Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Achieving and maintaining leadership in the analyst community

Getting into the Gartner MQ leaders quadrant or leadership tier on the Forrester Wave is a lot like a restaurant getting a fantastic review in the newspaper or achieving multiple Michelin Stars.  Initially there is lots of celebration followed by a flood of business.  But, then you realize the pressure to retain your rating. For instance, extremely high-end restaurants live and die by their Michelin Stars.  The loss of even fractional star can cause the restaurant to tailspin.  I'm reminded of one of my favorite places in San Francisco who achieved 2 Michelin Stars the first year that the guide was published for that city.  The following year the restaurant dropped to 1 Michelin Star and within two years were out of business.
OK, maybe that's an exaggeration and there were other reasons why the restaurant failed, including the economic slow-down, but it's an interesting and relevant parallel.  There's a good dramatization of this phenomena in the Adam Sandler movie "Spanglish".  Yet, despite how many Michelin Stars a restaurant many achieve and regardless of whether the restaurant can maintain their position, a change in dining habits, lots of critical postings on Yelp, or a disgruntled community of bloggers on Chowhound can torpedo the success of a restaurant.  The fact is that a fanatical focus on maintaining an external leadership ranking can distract people and ultimately cause them to focus more on influencing the external party, rather than focusing on their business and doing what's right to succeed in an environment of ever-changing market conditions.

Technology is very different from the restaurant business, but the tremendous internal pressure to maintain an analyst leadership ranking is a lot like the pressure that a chef feels to maintain his Michelin Stars.  I've even heard of product marketers and product managers at large companies getting fired because their products either failed to maintain or meaningfully improve their position on the Gartner MQ.
Notwithstanding the issue of job security, maintaining an analyst leadership position can create a situation where the product strategy begins to pander to what you think the analyst firm wants to see, not necessarily where you see the market going strategically or where your most meaningful and addressable opportunities may reside.  This is a very, very difficult position.
Most analyst firms are conservative in their assessment of the market and this is yet another reason why many companies get stuck in the feature drag race.  The product strategy resorts to either doing what the analyst firm tells them to do or looking at the published leaders and then copying what they're doing.  Sadly, many product managers believe (erroneously) that more features cement a leadership position with the analysts.  This is not a viable strategy, unless you're large enough (e.g. Microsoft, Cisco, or IBM) to out-feature the competition, or win through superior routes-to-market or attrition.

Ultimately the way to overcome this dilemma is to begin to present a concrete vision to the analysts on how everything you do fits together.  Basing your leadership position with the analyst community on speeds, feeds, and features is ultimately an unsustainable and losing proposition.  Instead, spend the time influencing analysts on how your vision is unique in your space, how it's ultimately more relevant than what your competitors are articulating, and how your past actions, future directions (e.g. roadmap), and business performance are unified into this vision.

Look at what Citrix did with Access Gateway; we convinced Gartner and Forrester that SSL VPN was no longer simple remote access or network connectivity, but an integral part of an application delivery infrastructure (we implemented a Blue Ocean Strategy).  Nobody in the SSL VPN space, including Juniper, Aventail, or even F5, were talking about SSL VPNs as being applicable to application delivery, but they do now. Citrix continues to advance their vision around application delivery, and are experts at clearly explaining how they are out creating and leading the market.

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