Focusing the Fuzzy Front End of New Product Development

BinocularsYour new product development team has time constraints and has to make decisions on a project, but marketing does not have enough information on the size of the market, the customer requirements, or the user needs and sales doesn’t know what the retailer needs for margins.   R&D and engineering don’t have a solution and may not even understand the problem.  Are there competitors?  How are we better?  How will we win?   There are so many unanswered questions.  Does the front end of new product development have to be so fuzzy and unclear?

To continue allow the front end to be fuzzy in some cases is a professional cop-out.

For more than 25 years we have been told by the experts, authors and academics that the front end of new product development is fuzzy.  Robert Cooper writes in his book Winning at New Products, ©1988, that ‘quality of execution of the fuzzy front end impacts strongly on innovation success’.  In the PDMA Handbook of New Product Development, ©2005 (the bible for NPD, a unique and must-have resource) editors Kenneth B Kahn, Abbie Griffin, and George Castellion devote an entire chapter written by Peter Koen on the fuzzy front end, ‘The Fuzzy Front End for Incremental, Platform, and Breakthrough Products’.   (Note, this is referring to the second edition.  The third edition has just been released April ©2013.)  Many of us have been taught to accept this degree of fuzziness.  We have been told it is the nature of the front end to be fuzzy.   And while we have built more than 25 years of experience implementing robust processes to reduce the risk of innovation (processes such as stage-gate npd processes, portfolio management, ideation, concept generation and selection, etc.) as practitioners, we have spent little time increasing our capabilities around incorporating and embedding processes and practices, systems and supports, measures and metrics that build clarity and focus into the front end.   To continue allow the front end to be fuzzy in some cases is a professional cop-out.  Isn’t it time we build up a front end that is less fuzzy and more focused?

…debunking the myth that the front end of product development is inherently fuzzy.

The front end of product development does NOT have to be fuzzy.  Oh sure, it can be ‘crazy’ fuzzy if you let it.  Any process can be unclear and unfocused.  The literature lets the practitioner rationalize that it is fuzzy by nature.  To be fair to these authors and academics, they are only reporting on the state-of-the-process as they observed it in practice.   But practitioners! The front end doesn’t have to be fuzzy.

How does the NPD professional lead his or her organization to better clarity.  There are a number of practices that will help an organization focus around targets for innovation.

In this discussion we start debunking the myth that the front end of product development is inherently fuzzy.  We start off at the basic level and go through one very simple way to start to bring clarity.

First ask yourself these five simple questions that help de-fuzz and focus the front end of new product development.

Five simple questions that help de-fuzz and focus the front end of product development:

1. What problem are you trying to solve?

2. Who has this problem?

3. How do you solve it better than anyone else?

4. How will you make money solving this problem?

5. Is it sustainable?

Simple, right?   The questions may be straightforward but the answers may be trickier.

Next, do you want to see how fuzzy your front-end team is?  Ask your team the same five questions.  Try this qualitative approach.   In your next front-end product development team meeting ask each member to write out his or her individual answers to these same five questions.  You don’t need names, just answers.  Collect and compare the answers.

confused team

The extent to which the team can answer the questions and the answers are consistent will provide a quick assessment on how fuzzy the team is.   Review the answers.  Determine and summarize any gaps.  Report back to the team.  Resolve differences and bring about alignment by normative group process.

There is no right or wrong, just learning.  If there are gaps in understanding you work to align the team.  Please share your experience.

This discussion is a start down the path of debunking the myth that the front end of product development is inherently fuzzy.  We  began at a very basic level and reviewed one very simple way to start to bring clarity.  There are many other tools to share.  As practitioners we continually must improve these processes to make them more productive in terms of impact, speed and quality.  The time has come to focus the front end.

image credits:  Criswell Davisand and Chad Weinstein

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