At Enginess we provide the infrastructure of technology expertise and processes to help develop new products, often on very aggressive schedules and in highly competitive industries. Over the years, we've delivered large e-commerce products, bespoke applications in a range of industries and numerous digital publishing projects customized to our clients' particular needs.
Having worked now on several new product development (NPD) projects, there are some common characteristics of successful projects that can be implemented to increase the likelihood of success in future projects.
Failed projects, on the other hand, often fail because they did not possess these characteristics.
1. An active product owner
In an ideal world, the term 'client' would be banished, at least when it comes to NPD, which requires far more of the leadership team than simply signing cheques and providing milestone approval.
A product owner is a client who actively engages in the project, and as the term suggests asserts their ownership, with everything that implies — pride of ownership, attention to detail, being willing to take responsibility for decisions, and most importantly being part of the team. Effective product owners see the NPD process as collaborative, albeit one in which they play a leadership role.
2. Reliable teams
In terms of the team, the highest degree of risk always comes from putting together a group of people who have not worked together before and asking them to share a set of goals. This may be unavoidable at times (every team starts out this way), but assigning an unproven team to a high-priority project requires meticulous attention to detail and strategy, and the interpersonal aspect of resource management becomes a top priority.
Laufer and Hoffman from NASA (who know a few things about NPD) counsel that
“to achieve peak team performance you must develop rich, intimate and emotional relationships among skilled people who trust one another and who enjoy spending time with one other.”
At Enginess, we tend to favour keeping teams together where possible, and sequencing work within the project portfolio to ensure that veteran teams are available for high-risk projects. In this way, we minimize the project's exposure to resource risks.
3. Clear objectives
There is always risk involved in innovation: the challenge is to manage risk exposure to maximize benefits (new ideas, efficiency gain) and minimize pitfalls (organizational anarchy, scope creep). We have found that the best way to approach this is to crystallize the objectives of each phase of delivery into a single statement.
For example, the first phase deliverable in a recent performance assessment project was defined as ‘The first member takes the first test.’ In this way, all parties can independently verify that their work aligns with the mission statement, which reduces the need for oversight and allows team members to instantly evaluate the effectiveness of a task.
Will it help us achieve our mission? If the answer is no, then focus on something that will.
4. Avoiding novelty
While innovation within a product (the output) is desirable, the project itself (the process) is not the place to start experimenting with new ways of doing things. Every week brings a new management buzzword or concept, and project management is one of the worst offenders. Blame it on the Internet.
Perhaps the project manager's role – balancing strategy and execution – makes one particularly susceptible to management trends, many of which don't even last the duration of the project at hand. Resist the temptation to implement the latest and greatest, because it very likely isn't.
5. A product road map
That old cliché about failing to plan might be groan-inducing, but it is very true.
Having a great idea is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to developing a new product. Once you’ve had your flash of inspiration, you’ll need to follow through with a great strategy.
The most effective new product development has a road map set on attainable objectives that respond to time-to-market pressures, with enough flexibility to absorb unpredictable events like the emergence of competitors, macro economic factors, organizational change, and new opportunities. Projecting at least two iterations down the road is desirable, with longer-term objectives described and understood without necessarily being defined into actionable work.
There are a lot of moving parts here: testing your ideas, identifying your target market, finding your price, and defining your product. And since every new product is different, there’s no one-size-fits-all process.
6. Solid research
A successful NPD project requires a thorough understanding of a laundry list of items: your target market, the market need, your unique value proposition, your competition, your pricing options – the list goes on.
There’s no point launching a product if you don’t know anything about your target market, or if your product doesn’t have anything setting it apart from the competition.
If you’ve got existing market research, use that as a springboard for going even deeper. If your existing market research is less-than-impressive, then you’ll want to invest in that, stat.
7. Thorough testing
We’re big fans of user testing and an iterative approach. That’s because they put user needs at the forefront and respond to changing user demands.
While we usually talk about iteration and user testing in the context of already existing products, they can work wonders for product development as well. Testing your product proposal with customers will give you valuable feedback and insights that you can use to improve the product you’re developing in a way that you know users will love.
Successful NPD projects avoid the temptation of doing too much.
By now, most of us are familiar with the dreaded "feature creep" – the tendency to keep adding features to your product past the point of usefulness. Feature creep is a problem because it leads to products that are needlessly complex and hard to use.
But it’s also a problem for NPD processes.
Once you’re finished your research and product testing stages, you’ll likely be tempted to widen the scope of your project, bring on even more team members, and add features to your product.
There’s nothing wrong with this in theory – but in reality, it can slow your project down and throw unnecessary complications into the mix. Good NPD projects tend to stay focused on specific, clear objectives.
Which brings us to another characteristic of successful NPDs…
Good NPD projects tend to combine this focus on clear objectives with a commitment to a hard timeline.
In our experiences with NPDs, we’ve found that the best approach here is to distill everything down into manageable project phases. Each phase should have a deadline attached to it, and a solid roadmap for getting things done.
NPDs rely on a lot of creativity and inspiration, but behind all of that, you need a pretty stubborn commitment to achieving your targets on time.
10. Adaptable and flexible
This one is a caveat to all that talk about deadlines and project phases and strict time management.
Before setting out on an ambitious NPD project, you should know that things aren’t going to go as planned.
Markets change, demand for products like yours might suddenly dry up, the economic winds can change, and new opportunities can even emerge.
This uncertainty doesn’t have to jeopardize your timeline, though.
Good NPDs build uncertainty into their process. In our work, we’ve noticed that the best practice here is to try to project at least two iterations down the line with your long-run objectives in mind.
There’s always going to be a fair bit of unpredictability when you’re developing a new product, but baking in a hefty dose of flexibility into your processes will help you absorb it.