Product development - should you be a tortoise or a hare?

13th April 2015

Product development - should you be a tortoise or a hare?

We often hear that ‘time to market’ is key to commercial success and that any delay to a product launch can have dire consequences for competitive position and profits. Whilst this is largely true, launching unfinished products can cause far more damage to your business, so how can you achieve the right balance between quality and time?

Taking your time

You only have to look at some of the most successful companies in today’s market to see that speed is not everything. Apple famously take years to develop, refine, prototype and redevelop their products before they are launched. Design, and microscopic attention to detail are at the heart of their product development process, and it has helped to create the most successful company in the world.

Similarly, James Dyson proudly acknowledges that the first 5,126 attempts to perfect his bagless vacuum cleaner were failures. In reality, many of those ‘failures’ would have been good enough for most companies, but Dyson takes a painstaking approach to product development, learning from each iteration to improve the design. Although this approach clearly requires considerable time and money, it has, like Apple’s devotion to detail, done Dyson no commercial harm at all.

Apple and Dyson don't just work like this because they are rich and can afford it. The truth is that their meticulous approach came first, and it helped make them successful, not the other way around.

Get rich quick?

At the other end of the spectrum, some companies minimise product development time and budgets in order to get to market quickly and generate revenue. Whilst this is understandable, it only makes financial sense in the short term and often delivers very poor results. Unfinished design details, substandard tooling and minimal testing rarely result in successful products. The main issue is often not the overall design, but the fine details that make a product quick to assemble, easy to use and a pleasure to own. These are the issues that many of Dyson’s prototypes will have been built to address.

Simple solutions

What companies often fail to notice when they try to short-circuit the process is that there are several simple techniques that can raise product quality whilst minimising development time. We will be exploring these in a series of posts in the next few weeks, but there are three that are key to successful product development:

  • The first is effective teamwork. Putting together a team that represents every area of the product development process and ensuring that it meets frequently, and makes decisions, will head off problems and keep everyone on track. This may seem obvious, but it is surprisingly rare.
  • Secondly, you need a no-blame culture. Good companies reward people for drawing attention to mistakes and problems, because it will save them time and money. It also eliminates the time and stress involved in trying to shift responsibility or hide mistakes.
  • Finally, people should be encouraged to take risks, explore ideas and, consequently, fail. Attempting to avoid failure takes up huge amounts of time and stifles innovation. Encouraging it, particularly at the early stages of the project, will save time in the long run and identify improvements that will result in a better product.

These techniques take the focus off individual responsibility and place it where it belongs, on improving the product. They also ensure that the minimum amount of time is wasted in preparing the new design for manufacture and sale.

Get it right

Most companies will not need to build thousands of prototypes or spend years refining corner details in order to develop successful products. In our experience, between three and five prototypes and several months are all that is needed to finalise most products. But whether it takes two or twenty prototypes, one month or two years, the crucial issue is to make sure that you focus on the quality of the product, not the length of the process.

Good enough is simply not good enough.

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