Book Review: Product Leadership: Creating and Launching Superior New Products

by Robert G. Cooper (Perseus Books, Reading, MA; 1998) $27.50

Many new products, despite apparently being wonderful ideas, fail to make a profit in the marketplace. Robert Cooper wondered why, so he conducted research into the factors distinguishing the winners from the losers. This ongoing research started in 1975. Since then, he has studied almost 2,000 new products in hundreds of companies worldwide and in many industries. He reports his findings in over seventy-five research papers. Thus, Cooper is the guru on what makes for commercial success in new product development.

Cooper has identified six success factors:

  • Differentiated, superior products
  • Sharp, early product definition
  • Solid up-front homework (competitive, market, technical, and financial studies, for instance)
  • Marketing actions executed well
  • Technology actions executed well
  • True cross-functional teams

His prescription for focusing attention on these factors is to apply a product development process that he has coined “stage-gate.” Stage-gate–type processes have become popular with managers because they ensure that such success factors are addressed, even under pressure to get the product out.

However, I suspect there is more behind the popularity of stage-gate methods. They happen to coincide with a popular management style of the twentieth century. This style positions management as the ones to verify those workers who complete their work. Essentially, this makes management the traffic cop charged with enforcement.

An alternative approach is to view management as a police escort to facilitate progress. Then, management becomes a facilitator, a source of resources, and a coach. Empowered product development teams take the responsibility of policing themselves to ensure the critical success factors are addressed. Although stage-gates are in the mainstream today, we are beginning to find that pushing the power to lower levels is a faster way to get the work done and a more fulfilling role for product developers.

Product Leadership summarizes Cooper’s voluminous research and describes how to set up and use a stage-gate process. In addition, the book goes beyond the tactical emphasis of stage-gates in managing individual projects to show how management must also manage a portfolio of projects strategically. Consequently, this one volume is a quite complete package on the management of product development.

This book is definitely aimed at senior managers—not the developers themselves and not their immediate management. However, it should be valuable to consultants working with senior management on product development issues. It concentrates on what they must do to be successful in developing new products.

Many examples and case studies illustrate the techniques. The illustrations span a range of product types and nationalities. They include Hoechst, Rohm and Haas, Royal Bank of Canada, Procter & Gamble, Lego, Hewlett-Packard, and Northern Telecom.

Although this book contains what senior management needs to know about product development, it is not an easy read. Repetition abounds. Some critical factors and terms are not defined. In good academic style, Cooper provides many endnotes, but trying to learn more by using these is frustrating, too. Fortunately, Cooper’s stature as a researcher in the field is superb, so one can comfortably accept what is presented and leave it at that.

Due to repetition, this material could probably be presented in nearly half of its current three hundred pages. Then, it would be a clean, easy read for senior management. In its current form, however, a consultant to a senior management team could add real value by digesting and repackaging it for their busy clients. Thus, this book has a great deal to offer the patient consultant.

Reviewed by Preston G. Smith CMC

(Reviewed in the Journal of Management Consulting –now renamed to Consulting to Management, May 1999, pp. 71-72.)

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.