Better Leadership in 2017

I have been thinking about the year ahead and wanted to come up with simple, easy-to-remember guidelines for deepening my own leadership skills in 2017.

2015, for me, was all about BALANCE both personal and professional.  Balance turned out to be more of a challenge than I originally estimated and it spilled over into 2016 under a new banner of SIMPLIFY.  I continue practicing balance and simplification and know for me it is a life-long initiative.  I think the word PRACTICE is appropriate for these types of pursuits.

After overcomplicating the 2017 guidelines exercise, I came back to 4 basic verbs.  I chose verbs for the very fact that they are action-oriented.

  1. Listen
  2. Ask
  3. Act
  4. Know me

Getting to these four areas of focus started out pretty cloudy.  Still, I knew there was something important about all four skills.  Any one of these capabilities are great characteristics.  I will argue good leadership requires all four.  Take away any one and the problems start.screen-shot-2016-12-31-at-9-50-07-am  Not listening to other stakeholders, not asking the right questions, failing to act when required, and looking at the situation through my own narrow filters can put me at a significant disadvantage and result in poor leadership.

It seems obvious that I turn the clouds into firm skill sets represented by intersecting circles to try to visualize and explain what was happening in each of the overlapping areas.  screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-9-23-22-am

Great leadership requires a combination of listening, asking questions, acting and knowing my own stuff.screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-9-23-47-am

I thought about writing a paragraph on each overlapping section including what types of leadership behavior is exhibited when leaders don’t listen or are not self-aware of their own prejudices, preconceived ideas, and assumptions etc.  Instead I will simplify the post and leave that examination up to the reader.

With these simple guidelines in place, I look forward to the challenges that 2017 will bring.

Happy New Year!

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Co-working and Leading Teams

The co-working movement may be considered the latest fad, but it has been around for decades under different names and forms.  Cross-organizational or cross-functional teamwork is the basis of many existing business processes.  Co-location of teams and matrixed organizations are also well known. Marketing, product development and innovation teams have long realized the benefits of working in multi-disciplinary teams to better accomplish goals.  Recently new research indicates it has a surprisingly strong psychological basis.

coworking-space

See WENDY MARX  07.14.16 5:00 AM http://www.fastcompany.com/3061515/the-scientific-reason-why-coworking-may-be-the-future-of-work

New cultural tactics such as working in pairs that rotate every five days, and company culture and social structure designed to help employees collaborate are more and more popular. Expanding offices and creating innovation centers to allow current clients or new startups and entrepreneurs to work with company teams generate strong connections and innovation in the process.

No doubt co-working is an established movement.  An of a new platform includes WeWork as well as other co-working platforms taking shape in a variety of forms.

How can you bring the benefits of co-working to your organization?

There’s no forced socialization. Team spaces that allow employees to be as friendly, or as reserved, as an individual wants work well.  Creating secure and accessible space for interaction with outside parties allows for learning and collaborative work.

And according to researchers who’ve studied the effectiveness of co-working, they’re all on to something. Wendy Marx explains why.  The following is an excerpt from her recent article in Fast Company cited above:

TWO BASIC HUMAN NEEDS CO-WORKING FULFILLS

A team of researchers at the University of Michigan’s Steven M. Ross School of Business led by business professor Dr. Gretchen Spreitzer, who also directs the Center for Positive Organizations, has spent the last four years studying co-working. In the process, they’ve interviewed the founders of co-working companies around the U.S. and surveyed more than 200 workers from dozens of co-working spaces; one team member spent six months as a co-working member.

Their research uncovered two key benefits to the co-working experience, both of which have been linked to improved employee performance. Simplified somewhat, it comes down to flexibility and autonomy without dispensing with meaningful community.

It turns out that co-working spaces’ hallmarks—like funky design features—are far less important than their social structures, where workers feel a sense of individual autonomy that’s still linked to a sense of collaboration, the Michigan team told me in interviews. Most co-working spaces, for all their variation, tend to strike that careful balance between those crucial needs—in ways that neither solo freelancing nor the traditional office experience usually provide.

Typically, coworkers pay a monthly fee in exchange for the freedom to work when, where, and how they want. Often open 24/7, coworking facilities let members come and go and sit wherever they like. There’s no forced socialization. You can be as friendly or as reserved as you want.

Co-workers also have the freedom to literally shape their environment—which some research suggests can significantly improve workers’ performance and productivity. In their research, the Michigan team found that some co-working companies have taken it upon themselves to redesign their spaces to better meet members’ needs, raising additional money to do so and inviting users to help design the new features.

Independence, adaptability, flexibility: These characteristics are fundamental human needs. So it isn’t surprising that they’ve been linked to positive outcomes in the workplace, too, from improved performance to higher rates of employee commitment and engagement.

They also help explain why more companies are embracing flexible work schedules—many of the same ones, in fact, that are exploring coworking. GE, Parades tells me, now offers flexible work arrangements for all its U.S. employees as long as they’ve got their managers’ approval.

COMMUNITIES THAT MINIMIZE INTERNAL COMPETITION

But this isn’t the whole story, the Michigan researchers found. Autonomy and flexibility may be crucial, but your work environment is hardly the only factor that can supply them. The other key benefit that coworking spaces tend to offer is a sense of community—not just any community, but one where people, as Dr. Spreitzer puts it, are “free to be themselves” because they don’t feel they’re competing with those around them. As a result, ideas are more freely shared.

People are “free to be themselves” because they don’t feel they’re competing with those around them.
Spreitzer, Garrett, and their third colleague Dr. Peter Bacevice, director of research at architecture and design firm HLW International, found that that type of communal spirit provides the necessary ballast to autonomy. While too much freedom can actually hurt productivity, grafting a community structure onto an already flexible one provides what she calls “the optimal degree of control.”

Typically, people join coworking spaces because they want to be part of a community while still doing their own thing. Members often share their thoughts and needs on Slack or some other communal platform. Everyone is usually expected to volunteer to maintain the facility. Lectures, outings, and other events are planned—but optional.

Here’s one coworking member that PhD candidate Lyndon Garrett interviewed as part of the research:

It’s really positively affected my work because it . . . makes me happier all the time, and having people around that I’m not in competition with but who can bring experience from different industries and different situations is really, really helpful . . . I’ve been able to come in contact with ideas I wouldn’t have normally come in contact with.
Traditional companies are trying to create that same sense of serendipity. AT&T has created coworking-like spaces where the company’s own engineers mingle with independent developers and startups in order to accelerate AT&T’s innovation cycle. The office furniture company Steelecase redesigned its corporate office to include a work café that strongly resembles those at the center of many coworking spaces, based on the idea that employees may be stimulated and build friendships with people outside their work unit.

So if more employers follow suit in the months and years ahead, they aren’t just jumping on a trendy bandwagon. Sure, they might be doing that, too, but they’re also trying to tap into the science that helps explain what makes people work well—alone and together.

H1 2016 is Over! Act on H2.

Today’s thought from INSIGHTOVATION® – July 19, 2016

Stay ahead of your business cadence.

Are you still analyzing the first half of 2016 to see where you are vs. the business goals?  If so you are already behind for the year.  That analysis should have been done starting in mid-June using actuals through May and forecast for June.  The official books should be all but closed as a formality with no surprises and business reviews finalized.  You are now 3 weeks into the new quarter and second half of 2016.  Stop looking back.

Executing the plan is the business priority.

Assumptions:
  1. There is a clearly defined strategy and action plan.   Everyone is aligned and focused.
  2. It is still the right plan.  Nothing has changed.
  3. You have the right resources to execute.

Publishing a business/marketing calendar is a helpful way of staying on track.

  1. This calendar outlines a framework of the regular cycles for the business.
  2. It describes the business process and timing vs. the content.
  3. It gives visibility to timing and manages expectations of reporting to business stakeholders.

Whether the calendar is on a shared, electronic platform or an excel spreadsheet matters not. The important characteristics are that it is clearly articulated, accessible, and has organizational alignment.

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 9.12.59 AM

First Step? – Populate a calendar with all known business events for the next 18 months.

Consider a 3-year strategic plan with a rolling 18-month action plan.   Create an 18-month calendar outlining the business/marketing cadence as a framework and allow stakeholders to align their action plans so that the entire team is going forward on the same timing to achieve the plan.

Let me know if you need step-by-step help creating a cross-organizational cadence.

 

15+ Words to Describe Great Product Managers

Writing a resume or job description?
Preparing to interview a product manager candidate or be interviewed for a product manager job?

I was recently asked to identify characteristics of a great product manager.

If functional expertise is a given, then what are the characteristics that take a product manager from good to great?

Here are some of the words I l use to describe the great product managers I have known and with whom I have worked.

authenticauthentic

adjective ~ au·then·tic \ə-ˈthen-tik, ȯ-\
  • : real or genuine : not copied or false

  • : true and accurate

  • : an original

Conformity does not yield innovation.

curiositycurious

adjective ~ cu·ri·ous \ˈkyu̇r-ē-əs\
  • : having a desire to learn or know more about something or someone
    :  marked by desire to investigate and learn
    :  marked by inquisitive interest in others’ concerns

  • : strange, unusual, novel or unexpected

 

fearlessAN-ESSENTIAL-aspect-of-creativity-is-not-being-afraid-to-fail

adjective ~ fear·less \ˈfir-ləs\
  • : not afraid : very brave

  • : not being afraid to fail

inquisitiveQuestion_mark curious

adjective ~ in·quis·i·tive \in-ˈkwi-zə-tiv\
  • : tending to ask questions : having a desire to know or learn more

insightfulinsightful

adjective ~ inˈsītfəl /insītfəl/
  • :having or showing an accurate and deep understanding; perceptive.

intuitive, perceptive, discerning, penetrating, penetrative, astute, percipient,perspicacious, sagacious, wise, judicious, shrewd, sharp, sharp-witted, razor-sharp, keenincisive, acute, imaginative, appreciative, intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, deep, profound

 

intuitive

intuitive brain

Credit: Pentera PGBuzz

 

adjective ~ in·tu·i·tive \in-ˈtü-ə-tiv, -ˈtyü-\
  • : having the ability to know or understand things without any proof or evidence : having or characterized by intuition

  • : based on or agreeing with what is known or understood without any proof or evidence : known or understood by intuition

  • : agreeing with what seems naturally right

Great product managers have a unique balance of left and right brain capabilities.

 

judicious

judicious decisive

getgoodinstitute.com

adjective ~ ju·di·cious \jü-ˈdi-shəs\
  • : having or showing good judgment

Judiciousness stresses a capacity for reaching wise decisions or just conclusions.

 

practical practical

adjective ~ prac·ti·cal  /praktək(ə)l/
  • : of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas.

Great product managers are practical, focused on actually doing something, yet I find them to have a quirky silliness and creative bent that sends them in innovative directions hidden from the view of the average mortal.

prudentprudent

adjective pru·dent \ˈprü-dənt\
  • : having or showing careful good judgment

  • : shrewd in the management of practical affairs

  • : marked by circumspection

  • : acting with or showing care and thought for the future.

     sensible, politic, advisable, well advised

 

relentlessextra-mile relentless

adjective ~ re·lent·less  /rəˈlen(t)ləs/

  • :oppressively constant; incessant.
  • :showing or promising no abatement of intensity, strength, or pace

sagacioussagacious

adjective ~ sa·ga·cious \sə-ˈgā-shəs\
  • : having or showing an ability to understand difficult ideas and situations and to make good decisions

 

sageexperience

adjective \ˈsāj\
  • :very wise through reflection, wide experience and great learning

 

sanesane

adjective ~ \ˈsān\
Sane stresses mental soundness, rationality, and levelheadedness

sapient Sapient

adjective ~ |sa·pi·ent|  /sā-pē-ənt/  [sey-pee-uh nt]
  • :wise, or appearing wise especially in the ways of being human

unpretentious

adjective un·pre·ten·tious \-ˈten(t)-shəs\
  • : not having or showing the unpleasant quality of people who want to be regarded as more impressive, successful, or important than they really are : not pretentious

  • :not attempting to impress others with an appearance of greater importance, talent, or culture than is actually possessed.

  • :possessing humility in leadership

unaffectednatural, straightforward, open, honestsincere, frank

 

There are of course many other words to describe what makes these human beings great product managers.  These are some of my favorite.  Please feel free to add your favorites in the comments.

 

10 Essential Strategic Planning Tools

EXCERPTS FROM INSIGHTOVATION® STRATEGIC PLANNING WORKBOOK

WHERE TO PLAY SLIDEStrategy can be thought of as your organization’s playbook, spelling out “where to play” and ‘how to win” with your customers and consumers, and how you will beat others competing with you in the same arena.  

Developing and articulating strategy can be challenging.

Each functional role in the organization must be aligned and engaged in strategic activities in order for execution to be optimized and goals achieved.  Alignment and focus achieve productivity in terms of speed, efficiency, and strategic impact.  

A integrated systems approach to strategic planning and execution can be visualized by using a number of tools.

Here are 10 essential tools that can apply to every strategic planning process.

  1. Business model canvas
  2. Portfolio analysis
  3. Competitive landscape (strategy canvas)
  4. SWOT analysis
  5. Market segmentation schemes
  6. Cluster analysis
  7. Ansoff matrix
  8. White space mapping
  9. Voice of consumer/customer insights – value proposition
  10. Business and product line roadmaps

In the next several sections, we will discuss each of these tools and their application to developing strategy.  Come back for more!

Signs your NPD process is stuck in the 1980s

1980s

Your NPD process is stuck in the 80s when…

  1. Your organization still calls it ‘stage-gate’.
  2. Your teams think NPD is about project management.
  3. Your portfolio of projects consists of an Excel spreadsheet.
  4. Projects get into the process and never get killed.
  5. Concepts are generated from random brainstorming or are management pet projects.
  6. Your product line roadmap is a powerpoint that someone from marketing created.

A marketing friend of mine called me last week to complain about the behavior of his executive team during a recent gate meeting.  The gate meeting turned into a senior leadership debate on business and product line strategy.

The senior leadership team declared the stage-gate process broken and wanted to shut everything down to fix it.  wrong way

My friend was frustrated and indicated they didn’t have an innovation problem or even a lack of ideas.  He indicated they knew how to run a project effectively through the development process.  Clearly, NPD was not working though.  What was the problem?

The answer, I explained to my friend,  was that they did not have a stage-gate process problem.  Instead, they had a product line strategy and roadmapping problem.  There was no alignment on product line strategy and no working product line roadmap that guided new products into the pipeline, allowed decisions to be made on product projects, or a process for projects that didn’t meet strategic and risk criteria to be killed.  Without that alignment, gatekeepers and portfolio managers have no framework in which to make decisions.  What a mess!

When everyone knows it’s not working, and no one knows how to get it back on track, “Where do you start?”

Let’s go back and look at some of the components of the new product development (NPD) process.  Phase-gated and stage-gated new product development processes are only subprocesses of a full architecture of NPD and innovation.  If any of these subprocesses are suboptimal then your results will not be as strong as they could be, you are not gaining the benefits,  and the competition may be winning the game.

The full architecture of NPD and innovation links the following processes together:
  1. Business strategy
  2. Product line strategy
  3. Product line roadmapping
  4. Concept generation
  5. Stage gate project management
  6. Lifecycle management
  7. Portfolio management

Let’s start with my friend’s executive declared ‘stage-gate’ problem. Gated processes have been around for decades now.  They started in the 1950s with NASA and have gained momentum  in industry since the 1960s.  Over the past 30 years these processes  have become a mainstream staple of new product development project management.

The stage-gate type process lays out an effective way to manage a single project at a time.

turtle catching-up

The gated process is considered by many practitioners to be mature in its lifecycle.  Because of its mature lifecycle, many companies have come to understand that stage-gate alone is inadequate to achieve strategic new product development and innovation goals.  If your company is stuck at the stage-gate capability level you have some catching up to do.

While the stage-gate type process helps streamline work flow, information flow, and decision flow of single projects, it is portfolio management that allows organizations to manage sets of many projects effectively, especially given the usual constraints of time and money.  When trade-offs need to be made and resources need to allocated, it is portfolio management that optimizes the allocation of human resources, expense dollars, and capital expense, to achieve the product line and business strategy.  If your portfolio management still consists of rolling up a list of projects into a view and report-out of all projects, and stops there, your company may need to take portfolio management, portfolio analysis, scenario building, and portfolio recommendations for management decision, to the next level.  

Using portfolio management work flow and information flow to make strategic portfolio decisions is critical to maximizing your creation of value and conversion of products to cash flow.  

How-to-increase-conversion-rate-by-effective-landing-pageCould  your company be behind in utilizing these best practices?  If so, you may be missing the point of portfolio management, and not capturing the maximum value of an optimized portfolio.

In order to make portfolio recommendations, portfolio managers, analysts, and review teams need to have a framework from which to reference the gaps in the product line and business strategy.  This is what product line roadmapping provides.

house_of_cards

However, if the product line roadmap is simply a powerpoint created by someone from marketing, without cross organizational input and alignment, then the framework is a house of cards that has not been embedded into the organization and is not understood by the senior leadership team.

In addition, without the framework of the product line strategy and product line roadmaps, concept generation is random and not targeted to the gaps in your strategic plan and you increase the risk of missing your goals.

Roadmapping links the front end, stage-gate, and the portfolio to product line strategy to carry out the execution of business strategy for the purpose of converting products to cash flow.

My marketing friend asked if they really had to shut everything down to fix the process.  The answer is NO.  Companies build skills in these areas in parallel and one level of capability at a time.  If a company conducted the implementation of each of these subprocesses sequentially it would take decades to gain the benefits.  This frustrated marketer was relieved.  I gave him an outline of areas on which to focus to help move his organization to the next level.

How to start:

  1. Everyone needs to be involved.  Form a cross functional and cross organizational team to assess capabilities.
  2. Conduct work in parallel.  Build capabilities in each sub process in of the full architecture of NPD one level at a time.
  3. Keep it simple.  Don’t burden the organization with unnecessary steps.

Are you ready to take your NPD process out of the 80s and use the current best practices to create maximum value for your company?  What are you waiting for?  Let’s get going!

6 Steps to End the Fight Club Mentality in Your Portfolio Team

office-fight

Is Everyone Fighting for Resources?

6 Steps to Better Portfolio Management

1. Have a standing cross-organizational portfolio team:

A Portfolio Analysis and Recommendation Team – ‘PART’ with a structure, process, cadence,  measures, metrics and portfolio goals will create an efficient and credible environment for portfolio issues to be managed.  The PART Team must know the overall business strategy and work to deliver the strategy by establishing functional department strategies and product-line strategies.

2. Develop and define product-line strategies:  

With organization and management input, define product-line strategies within the portfolios so they are clear to the organization and the cross-organizational project teams.  Without this critical information the teams will not be aligned on ‘where to play and how to win’ at each point of the functional strategies.  Create leverage for your product lines by developing them with a product-line platform approach.

Here is a link to a white paper discussing the value and benefit of product-line strategies, written by Paul O’Connor of The Adept Group.

The PART (portfolio team) analyzes portfolio scenarios based on cross-organizational data.  It optimizes and rationalizes the opportunities.  The  PART then makes portfolio recommendations on execution paths forward to business decision makers.

bubble chart

3. Create product line roadmaps:

Using the product-line strategies, and targets for innovation and development, create and align around product-line roadmaps that create a framework of ‘critical-to-roadmap’, events, milestones, technology development or procurement, to track portfolio execution, metrics, and progress.  If you need some help on how to create smart effective product line strategies and product-line roadmaps, there are many workshops, white papers, webinars, and conferences.

4. Optimize the portfolio:

Collect the right data to create and analyze portfolio scenarios, identify gaps, and make recommendations to decision makers on resource allocation, based on data not emotion.
Try software support like  Sopheon Accolade,  Sopheon circlefor straightforward management and visual graphing of portfolio scenarios from innovation planning, targeted idea generation and development, process and project management, through portfolio optimization.  It is an easy-to-use, efficient software and a robust way to compare the options.

5.  Allocate resources:

Track and allocate resources by project and by total portfolio. Make decisions one level above where the resources are shared, so that each decision does not turn into a boxing match.  Software can identify resource constraints and help to prioritize the reallocation of resources to those critical-to-strategy products and projects.

6. Analyze the risk:

Analyze the risk to your projects and assess the risk of your total portfolio so that you can add resources, kill, hold, speed up slow, down and add more projects to meet the goals the business has set.  RiskAssessor™ SoftwareFind a smart and practical way to assess project and portfolio risk.

If your portfolio team is not recommending some projects slow down, while others get killed, or be replaced by projects with more impact, then you may not have a strategy or critical roadmap activities identified.

If your team doesn’t have a framework such as product-line strategies and product-line roadmaps then it will not be able to optimize the allocation of resources and recommend the most strategic and impactful path forward for the development effort.  You will be slower and less efficient than you could be otherwise,  or worse slower and less efficient than the competition!

roadmap picture


Stop wasting time and energy fighting for resources and get behind a common roadmap and execution plan.  
Use these six steps to create a data-based approach to the management of your product portfolio, new product development and innovation.

Your comments are welcome at INSIGHTOVATION.COM

Innovators! You want bigger, better, bubbles!

Product and innovation managers!

You are falling short of your goals, yet you are effectively and efficiently conducting your gated projects and you are analyzing and optimizing your portfolio scenarios. Your problem may not be your skill and capability level at these processes but instead, after you have mastered the gated project and portfolio subprocesses, you need BIGGER, BETTER, BUBBLES to feed the front end and fill your portfolio pipeline.biggerbetterbubbles

Focus on the front end.

The front end of the full architecture of NPDI (new product development and innovation) is the process where concepts for development are generated.  Many call this ‘concept generation.’

Your problem may not be portfolio management.  Your problem may be the front end concept generation process.  In addition, your concept generation process may not be linked to your product line strategy and product line roadmap.

Bubble charts

But let’s take a step back.  Are you a bubble charter?  Let’s explain the purpose of a bubble chart (statisticians, mathematicians and academics please feel free to contribute).  Bubble carts are a staple for partitioners of new product development and portfolio management.  The charts show the opportunities for new products and services in terms of revenue, volume, margin etc. compared to other opportunities for the purpose of investment of resources over time. The charts compare the metrics of opportunities in visuals and display them in circles or bubbles.  The bubbles are sized based on any number of metrics.  Many companies draw the size of the bubbles based on volume, i.e., $ volume and physical volume moved or processed through the operations or plants.

Making_big_bubbles_DSC_2521

As a product manager or a portfolio manager you want BIGGER, BETTER, BUBBLES, i.e., bigger better opportunities for development.

Bubble charts compared to one another over time show the progress of projects through the development process.  Projects move through stages and are eventually launched to the market. So bubbles move over time.  Bubbles move in the intended direction and sometimes the move in the wrong direction.  Portfolio and project managers manage these bubbles (projects) to keep them on track and moving in the right direction.  The bubble charts can give you a better visual than a table of numbers.

The criteria for portfolio management and these charts are pretty clear and usually focuses on converting products and services to cash and creating value for the organization.  The bigger the opportunity,  the lower the risk, the higher the opportunity to claim intellectually property, the better the strategic fit, all come together to create these bigger,  better,  bubbles.

First steps for corporations are to be efficient and effective at the gated project processes, portfolio management processes, and resource allocation.  Once these portfolio processes and scenarios are refined, focused and embedded within your organization, your quest for bigger, better bubbles are the next level of skill to achieve and gain benefits from the full architecture of the new product development and innovation (NPDI).

portview

portview visual graphFront End of New Product Development and Innovation

Alert!   It is difficult to create targets for innovation or a framework within to develop innovative concepts that have strategic impact without a product line strategy and  a product line roadmap.

Four steps to better concept generation through using product line strategy and product line roadmaps.

  1. Develop your product line strategy and create a roadmap that connects your technology building blocks to your target market segments.
  2. Map out the product line over time (3 – 5  years) based on development cycles.
  3. Diagnose critical gaps.
  4. Target your concept generation efforts based on the product line gaps for achieving business strategy, and product line strategy.

Within each of these four steps there are many work elements, cross functional inputs and work steps.  However, the reward and benefits from the work are better targets for your front end process for NPDI activities and targets for innovation.  This is key to delivering BIGGER, BETTER, BUBBLES.

Learn more about this at adept-plm.com.

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