One World, Different Perspectives of Product Development

views of product development

Topics: Exploratory Product Development

In our work developing Exploratory PD®, we identified various professional communities participating in product development, each bringing the language, training, experiences, and tool kits of their profession. In this article, we provide a quick survey of the different communities and their distinguishing characteristics.

There is surprisingly little overlap in communities from our vantage point and we would like to see more cross-over of ideas and people. This would encourage a more vibrant, cohesive product development community. ExPD® brings new ideas, but also incorporates some of the best thinking and practices from the different communities. We hope ExPD can help bring this fragmented product development community into a common conversation about product development in a complex, changing world.

The Lean PD Community

Lean Product Development grew out of the application of lean manufacturing principles to reduce waste and improve speed to market in product development. These approaches are also referred to as the Toyota Development System (TDS), Design for Lean Production, and Product Development FLOW.[1] The tools and techniques used in these approaches help to streamline activities and documentation, and improve speed to market.

The Lean Startup® Community

Not to be confused with Lean Product Development is Lean Startup, also referred to as Lean Launchpad®. This grew out of the entrepreneurial Internet-based software community, in particular start-ups looking for venture capital backing. This approach eschews the traditional business plan based on assumptions around customer, market, product, and business model, because these assumptions are typically groundless. Instead, Lean Startup focuses on finding and demonstrating product-market fit (the biggest risk for a start-up) and creating a working business model through managed experimentation. A core concept is identifying and resolving assumptions and risks through fast iteration and feedback.

The Lean Startup approach has been fine-tuned for Internet-based startups and has delivered impressive results, in part because the tools and techniques rely on an entrepreneurial company culture and early-adopter customer behaviors.

The Design Thinking Community

Design Thinking, also known as Human-Centered Design and Ambidextrous Thinking, applies design problem-solving methods to generate deep understanding of people in order to create innovative solutions. In product development, the methods can be used to create and test innovative product concepts, but it is not a robust product development process. Think IDEO.

The Agile/Flexible Community

Agile is a software development approach that adapts to changing or emergent customer needs and changing technologies and environments. Software is developed in short iterations (generally 1 to 4 weeks) with frequent releases of software to customers to gather quick feedback for adjustments in the next iteration. This fast, iterative approach means that a change in customer requirements, for example, will not cause havoc, because it will just be incorporated into the next iteration. Managing a successful project thus does not require extensive up-front planning and adherence to scope (hallmarks of the traditional product development process).

Agile processes are not directly transferable to non-software products, but Preston Smith describes an analogous approach in Flexible Product Development.[2] By incorporating certain design/architecture decisions, a flexible product development (FPD) process allows changes to the product relatively late in development without being too disruptive. Delaying decisions until more information is available is one way of managing risk and is very valuable when elements of the product development environment—such as customer needs, regulations, technological advances, competitive activity, and organizational needs—are in flux. Flexible Product Development is not a process, but rather a set of tools and concepts for improving product development.

The Traditional Product Development Community

We classify the traditional product development community as established companies following a best practice, most commonly a phased-and-gated, process (sometimes referred to as phase-gate, tollgate, V model, Stage-Gate®, or PACE®). These processes ensure the appropriate work is complete and control risk through a standardized sequence of activities, deliverables, and decisions. Risk is also minimized through significant up-front planning to set clear scope, objectives, budget, and time line. The use of a cross-functional team throughout is encouraged, as opposed to sequential hand-offs between departments.

Exploratory PD (ExPD)

Exploratory PD (ExPD) was developed based on Kathy Morrissey’s and Mary Drotar’s deep experience in implementing traditional phased and gated processes. Clients complained about an overly-bureaucratic process that included non-value added activities, required too much paperwork and moved too slowly. One cause of these problems is that the world has changed, becoming more complex, global and dynamic. Traditional processes work best in a stable world.

In response to these issues, ExPD was born. It proposes a new approach to developing products for established companies/enterprises, using a two-pronged solution: (1) treating product development from a comprehensive systems perspective, and (2) a fundamental redesign of the development process based on reducing project uncertainties and risk. The result is sustainability, speed, simplicity, adaptability, more success, fewer surprises and better resource utilization.

ExPD aligns well with the principles of the Design Thinking, Agile/Flexible PD, Lean Startup and Lean PD communities. Click here for more information on ExPD.


[1]. Katherine Radeka and Tricia Sutton, “What Is ‘Lean’ about Product Development: An Overview of Lean Product Development,” Visions 31, no. 2 (2007).

[2]. Preston G. Smith, Flexible Product Development (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007).

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