Preston Smith's Corner

How can I tell if we did well at developing our last product?

October 2003 Quick Tip

The last person you should ask regarding this question, according to Harvard Business School professor Alan MacCormack, is your boss. MacCormack’s research paired a “good” and a “bad” project from the same company, as chosen by executives of that company. Quite surprisingly, he found that the “bad” project was a marketplace success, while the “good” one wasn’t.

Further investigation showed that managers rated a project highly when it had a product specification up front that remained stable, and they delivered a product that satisfied the original spec. In a “bad” one, the final product looked completely different than the original spec.

The strongest indicator of the marketplace successes (the “bad” projects) was that the team placed a working version of the product in customer’s hands very early and used customer feedback to revise product direction and features accordingly. These folks knew they didn’t have all the answers, so they used early releases and customer reactions to set the direction, in contrast to setting an inflexible direction at the outset.

MacCormack also discovered some other elements of flexibility. The teams that designed the marketplace successes found ways to react quickly to market feedback, and they chose product architectures that allowed changes to be made easily rather than using the lowest-cost architecture.

MacCormack’s research focused on Internet software projects, where market uncertainty is high, so his findings may not be as applicable to established products. However, he provides a sobering reminder that it isn’t so bad to listen to customers and redirect your project accordingly.

Announcement: this Quick Tip completes five years of publication (40 issues) of this series.

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

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