A Resilient Approach to New Product Development (NPD)

Summary: New Product Development (NPD) is a very competitive space and activity is at an all-time high. In spite of the best minds being engaged and the most advanced tools being deployed, failure rates continue to remain high.

Over the past week I had the opportunity to reflect on my NPD experience spanning over the past 20+ years and have summarized some of the lessons that I learned. Maintaining a conscious balance between the “science and art parts” is the most important lesson and resulted in consistently good outcomes for the organization, the customers and teams in very diverse industries, environments and settings.

(1)   Art or Science? Successful NPD results from blending the art with the science. Like the two wings of a bird, both have to work in unison for the product to soar.

a)     The science part: There is very little variation in NPD science from project to project or even between organizations or teams. It includes frameworks that capture the approach end-to-end. These processes can be refined continuously. A generic spiral approach, developed over the years has served me well for the NPD efforts that I managed. It focused on creating an initial minimum viable product (MVP). Additional features and functionality were added in the successive iterations with the objective of scaling both the customer base and the revenues. Most organizations have some such structured framework or approach. But in spite of the best frameworks product failure rates are high. Like run-off water inordinate amounts of invaluable NPD resources are expended without no tangible ROI. From a project management perspective the AGILE methodology that can work wonders when implemented properly can also drastically increase the risk of “speed without direction” when applied in patches.

b)    The art art: The less emphasized art part distills the overall thinking. This is an exercise that culminates in an accurate description of the product or service needs that is well-aligned with the organizational goals, well differentiated from the competition and has a strong value proposition. More importantly this exercise engages, aligns and enrolls the stakeholders resulting in a collaborative team prepared to deliver and support the product life cycle.

(2)   Role of a NPD team lead: 

As a team lead with overall accountability for the NPD effort but little authority, my focal points included listening carefully and incorporating stakeholder feedback in the development efforts and building trust and rapport both at an individual and team level while being equanimous to both good and bad news and fair to all parties.

As NPD Manager my primary focus was to take initiative, remove blocks and be prepared to roll up my sleeves and dive in. I brought my passion to the workplace every day and was prepared to energize and be energized by the team.

A simple to implement yet powerful lesson that I learned in team management came from a time when I was a team member at VPISystems. This was a start-up where most of us were burning-the-candle at both end. My then Manager, the Vice-President of Marketing, an Australian lady, would stop by each one of our desks every evening with a big smile to say thank you for the day”. These MAGIC words were powerful and energizing enough to make me feel valued, keep me buoyant and motivate me to give the very best to the company the next day. The payback from adopting this approach has been significant in the teams that I managed.

As a team leader it is important to recognize that failure is part of NPD effort and not become risk averse. It is equally important to learn from failures and incorporate any lesson into the development process. In future projects backed by these robust processes the hope is that success would come by design . Taking the time with the team for an After Action Review (AAR) session and formally closing down a project is therefore very rewarding.

Occasionally, when I was brought into a development effort mid-stream, I used the lessons learned from failures to my advantage by starting with an audit of the ecosystem to identify gaps. Such training has also helped in turning around failing implementations.

(3)   Onboarding the team: Four areas were emphasized that helped set the stage.

  • Responsibility vs. Accountability: The contribution of every team member in achieving success was critical. A team member had “responsibility” to complete specific tasks agreed upon. As Manager, I would be the only one held “accountable” to achieve the overall goal. I have always accepted full accountability and backed up the team in situations that fell short of the goals.
  • Mental Hygiene: It is of utmost importance to maintain ethical and mental standards in the team settings including the need to manage emotions, conflict and anger. Perfect control of senses at all times.
  • Communication: Towards this team members should feel free to communicate concerns. Negativity, gossip and rumors were discouraged; direct, transparent and open team communication was encouraged. Issues were best addressed directly with concerned team-members.
  • Diversity: Blending local, global and virtual team members is easier with a good understanding of diversity and developing sensitivity to cross-cultural issues. Respect for self and others was important at all times.

(4)   Compensation:

  • Rewarding innovation and creativity: Compensation goes beyond paychecks, annual reviews, certificates, raises, rewards and bonuses. Recognizing and acknowledging contributions formally both within and outside the team is a morale booster. Articulating innovation and creativity is impactful when it is backed with a thorough understanding of the SITUATION, the TASK, the ACTIONS taken and the RESULTS achieved against that backdrop. In showing appreciation one size does not fit all. As a manager taking time to assess and articulate in this format in team settings builds credibility as a fair Manager.
  • Work-home balance: Ensuring that team members do not burn-out and are compensated in fair ways when they are extend themselves to meet work needs

(5)   Product definition: This is a critical phase that can make or break a product depending on how well it is executed. The expectation is that the team engaged in this exercise will ensure that the concept under development will result in a product or service that is (i) usable and valuable to the customer, (ii) feasible and scalable to build, (iii) robust and resilient in the usage scenarios, all while strengthening the core competence and sustaining the organization when included in the offering portfolio. This is a huge responsibility. Based on my experience, New Product Development efforts fail primarily because adequate time is not spent in developing the concept beyond applying frameworks and available market analysis inputs. Incorporating frameworks, user testing, market analysis and competitive analysis is a good start but on their own are inadequate to create a weatherproof offering.

(6)   Distilling the thinking: Stimulating and stirring up the team thinking to probe at a deeper level as they synthesize the external inputs helps drill down to the real challenges and issues. Like stirring up a cocktail and letting it sit before that first sip, the teams engaged in this phase need an incubation period during which healthy team dynamics are established. The resulting product response to the market needs will be the bridge that connects the user goals with the business goals while strengthening the ties all around.

(7)   Product development Biome: A facilitator with little or no authority but with lots of responsibility, may do well by focusing on creating and nurturing teams to have a strong product culture. Once the team dynamics are established, such a team is invaluable to any organization and can sustain the momentum. It is very much like the biome in a healthy human’s gut that can assimilate external inputs comfortably with optimal outcomes for the body. This is a non-threatening ecosystem where the team members freely learn, teach, coach and influence each other while their collective wisdom is efficiently tapped forming the basis and foundation for creating successful products and services.

(8)   Establishing mature team dynamics: Team members are encouraged to think freely – both within and outside their official roles and formal titles. Quite frequently as an outcome of this the best engineering ideas originated in marketing and vice versa. Dissent, candid discussion, lots of arguments and disagreements by empowered team-members usually preceded a state of consensus and agreement. Self-development is naturally built into these sessions. Team members evolve in real-time during the discussions, as they cross train and cross learn and develop new perspectives and gain an appreciation and understanding of areas unrelated to their immediate responsibilities. This builds resilient teams.

(9)   Expected outcomes: The most diverse of groups may converge in their thinking, and develop deeper respect for each other. Team work may be noticeably higher. Such empowered, self-directed and self-regulating teams may need very minimal external direction. The team members feeling valued may become cohesive, passionate, enrolled and engaged. Once their innovative spirit is unleashed, they become more adaptive and flexible. For Managers, time freed up from not having to manage the teams could be used to review edge cases, identify risks, develop mitigation responses and focus on business development, marketing and strategy. Most important outcome of all, exceptional products grow and strengthen the product portfolio.





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