to remain relevant no matter how fast the world changes? The answer lies in a new idea that’s quickly transforming business strategy across industries: the shift from products to platforms.

You can think of this in terms of model cars and Lego sets. If your company focuses on building the best model cars around, what will you do if kids decide they want spaceships instead? You’re stuck with a product strategy -- and the entire R&D, manufacturing, and marketing infrastructure that supports it -- that’s no longer relevant to the marketplace. If you’re Lego, though, your business model isn’t based on creating a single kind of kit, but rather, being able to put together any kind of kit quickly based on the same common platform of bricks. No matter what children want to build, you’ve got the agility in both strategy and execution to reinvent your offerings quickly and efficiently.

Many companies, such as Amazon, have either made the shift to platforms or started with a platform-centric approach. As a result, these companies have become extremely agile, adaptable to market needs and have gained significant competitive advantage.

While these companies market specific products or solutions, they are often created through a platform of foundational technologies that the company can reconfigure in endless ways to address emerging needs. A platform approach can help transform messaging and marketing as well. Beyond the value proposition of individual products, you’re offering the company itself as the solution to the customer’s problems. And you’re not just selling a solution to a single problem; you’re selling solutions for whatever problems the customer may have within your area of expertise.

The premise of a platform is simple enough -- but the transition from products to platforms has historically been incredibly difficult for companies to make. This is in large part due to human nature. Developers and other members of product teams tend to be motivated by the prospect of creating a finished good, the way a sculptor wants to begin with a piece of stone and end with a fully realized figure. Now you’re asking them to first produce puzzle pieces instead -- things that can be integrated in myriad ways, including many beyond the original team’s conception. Instead of building your teams around products, you’ll assemble smaller groups of developers dedicated to capabilities, all working with a common platform of enabling technologies. You’ll even have people working in areas that may not have an obvious or immediate application, but may be useful for solving new needs still to emerge.

Leadership has to learn new ways of thinking as well, including how they hire, train, nurture and reward talent. Past success can build tremendous inertia -- if a product-based strategy has worked so far, why change things now? This kind of apathy can slow the response to broader trends and accelerating markets, even when the needed skills have long been available. There are numerous examples of companies that have failed to make the shift and as a result, have either become irrelevant or have otherwise stagnated. Within the tech industry, programmers began learning platform-oriented strategies decades ago, such as object-oriented programming, where everything can be a Lego piece. Yet to this day, many tech companies remain fully product-centric and unable to make the rapid pivots their customers require. No company in Silicon Valley today, from Cisco to Salesforce to my own Citrix, can afford to rest on its current product leadership.

After all, who would have guessed five or seven years ago how fundamentally mobility would impact the enterprise -- and how many tech companies can now survive without a strong value proposition for mobile? A platform-centric approach enables people to tap into broad ecosystems to create innovative solutions. In other words, instead of monolithic products being created by single companies, a platform gives a company the ability to scale more effectively and be relevant -- notwithstanding market vagaries -- without having to invest everything organically.

Adopting a platform approach isn’t a change that you make once, then take for granted. It’s a commitment to keeping your mind open -- and your options as well. You have to accept the limitations of what you can know and predict, and place a premium on agility of execution. Your relationship with the market converges toward a common cadence of need and innovation, where you strive to provide solutions as soon as your customers ask for them, if not sooner. It’s not an easy way to do business, but it's a more competitive one -- and it all begins with the quality and versatility of your platform.

Sudhakar Ramakrishna is a Senior Vice President and General Manager at Citrix, leading the Enterprise and Service Provider Division.

Read more: Wired Insights

Sudhakar Ramakrishna
Senior Vice President and General Manager at Citrix
Leading the Enterprise and Service Provider Division