Certain assumptions in product development have been thought to be very effective in the world of product development. But the authors of this Harvard Business Review article illustrate how those assumptions can often be flawed and pose as risks that can be detrimental to the efficiency of product development. Every product development project is unique in its own way, and requires a different planning process with constant modifications. By not realizing such intricate differences, product development managers are exposing their companies to various risks associated with product development. This Harvard Business Review article highlights six common fallacies associated with product development activities that can, if ignored, lead to significant risks that impact the success of the product development objectives.

1. Risk of major delays and economic costs due to belief that high utilization of resources improves performance

According to surveys conducted in executive courses at the California Institute of Technology, “the average product development manager keeps capacity utilization above 98%.” That is, they fully utilize their product development resources. They do so based on the belief that fully employed product development resources leads to faster product innovation and launch.

An unintended consequence of such high utilization of resources, and one that managers overlook, is major delays in product development. The authors argue that a project’s speed, efficiency and output actually decline the more managers’ capacity is being stretched across multiple development projects. This is largely due to the realities of product development work – many aspects are unpredictable. The more stretched the product development team, the less able they are to deal with managing these unpredictable events.

The obvious solution to the aforementioned factors is to have a “capacity buffer in processes that are highly variable.” In this way, queues and issues created can be tackled and eliminated, thereby reducing the risk of major delays. It is also vital to maintain resources for a particular project once it is started. To use the resources from one project during its idle time to start another project can bring rise to the risk of further delays and costs to the organization.

2. Increasing costs as a result of processing work in large batches

Generally, it is assumed that processing work in large batches is cost-effective, faster, and produces economies of scale. However, the authors believe otherwise, and claim that “reduction of batch sizes is a critical principle of lean manufacturing.” With work-in-process in product development being almost invisible, it is crucial to maintain perspective and use smaller batches. This allows for quicker feedbacks and cost-effective modifications.

What is an optimal batch size? This depends on two costs:

i. Holding costs – Costs associated with maintaining batches
ii. Transaction costs – Costs associated with processing batches

Large batches increase holding costs but decrease transaction costs and vice versa. Hence, in order to avoid the risk of increasing costs, it is imperative to strike a balance between the two costs. The authors mention a computer peripheral manufacturing company that lowered its batch size and improved its efficiency by 220% (reducing software testing from 48 to 2.5 months) and decreased defects by 33%.

3. Risk of losing opportunities by “sticking” to a single development plan

Projects are intrinsically different and require a personalized planning and design process. But organizations often like to stay within their comfort zone and place “inordinate faith in their plans” believing that their development plan is the most effective. Doing so can inadvertently cause organizations to develop a tunnel vision towards product development that does not fit changing customer needs. Ultimately, it will inhibit their ability to identify other opportunities for greater innovative techniques.

Constantly modifying the development plan to fit the needs of customers as it relates to market demands will push managers to create unique designs and competitive features that will make their product more attractive than other competitors. “Sticking to the original” process may create the risk of producing similar products with little significant improvements, and, therefore, the risk of losing a better opportunity.

4. Risk of starting a product development task too soon

Humans are often impatient and that characteristic naturally drives many organizations to rush to embrace a new product development task. Anytime they experience downtime, they often look for ways to utilize that time productively, sometimes launching new product development projects too soon. Unfortunately that leads to dilution of resources as other product development projects resume slowing down the progress of the project launched during the idle time.

The authors emphasize the importance of controlling the rate at which they start new projects so that they can carefully manage ongoing projects in process.

5. Risk associated with products having too many features

Products that are complicated to operate can quickly become unpopular in the market. Such risks can cause a slump in sales. Hence, managers need to remind their teams to develop products that are sophisticated, yet simple to use.

It can be difficult for a team to decide what features are relevant to the current product development project. The authors provide a solution where the team can work on identifying and eliminating features that are irrelevant. It is important to undergo this process through the customers’ perspective. Once the omission process is completed, then the team would be left with the most relevant ones to include and work with.

One company that the authors believe understands this idea is Apple. Apple’s products, while sophisticated with latest software and features, are still user-friendly and simple to use. This creates more demand for their product, and in turn higher returns.

6. Risk arising from zero tolerance of failure with projects

Having a zero tolerance of failure can have a damaging effect to a product development project. By communicating the expectations of success on the first attempt of development work, project teams are more likely to choose the “least-risky” solutions. These solutions may not be of much relevance to customers, and raise risks of having an unattractive product in the market.

Early feedback and early testing of solutions with more experiments would potentially mean more failures since more development work is needed. However, this can be deemed positive since teams can identify the good options from the bad ones. Doing this earlier on is encouraged rather than later when more resources have been invested and the cost of backing out is higher.

A study of 391 teams that designed custom integrated circuits revealed that teams who conducted early and frequent tests made more errors. However, they were able to outperform other teams because the low initial cost of those several failures were easier to recover than the high costs incurred by other teams. The timings of those failures made a difference, and they avoided the risk of higher costs and product failure with a point of lower or no economic return.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the assumptions made by product development managers can bring about various risk issues associated with product development. Understanding how to avoid delays and high costs by careful planning about risks that may arise which includes smaller batch size, optimum utilization of resources, unique differences, and focus on a particular project at a time can help reduce risks associated with product development. Furthermore, allowing a certain tolerance for failure in the early stages can produce better options that will reduce potential future losses. As is evident from the article, many of the fallacies in product development raise major risk issues. Therefore, it becomes crucial for organizations to personalize their approach to each development project in order to lower risks associated with product development.

To learn more about the details of the assumptions that lead to risks associated with product development, click the link below.