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Needed: More Ideas Than Programs June 25, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Product design, Project management, strategy.
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In an earlier post I told the story of a senior manager who was fairly new to his executive position (Power: Use It or Lose It). He took advantage of an early opportunity to exercise his positional authority and refused to give the go-ahead to a program team that failed to meet the requirements for a phase gate checkpoint. What made this event especially surprising was that this particular checkpoint meeting was supposed to provide the high-level authorization to move from the initial “investigation phase” to the “development phase.”

In theory, and according to our documented product development lifecycle, this checkpoint was a go/no-go decision point for the program, and approval meant a commitment to invest the necessary time and money to bring the concept to market. The problem was that until that senior manager withheld his approval, I don’t recall any program that was rejected or even delayed at that early stage.

Was that because all of the previous programs were brilliantly-conveived and certain of success? Not at all. Some of them in fact proved to be classic examples of “technology driven” programs with impressive features that failed to address customer needs, or weak derivatives and product extensions that failed to anticipate competitive threats or provide other advantages to justify the development expense. Instead of providing a critical and objective assessment of the proposal’s contributions, the program team and their supporters would convince themselves that at least it was better than the alternative, which was essentially no program at all.

But, why were there no other alternatives? Shouldn’t a product development organization fund multiple low-cost / low-risk investigations, evaluate them objectively, and then recommend the most promising for commercialization? I don’t know what the ideal ratio is, but a business that approves 100% of the product concepts presented for further development surely isn’t trying hard enough. Senior leadership can set the tone by encouraging their development teams to generate ideas, and rejecting the cultural “fear of failure” that causes everyone to set their sights lower.

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