Preston Smith's Corner

Isn’t the iteration that accompanies flexible product development wasteful?

June 2008 Quick Tip

It is true that a core ingredient of flexibility is iteration, which means starting off with a first guess at what the customer wants and improving your design as you learn more from the customer.

A concern about this, especially in today’s economic climate, is that iteration inevitably becomes connected with wastefulness. Most of us learned, before we ever started to school, that haste makes waste, to “do it right the first time.” Iteration essentially contradicts this by saying, “do it wrong the first time”!

Interestingly, a recent book by Mike Moran, an IBM Distinguished Engineer, entitled Do It Wrong Quickly, shows how to make progress quickly in new markets by starting fast and making changes fast – in other words, iterating. Moran works in the Web medium, which is amenable to fast change. But the do-it-wrong technique also works well in other media. For instance, Eli Lilly has applied it to the very serious business of pharmaceutical development (see “A More Rational Approach to New-Product Development” in the March 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review, pp. 96-102).

So back to the original question: the answer depends on your product development objective. If your objective is to fulfill the original product requirements as inexpensively as possible, then iteration is indeed wasteful. But if your objective is to satisfy the customer in an environment where you don’t completely understand the customer or when the customer’s mind might change, then iteration is the least wasteful way to go.

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


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