Thursday, January 14, 2010

So where to start with better product development?

The world of product development is wide and exciting. It’s full of opportunities and rewards, inevitably tempered by a measure of disappointments and frustrations. I’ve certainly always found it fun and fulfilling.

To get the most from this product development world it may useful to consider the fundamentals important for a “good life”. Just as we all need air, water, food and shelter; there are some basics that are critical for survival and success in the world of product development.

So what are these core requirements for survival and success in the world of product development? My experience suggests there are four:

  1. Process
  2. People
  3. Patronage
  4. Perseverance

Process is about discipline and structure. There’s a fundamental need to maintain order as the intangible product or service concept is guided through the often tortuous journey that transforms it into something of tangible benefit to customers. Methodologies like the standard phased framework published by the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) define what and how the process should be followed. They help with stage gates, checklists and templates that act as descriptions, hurdles and screens for refining the product as it progresses to market. Without this defined process service creation remains just that, a creativity exercise, which can be fun, but is certainly not product development.

People is about teamwork. This is certainly not to suggest that product development needs committees and “group think”. But it does need good expertise and strong collaboration. Firstly, the span of skills important for successful product development is extremely broad. Compromising on the quality of skills applied to a new product increases risks, reduces potential, compromises success and wastes effort. Secondly, good people bring an opportunity for positive tension. Tension that can help test and improve the product as it develops. Thirdly is the customer. Famously it was Henry Ford who suggested that before the motor car, if asked what type of improvement people would want in their transport, the answer would have been simply ‘faster horses’. This anecdote belies the customer’s role as a member of the development team. But the enduring need for “faster” and our continued use of horsepower to define even today’s motor cars shows the vital team role played by the voice of the customer.

Patronage is about power and permission. In an open web centric world the critical importance of these less fashionable forces can be easily overlooked. New product development by nature is disruptive. It challenges the status quo and looks to introduce something new that competes with established paradigms. A familiar model to help understand the forces at play is offered by Porter. Strategies are required to successfully establish the new product into this sometimes hostile push and pull landscape. Ultimately key supporters (or patrons) with sufficient authority and responsibility in the existing landscape need to be engaged to help nurture and protect the change agent.

Perseverance is about self confidence. With less than 1 in 50 new product initiatives reaching production launch and with regular black-hat scrutiny, the world of product development is inevitably an uncertain roller coaster for its participants. The realities of competing for both limited investment funds and striving to win market success create that challenging environment. To stay effective and successful, participants in product development need an enduring culture of self belief and determination.

My experience suggests these are four of the critical requirements necessary for survival and success in the world of product development. I’m interested in feedback and views to help achieve better product development.