Preston Smith's Corner

What can we do to “freeze” our product’s specifications?

March 2004 Quick Tip

The wish of every product designer is to start a development project with a complete set of product specifications and avoid specification changes during design. This makes life easier and more predictable.

Unfortunately, “frozen” specifications are mostly a dream perpetuated by consultants and educators. They don’t fit with realty. Colleague Don Reinertsen has surveyed hundreds of product designers from all industries over several years. He found that fewer than five percent of them had complete specifications before they started designing, and in no case did the specification remain stable throughout design!

Furthermore, Harvard Business School professor Alan MacCormack’s research shows that the most successful projects commercially were those that started with only a rough idea of the product but built prototypes and obtained customer feedback early in the project.

Together, Reinertsen and MacCormack suggest that frozen specs are neither realistic nor wise, and others are also reaching this conclusion.

Does this sound like chaos? Well, this is the way the world is headed, so rather than fighting it, you might be wise to build a development system that tolerates change and chaos well – that is, an agile process.

There are several things you can do to improve your agility:

  • Employ modular architectures to isolate changes
  • Make decisions progressively rather than massively
  • Exploit flexible technologies, such as rapid manufacturing and programmable logic devices
  • Arrange to make certain critical decisions late in the process

To learn more, see our column on frozen specifications,  read the article by Thomke and Reinertsen in the Fall 1998 California Management Review, or consult the extensive agile software development literature.

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


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