Product development experts seem obsessed with "getting it right the first time," and grand statements about failure and options. But the truth is, all teams experience setbacks. The difference between the winners and the losers is that one team plans for it, while the other team can't believe this is happening to them (again).
Why you can’t be right the first time.
Most of us learned a traditional approach to creating products. Somebody (marketing, sales, an executive) hands over the requirements, which drive design, which then drive implementation. If anything goes wrong, you can probably blame that initial requirements document.
Just look at the research. In this case study of 11 companies, authors found that only 2 companies had a clear product strategy at the front end. And product definition was almost always shaky when the companies began development.
“All the companies in our study realized the pivotal importance of the early product definition,” the researchers wrote. “Yet most had failed to generate clear, stable definitions.”
It wasn’t lack of rigor or caring that led to those unstable requirements, either. Rather, it was technology and markets shifting that made it “impossible for some companies to freeze product definition.” But while everyone knew this would lead to problems (and costs) for the company, very few managers planned for change even if they could have seen it coming.
So, add failure to the mix.
Once you embrace the idea that requirements don’t last, or that any number of other things can go wrong, you can build being wrong into your processes. That’s what both agile development and design thinking try to do.
Agile development is a group of methods adopted by the software industry to guide the fast-moving process of building software. According to Wikipedia, “It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development … and rapid and flexible response to change.”
How? By breaking work down into smaller iterations, with frequent product releases. That way, the team can get real-world feedback faster and earlier. The next iteration incorporates that feedback, so that the product gets closer and closer to target, even if requirements weren’t clear or even correct up front.
The agile manifesto, which lays out the principles of this method, not only expects change, it leverages it: “Welcome changing requirements, even late in the cycle,” it preaches. “Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.”
Not everyone agrees that agile development can be adapted to physical products. But the principles may offer hope for any manager who’s tired of surprises during product development.
Capture your failures.
When we talk about these methods that embrace getting it wrong the first time, what we’re really saying is that they allow managers and their teams to learn from failure.
This is where data management can be useful, too. As teams change and time passes, it’s easy to lose track of what decisions were made—and why. Learning from failure isn’t just analyzing your mistakes, it’s making sure you don’t forget them.
With a data management solution, you can stash old design ideas, rejected prototypes, and failed tests with your successful product designs too.
Design thinking is an approach to innovation that also expects team members to get it wrong at first. Closely associated with the Institute of Design at Stanford University, design thinking methods help participants circle in on a solution over time. And in many cases, it demands innovators embrace failure before they can succeed.
Design thinking roughly follows a cycle of Empathize > Define > Ideate > Prototype > Test. Failure comes up in several of these stages:
- The ideation phase is like most brainstorming sessions. The goal is to generate as many diverse ideas as possible in a short amount of time. Design thinking experts warn that fear of failure is the biggest obstacle to success.
- For designers, prototyping should be quick and dirty. Stanford’s Design Thinking Bootleg (pdf) encourages designers to fail quickly and cheaply. “This allows them to test a number of ideas without investing a lot of time and money up front.”
The testing phase offers designers one more change to get it wrong. The Bootleg says: The test mode is an iterative mode in which you place your low-resolution artifacts in the appropriate context of the user’s life. As you iterate between prototyping and testing, the Bootleg says, “Prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong.”
And learn from other people’s failures, too.
Some people say that failure is a gift. But if you want to skip a few life lessons on your way to success, you can learn from others’ mistakes:
FailCon is a conference held around the world that features successful technology, business, and design entrepreneurs talking about their failures. “How can you predict what will work and what won’t?” asks the conference website. “Well you can’t. But that doesn’t mean you should stop trying. It just means you should start exchanging stories of what didn’t work and how you pivoted….”
If you’d prefer to stay home, TEDTalks offers this playlist of videos of very successful people who all got it wrong the first time.
More teams are using Cloud, Analytics, Mobile, and Social tools to speed up product development. Independent analyst firm, Consilia Vektor, explains how this changes Product Data Management (PDM) as you know it and how this can help your team work smarter.