Although the external influences are unpredictable, a structure to good product development guides the process to success and provides methods to improve the robustness of decision making. The structure of the product development process guides you through the unknown, helping you define your goals, constraints, and variables. Every product opportunity has a different set of goals (what you want to achieve), constraints (things you cannot change), and variables (things you can and must change). The challenge in developing truly innovative products is first to identify a unique set of goals, then to identify a set of variables that can be modified to reach those goals, and then to understand the real versus perceived constraints on those variables.
When Palm Computing came out with its first PDA, its competitors believed the form factor to be a real constraint, because the computing power (and the larger chips back then) required to recognize handwriting took up substantial space. Palm’s innovative solution came from the recognition that form factor was a variable after all, at least as long as customers were willing to learn a new graffiti alphabet. Palm’s innovation launched the whole PDA category, which had thus far been a flop. The butterfly flaps its wings within the constraints of physics. The product development process must work within the bounds of physics, but it is also influenced by humans, culture, society, and thought, all of which were key to Palm’s success.
The structure of the process does not define the goals, constraints or variables—it does not do the work for you. It provides guidance on how to navigate the space of the unknown. It helps you make robust decisions based on insights and incomplete or even incorrect facts. The fodder it provides to make those decisions is based on the centrality of the customer. The customer unites all divisions of the innovative company—the user is the fulcrum that balances goals, constraints, and variables.
The fuzzy front end, or the early stage of product innovation, will be chaotic. That chaos is a good thing. It enables exploration and learning. The more you can learn about your market, the better your filter on the chaotic ideation process. Chaos helps with the accuracy in finding and defining a good product direction. Later, the process begins to change. There is enough focus, enough variables and constraints identified, that the system begins to be more predictable, that precision becomes the focus. Although not every random event downstream can be anticipated, many can, and a robust process thinks about scenarios of disruption. Some can be designed for, making a robust product with longevity in the market; others cannot. Accepting chaos allows you to more aptly deal with random impact as it takes place, to work with it rather than against it. Rather than fight it, be the choreographer of the chaos.
If you squash the chaos, you squash the exploration and research so critical to the success of developing a product. You work hard to produce a quality manufactured product. You later find out that your precision was on but your accuracy was off, that the market does not want your well-made product because it does not meet their expectations of the product’s experience of use or purpose. You find yourself scrambling to add or remove features, not understanding that their inherent interconnectedness causes functional, aesthetic, or manufacturing problems with other features. Your soft and hard quality goes down, and you scramble to make both satisfactory.