Preston Smith's Corner

You Can’t Do It Right the First Time

2001 Product Development Management Columns

Hard-pressed to improve competitiveness, managers often implore us to “do it right the first time.” Although this objective is laudable, it reveals that the manager pronouncing it does not understand the fundamentals of product innovation. Worse, it sets the organization up for surprises later.

An essential characteristic of innovation – and thus of product development – is that we don’t have all of the information we need when we start. We can’t even obtain this information in an orderly way, because, no matter how diligent we are in arranging activities sequentially, some of the information we need now will not be available until later.

Recall your high school algebra. We all learned how to solve systems of equations such as the following ones for the unknowns x, y, and z:

4x + 2y – 48z = -14

15x – 6y + 2z = 41

8x + 3y + 5z = 81

There are various straightforward ways to unravel these equations to obtain x, y, and z from them sequentially. Product development is like this: we have a few relationships (the equations here), and we would like to solve for the unknowns, hopefully using a sequential process.

Now recall how many times since you entered industry that you have actually set up a problem in this way and solved it as you learned in high school. Never? That’s right! It’s right because real problems in innovation are not this simple. The equations aren’t so simple, and many product development relationships cannot even be expressed with a device as clear as an equation.

But the basic issue remains in innovation: we have many relationships and we must unravel them to discover the unknowns. Unfortunately, there are usually no straightforward, sequential ways to do the unraveling. This means that we have to guess at one of the unknowns, work through the others, and then loop back to see how close we came to our original guess. We keep guessing until we get through the loop with our original assumption holding up pretty well. Consequently, in innovation, we cannot do it right the first time.

Unfortunately, virtually all of the tools we have for managing innovation deny this essential characteristic of the process. We employ stages-and-gates processes that deny the reality of looping. We depend on project management’s Gantt charts, network diagrams, or critical chain methods, which disallow looping.

Of course looping complicates innovation, because it makes it messy and essentially unpredictable. However, the worst consequence of looping isn’t the unpredictability it causes. The bigger problem for management is the denial of its existence. When we really believe in do-it-right-the-first-time and then the looping inevitably occurs, it catches us by surprise. This is regrettable, because the looping could have been anticipated and planned into the process.

Fortunately, there are some management tools – relatively obscure ones today – that allow us to identify looping patterns, anticipate the guesses that will be needed and will have to be revisited, and then revise our development process so that reviews naturally come at the end of the loops. These tools generally go by the name of Design Structure Matrix. You might benefit from checking them out – if you would like to know where your next loop is going to occur:

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