Complexity in the Decision-Making Process

Think about the amount of work it takes to design a toothbrush. There are only two main parts: the handle and the bristles. But the handle may be a bit intricate, with an area that flexes and co-molded rubber on the plastic so that there is a solid grip when the brush is wet. The bristles are of different lengths and angles. Some clean around the gum line, others flex to clean between the teeth, and still others brush the tooth surface. Deciding on each of these toothbrush features takes significant research and decision making. This includes a thorough understanding of the mouth and teeth, material analysis of flex per­formance and oral compatibility, and a thorough understanding of the ergonomics and physiology of the hand and arm.

To ensure that the intended market finds the product appealing, the product team must be aware of trends in the bathroom and kitchen and of general fashion trends in colors and shapes. The team must know the latest materials that are available and might potential­ly be used in the product and the latest manufacturing techniques that might allow for the next innovation. A toothbrush must be sold in a package at the point of purchase that stands out and sells the toothbrush inside, and variations of packaging must be designed and prototyped for market tests, with those tests conducted and analyzed well before the product launch. The package must also connect to the lifestyle of the person who is buying it.

There are also legal issues. in the case of intellectual property, you need to make sure you are not infringing on another’s patents and, if not, are protecting your unique idea with both design and utility patents to limit potential of rip-offs. Also, a product that is put inside a person’s mouth carries liability issues. The label on the pack­age has to have every important piece of legal information required by whatever federal agency is responsible for protecting the public from poorly designed, dangerous toothbrushes and from product misuse. If a problem arises from poor information or product misuse, the other side of the corporate legal department will be called into action. Not only is product liability a nightmare for a particular prod­uct team, it also can have an impact on the company brand identity.

Next time you are in your local drugstore, look at the number of toothbrushes you have to choose from. It was not long ago that a sim­ple bend in the handle under the product name Reach was seen as a big breakthrough, but in product development terms, that design was a century ago.

As noted, a typical toothbrush has two parts. Now let’s bring it up a notch and think about the innovation breakthrough for the next toaster. A toaster has 20 parts and it is an electric appliance. You have significantly upped the product’s complexity and the number of deci­sions that must be made.

If you are designing a new car, you take the complexity up further by a power of 1,000, to 20,000 parts. Every part must be designed or specified, and many of the parts must work in unison as a subsystem. subsystems must then work in concert to meet the vehicle’s perfor­mance requirements. often, to achieve the best performance in one subsystem, another must work below expectations. For instance, the addition of a small oil pump can dramatically extend engine life. The trade-off is that this oil pump would circulate the oil immediately before a cold engine start, so the benefit of this pump would cost multiple seconds of delay before the car could start. Thus, trade-offs are considered and aspects of the product redesigned until the over­all product is satisfactory. The best vehicles perform beyond expecta­tion and deliver an optimal experience that surprises and delights the customer. Given that the vehicle’s product development cycle is still about three years or more, consider the vast number of decisions that must be made and that effectively come together to produce a suc­cessful (or unsuccessful) vehicle. How many of those decisions can be wrong and still produce an affordable, appealing, and profitable car or truck?

When you are driving your car, with its 20,000 parts, imagine the number of things that have to go right. Hundreds of people have to be coordinated over several years in a cohesive plan. Innovation is not just about a good idea; it is a process of managing what can at times appear to be an army of people over a set amount of time making multiple interconnected decisions. For example, as an initial concept establishes a product direction, a brand statement must be devel­oped, including marketing insights, visual strategy, and an attribute strategy. At the same time, there is a need to establish technical con­straints such as standards and manufacturing capabilities. There are also technical development issues and the development of a market model. Further down the process, there are financial issues in allo­cating budgets and determining the product’s feature content from all the options that are considered. There is the customer strategy that includes feature packages offered in different models of the product. There are decisions on acceptable and anticipated levels of manufac­turing quality and expectations on the product’s fit and finish (other­wise known as craftsmanship) and the technical feasibility and relia­bility of the technologies and manufacturing methods. in every successful product, many key decisions must be made if the potential innovation will reach maximum potential and generate the equity in brand and profit needed to sustain a company.