Developing and commercializing new products has been in existence for a very long time. The level of sophistication has obviously evolved to meet the needs of consumers and businesses, and like all complex systems has sparked an industry of its own with competing methodologies.
As with most methodologies, each specific approach is rarely suitable to all use cases. All have similarities at a high level, but the individual process details and criteria for selecting which products are developed into commercial offerings is as diverse as the number of companies creating products.
In an attempt to standardize the approach, academic and professional product development organizations have created and introduced their own methods and processes; which have proliferated throughout the professional ranks and as talent moves from organization to organization has at least helped to anchor some level of consistency, but for the most part internal capabilities, background, business type and external resource availability continues to define product development processes.
Anecdotally, I consider the product development process evolution to be very similar to how software engineering processes and project management methodologies have splintered and diversified into specialized sects. Each has, in turn, spread throughout corporate teams and environments causing equal amounts of contention between professionals of varied backgrounds and experiences.
While all of these roadmaps for product development does cause hiring overhead and confusion, it is not necessarily a bad thing to have these options. The best methodology is the one that works, but not all processes fit equally well. I believe by carefully selecting the most suitable method to match business circumstances an organization can streamline their product ideation pipeline.
My aim is to introduce (or perhaps reiterate) an approach to product development that streamlines processes, reduces timeframes and costs, and provides additional insights. Ultimately, this approach improves the chance for product success.
The Traditional Generic Approach
For this article, let’s focus on what I consider to be a traditional product development team that functions abstractly much like project management; which requires the product developer to solicit input from each functional discipline in order to complete certain steps in the process.
The traditional team follows an approach that includes high-level phases for brainstorming, screening, testing, financials, development, validation, release, and adjustment.
The traditional product development team may operate autonomously through a dotted-line reporting structure or as part of the marketing or sales departments.
In my experience, the traditional product development team, in conjunction with the marketing and sales teams, drives the first three phases of product ideation without all functional disciplines represented. Finance is then brought in to perform P&L and ROI studies. Then technology and operations gets involved to discuss feasibility and complexity.
As one might expect, all of the effort spent in the first three phases may be completely forfeit if either finance, technology or operations finds considerable fault with any of the product concepts.
This situation could be avoided by either including all functional areas sooner in the process or by hiring a multidisciplinary product lead or consultant to guide the process.
What a Multidisciplinary Product Lead Can Provide
A multidisciplinary product lead (“MPL”) is someone with the ability to understand, at a detailed level, the disciplines of operations, technology, finance, sales, legal and marketing. This individual will not know these functional areas as well as their specialized peers, but they should have the experience to function adequately in all of these areas to make accurate decisions for 90% of circumstances.
Besides having the ability to quickly align each functional area’s capabilities with new product concepts, the MPL is also better suited to collaborate on outlier topics with each department to drive down project delays and internal resource overhead.
MPL’s should also be well versed in user modeling and consumer behaviors. The ability to logically think through, in an unbiased manner, how users and consumers utilize products and services is a critical attribute for this key role. And it doesn’t hurt if the MPL has a background, interest or studies related to human psychology.
Multidisciplinary Product Leads Function Differently
Having an MPL on the product team combines, reorders and reduces the traditional product development phases by bringing a different perspective and series of expertise into the ideation process.
Brainstorming. Depending upon your organization’s culture or whether diversified products are being considered, the brainstorming phase may be a greenfield, the sky’s the limit, open collaboration or a more refined, stay within the core business approach; with the former being more “art” and the later being more “science”.
Regardless, an MPL brings experience and a holistic, big picture view of possible opportunities that is not possible with a traditional product team; even when utilizing outside agencies. These skills allow the MPL to provide much more accurate feasibility estimates, at the appropriate level of detail, within the brainstorming phase that would normally not be addressed until the financial and development phases.
By analyzing these details early on in the process, the field of possible product candidates can be reduced to a list worthy of the additional consideration, time and costs associated with the screening phase.
Screening. The process of scrutinizing the potential candidates and ranking is once again made much more accurate by having an MPL available to consider characteristics at a level of detail not traditionally thought through during this phase.
An MPL will be able to consider more accurately and in more detail how P&L will look and how the ROI timeframe plays out. The MPL will consider a rough technology architecture and expected components, pricing, development needs and timeframes. The MPL will consider high-level operational flow and the impacts derived from delivering the new product or service. And the MPL will think through legal and regulatory implications for potential roadblocks and costs/delays associated with each.
All of this effort is intended to improve the accuracy of budget and delivery timeframe estimates up to 80%-90% of actual implementation; rather than the typical 50% seen during this phase. These insights will also expose potentially catastrophic obstacles before external marketing resources are engaged and unnecessarily expense is accrued.
Testing. Now that your list of product prospects has been reduced to the top contenders, the process of gauging how well each will perform in the marketplace begins.
The more real world data you can obtain about your potential products, before laying out capital for development, the better. Having external consumer groups review your prospective products and provide feedback is one way to obtain a perspective on the feasibility of the product being successful. However, I have experienced way too many scenarios where “professional users and survey takers” provide feedback clients want to hear rather than what an actual consumer would provide.
An MPL can help this process and may even eliminate the need for external focus groups. Besides their multidisciplinary experience, the MPL’s greatest strengths are logic and analytical thinking. The ability to consider how a product or service will be utilized across multiple demographics, geographies and use cases goes well beyond the typical focus group benefits. In my experience, logic will reveal the most prevalent 80%-90% of uses, so at the very least any work conducted by focus groups can be concentrated on the remaining 10%-20%…if that is even necessary for a phase one launch.
Functional Phases. At this point, the remaining potential products have been vetted to the point it is time to engage the financial, technology, legal and operations teams for a proper breakdown of expected business impacts.
Generally, the product team must now introduce the product concepts to the finance team for the first time. This is where an MPL adds further value. Instead of needing to start from nothing and learn how these new products are intended to be monetized and delivered, as long as the MPL has taken the time to learn the finance team’s modeling techniques, the preliminary P&L and ROI models can be delivered in a format easily understood for a quicker go-forward decision.
The same can be said for the technology and operations teams. If the MPL has developed diagrams, flowcharts and architectural specs in a fashion easily consumed by these teams, the process of onboarding is much reduced and the more difficult conversations regarding implementation requirements and overcoming hurdles can be commenced sooner. By having the majority of issues and roadblocks called out with a potential solution already framed up creates a stable platform for these conversations and the outcome is generally well accepted.
Development and Release. During the development, validation, release and adjustment phases the MPL doesn’t play as critical a role, but their expertise can still be leveraged to clear up confusion regarding requirements, provide insight on the intended consumer experience, help evaluate the finished product, and provide guidance for any adjustments that may be needed post-release.
Focus Areas for the Multidisciplinary Product Lead
The MPL has many considerations to keep in mind during the ideation step of product development; which I consider to be the brainstorming, screening and testing phases. These requirements should be an active part of the MPL’s engagement strategy and occur during all phases of the process to varying degrees of detail as required.
Follow the money. The best idea in the world doesn’t mean much if there’s no one to buy it or it doesn’t help promote some other product or service. Everyone on the product development team should always be thinking about and ranking ideas by expected revenue, market size, disruption and “up sell” / “cross sell” opportunities. An MPL must be especially vigilant and expose benefits and detriments of product ideas to the team as early as possible in the process.
Balancing consumer value with complexity, costs and adoption. Having a multidisciplinary background enables the MPL to consider a comprehensive range of impacts much sooner than a traditional product team. These insights allow the MPL to reduce the typical product development cycle by revealing hidden costs, potential obstacles, resource constraints and possible market adoption issues that could impact a product’s effectiveness both negatively and positively.
Reduce reliance on external focus groups. External focus groups and surveys still have their place in the product development process, but the MPL should strive to reduce the need as much as possible. Not only does this lower development costs, but it brings the product team much closer to their actual target audience and improves the chances for a successful market launch.
Smooth transition from ideation to development. An MPL must ensure there is full understanding of what the finance, technology, legal and operational teams want to see regarding new product concepts and how the information is delivered to their teams. Reducing transition overhead and confusion removes unnecessary delays and potential mistakes later on in the process. This collaboration also helps solidify the team and improves participation.
Give every idea a reasonable consideration. Especially during the brainstorming phase, an MPL must be cognizant of the team dynamics and ensure all team members have a clear voice and opportunity to participate in the ideation process. All ideas are valid and must be approached with unbiased care and sensitivity to promote full, open communication and participation from everyone on the team. The MPL is in a unique position to bring arguments for and against an idea using a logical and supportive approach.
Collapse the process. Bringing traditional “later phases” of product development into the early ideation phase helps speed up the process, weed out unrealistic options, and reduce product development overhead. The MPL does this inherently, but should communicate these opportunities to others on the team so all are aware of the efficiencies gained; which will ultimately help executive leadership better understand the process and be more open to additional product development efforts.
What teams, resources or systems can be leveraged. Finding opportunities from existing resources is often overlooked. An MPL can and should become fully knowledgeable regarding existing team capabilities, owned resources, or internally developed systems and processes that can be leveraged or repurposed to support a new product or service.
- Is the idea part of the core business or a new business line?
- What are the product features and market release priority?
- Does this product have any competition?
- What competitive advantages does the product have?
- Does this product have any gaps that would negatively impact its performance?
- What are the industry and market trends with relation to the product?
- Which internal capabilities, strengths and weaknesses should be considered?
- Will the product require new leadership, talent or operations?
- How should teams be structured to support the product?
- Can a proof of concept be devised within a reasonable timeframe and budget?
- What sort of press release should be attached to the product launch?
- What value does the product or service provide to the consumer?
- What is the target demographic for this product?
- How will consumer demand be calculated?
- Are there any social impacts to consider?
- What are the expected consumer behaviors for the product?
- Can a clear cause / effect relationship be mapped for consumer use of the product?
- How committed is the leadership team to the new product?
- How long will this product development effort be from concept to launch?
- What milestones are needed to successfully launch the product?
Finance / Legal / Operations
- Including all functional requirements, what is the expected ROI?
- How will P&L and cashflow model out for this product?
- What will the monetization strategy be for this product?
- Are there any regulatory or compliance requirements to be concerned with?
- Will there be any unique contract, privacy or terms requirements?
- What impacts on operations will occur with this product?
- Will operations have significant staffing impacts?
- Will customer service processes need to change?
- What are the technical requirements to deploy this product?
- Are there any technical obstacles to resolve?
- What is the architecture solution or this product?
- Which technical components should be built, bought, acquired or partnered with?
Marketing / Sales
- Which areas should focus group testing concentrate on?
- What will the validation strategy be post-development for this product?
- How will conversion testing be handled?
- What will the acquisition strategy look like?
- What marketing requirements and cost considerations are there for this product?
- How will the sales funnel be grown and managed?
- At what point during product development will sales begin?
- How and who will manage channel development for this product?
- What will the overall launch strategy look like?
An MPL can add value to your organization in ways a traditional product development team cannot. Specifically, the additional insight and innovation made available from their comprehensive expertise. Their contributions from improved accuracy of estimates, costs and development timeframes. An overall reduction in the product development lifecycle by collapsing phases. Improved collaboration between functional teams by fitting into existing workflows. Decreased reliance on external focus groups through cause and effect analysis of consumer behaviors. And their general, in-depth and detailed consideration of all aspects of product definition.
If you are looking to improve your product development processes, reduce costs, or spark new innovation, acquiring or partnering with a multidisciplinary product consultant may be a good fit for your organization.