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Mike Richman

Quality Insider

Making the Most of New Product Development

Where creativity and quality meet

Published: Sunday, March 28, 2010 - 17:07

If you’re like me, the point at which “work” most closely approximates “play” is when you get to fire up the right side of your brain and do some out-of-the-box thinking about new projects. What’s exciting, I find, is the opportunity to build something from scratch that has the potential to carry forward for years, or even decades. Most of us want to leave our mark, our legacy, on our organizations, and successful, game-changing new projects offer that unique opportunity.

As many of you know, during the past two years, Quality Digest has done a lot of video-production work. It has been our intention to turn our web site at www.qualitydigest.com into the industry’s premier destination point for video content that helps you, our reader, do his or her job better. It’s a long jouney, but we’re proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.

Our most recent foray into this realm has been through the use of live streaming video, which allows us to offer demonstrations, presentations, training, and event coverage in real time, and lets viewers interact directly with the host and guests on screen. Live video is a very different animal from, say, podcasting or webinars, both of which are very useful in the dissemination of information but which can’t offer the kind of visual element so necessary for, say, a hardware demo or an overview of gauging best practices. (Shameless plug moment: Our next live demo, focusing on laser trackers, happens tomorrow at 1 p.m. EDT. Click here to register if you’d like to check it out. Let us know what you think… do you find these demos worthwhile? Your feedback is always appreciated for its value in giving us reality checks, and in how it guides our continuous improvement process.)

Live video broadcasts are nothing new, of course. We’ve all been watching NFL games and Saturday Night Live on TV for decades. Live streaming content on the web is rarer, but starting to become more prevalent. Ford CEO Alan Mulally’s keynote address from this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was widely broadcast live online just a few months ago.

But for smaller media entities such as Quality Digest, the idea of joining “The Big Boys” in producing and distributing our own live video broadcasts was daunting, to say the least. Few trade media organizations are currently using the power of live streaming video to connect their audience and their media partners on an invitational basis (more… many more… will follow soon, trust me). When we started down this path more than a year ago, we wondered why everyone wasn’t already doing it.

Now we know: It’s hard. Very hard.

What we’ve learned has been invaluable, but for matters both stylistic (there’s no reason to bore you with thousands of words of technical jargon on frame rates, compression, and Flash) and proprietary (hey, we worked hard to figure this stuff out, and I don’t feel the need to tell the world all of our secrets), I would go into detail here. However, what I can share with you are some general insights that we’ve acquired on new product development and how it affects quality, customer service, branding, the limits of creativity, pricing strategy, and lots more.

Connect the dots

Any major new initiative has lots of key stakeholders. It’s fairly easy to identify needs among any single group. Customers, for example, want you to provide great stuff for as little money as possible. If they’re the only ones you need to satisfy, hey, that’s great… and simple. But, depending on your situation, your new product may also need to satisfy board members, shareholders, various corporate managers, vendors, marketing partners, certification boards, and dozens of others. Be sure that you’ve connected with all of them early in the planning stages of product design to make sure that your strategies align… or at least, that there’s no major conflicts or problems. Keep in touch with them regularly with updates as the specs and the scope of the project inevitably change.

Plan to succeed… and fail

Most people go into new ventures of any kind with a high degree of optimism and expect unvarnished success. Then there are those who are pessimistic by nature and assume that their new undertakings are doomed to failure. Neither extreme is optimal, although certainly you want to look on the bright side as much as possible, if only for your own well-being. Still, a healthy degree of skepticism is warranted on any new project. There are a million unknowns, and a painful amount of them will go sideways on you. Look hard at all potential pitfalls, even to the point of paranoia. You certainly won’t catch every misstep, but every one you prevent in the planning stages is one you don’t have to deal with during rollout.

Our guiding mantra during development was a modified version of Thomas Edison’s approach: “Success lies on the far side of failure.”

Listen to your instincts

I’m an information junkie, so it’s tough to own up to this next one. There is such a thing, however, as “paralysis by analysis.” With so much data available in the world today, cutting through all the background noise is harder than ever. If you want to, you can find lots of examples of people who have developed products similar to yours and want to offer you advice and the benefit of their experience. (Not that I would ever do that of course! Ahem…. ) Anyway, sure, perform your due diligence but don’t go overboard on the benchmarking. You and your team have come up with a great idea that moves you to take it to the next level. Trust your vision and realize that no one knows better than you how to develop this exact product in this unique place at this particular moment in time.

Listen to the customer

This one seems like a no-brainer, but very few truly do it well. To paraphrase George Orwell, all stakeholders are equal, but some stakeholders are more equal than others. The “most equal” of all stakeholders has got to be your customer—the person that supports your new endeavor with their patronage. You absolutely must stay plugged in to customer needs every step of the way throughout the process of developing a new product, and if you find even the slightest hint of a disconnect between what you’re building and what the customer appears to want, you must respond decisively. All else being equal, in a decision between doing what your instincts tell you is right vs. addressing a clear and established customer need, I recommend going with the customer need. Again, trust yourself and plan to succeed, but understand that you may not be right. Prepare to adjust accordingly.

Require assumptions… for awhile

Every great new project starts with guesswork—educated guesswork, hopefully, drawing on team members’ clear-eyed experiences. Maybe it starts with one of those “Wouldn’t it be great if” moments in which one, or two, or lots of people sit around and guess about how different the world would look if only there were something like product X. Eventually, as the product moves from the theoretical to the practical, the guesswork decreases and the developers begin to replace those assumptions with increasingly hard data from product testing and uncovered customer needs. Guesswork must always remain part of the process because there are some things that you just can’t know until you “go live” with something, but as much as possible, you want to shake those out as you get closer and closer to launch.

Anticipate cannibalism

The best thing about new products is that they offer your customers an alternative to your old products. The worst thing about new products is that they offer your customers an alternative to your old products. The planning process must ensure that you’re sufficient differentiating your new product from your established line or lines. Make sure that every single product you offer delivers great value in its own unique way. Those that are weak will inevitably lose business to the new product. That’s not as bad as losing business to a competitor, but breaking even isn’t the reason why you launch new products. Consider shuttering poor-performing lines and diverting those resources toward your new product.

Establish redundancies

Any system or process can fail. Eventually, all will. Building in natural redundancies using similar but disparate channels allows you to develop alternative (and sometimes superior) ways of accomplishing the basic building-block tasks within the project. Put those systems under stress every which way you can think of: break it, fix it, break it a different way, fix it a different way, etc., etc., etc. Have other people break it in unique, strange, and wondrous ways, too; it’s amazing how truly destructive (and insightful) a second pair of hands can be. Knowing that you have backups in place will let you sleep a whole lot better at night as the launch date nears. The horrific reality for us was the discovery that “live” is LIVE, and there’s no second chance.

Inspect the inspection

After you’ve gone over everything and checked to make sure that your primary and backup processes and systems work for the new endeavor, go over everything again. This is not counter to classical quality philosophy, because we are discussing a development process, not a production process.

Remember, people never remember the 999 things that go right, only the one thing that goes wrong… especially when it comes to something new for which they might have some built-in resistance. You’ll never regret time spent perfecting something that’s so important to you.


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Mike Richman