RIP: Screening and Time-to-Market

For decades, the mantra of product development has been “Right-Products-Right.” It’s a call to find the best projects and then carry out their development superbly.

But this simple phrase leaves most managers with an enormous challenge. How do you know what “Best” means? And how can you get your organization to agree to it?

Getting the Rights Right

Project managers often divorce themselves from the first “Right,” getting the best products into their pipeline. You’ll hear this in a call for better project Screening. Great project management, they say, doesn’t fix bad projects.

Likewise, product managers separate themselves from the second “Right,” carrying out projects. They say their job is to focus on high-level thinking, not on design details or task management. But product managers seem to always push for faster Time-to-Market. It’s the same message they hear from the top of their companies.

Selection and Speed

There are two linchpins that support “Right-Products-Right” thinking. The first is to conduct great project Screening. And, the second is to drive faster Time-to-Market. Unfortunately, these practices fall short in driving brilliant performance across multiple products. Today’s markets and technology dynamics are too demanding.

Over the years, we’ve seen Screening advance from simple evaluations to streamlined gate reviews. And we’ve added risk assessments along with many product testing methods. It’s hard not to be impressed.

And our push for faster Time-to-Market has led to better teaming methods and created smart approaches to fix bottlenecks. Plus, many companies have adopted agile iterations to speed work steps.

But these practices aren’t enough. If you wish to improve product performance, you’ll need more than better Screening and faster project speed.

Mediocre Projects

My ears perk up when I hear a manager or consultant call for better project Screening. It’s the most common reaction to a major problem. All too often, companies are burdened by too many mediocre projects entering their development pipeline. The thinking is “if we could screen out some poor projects, we’d be much better off.” But seldom do managers ask “why did we create these mediocre projects in the first place?”

The drive for faster Time-to-Market has also become puzzling. Going faster doesn’t always deliver the results you’d like. It doesn’t improve customer satisfaction across multiple products. And speedily delivered products are the easiest for smart competitors to outmaneuver.

Speed Isn’t an Elixir

Still, speed evangelist argue that fast development improves customer satisfaction and competitive advantage. And I have to agree this is true, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have a well-thought-out game plan.

Sure, it’s correct to want each new product developed as fast as possible. But more importantly, it’s about the entire product line, not just one project. You need gains in overall customer satisfaction and total free cash flow. And you also need to build strong competitive positioning of the full set of products. The big issue is that focusing on the speed of just one product can unintentionally harm the whole line.

Fortunately, there are better approaches to drive product line performance, both in the COVID economy and into the future. And the new practices stem from recognizing each product line as a system of parts and forces, not just the roll-up of projects and products.

Improving the Product Line

Managing a Product Line is the art of continually improving the gains from multiple products, not just one product at a time. It’s about boosting customer satisfaction, free cash flow, and competitive advantage. And it’s doing this over both the near term and the long-term. The job demands managers work diligently to create a smart game plan.

Consider the problem I came across recently. A high-tech company needed to follow a significant market shift. And to do so, they needed to merge two existing hardware products into a single offering. Each hardware product was complex, yet the two had to work together seamlessly. And the combined hardware had to match the customers’ operating systems and in-use requirements.  But problems arose.

Just Fix the Bottleneck

Top management set up a fast response team to figure out what needed to change, even though most managers were sure they knew the answer. And the team’s analysis didn’t surprise anyone. They concluded the development stalled because the company lacked specific software skills. A resource bottleneck had caused the problem, and the recourse was obvious. The company needed to onboard more software engineers. The faster, the better.

But there was a problem with the analysis. The team limited the analysis to just project management. Looking at the problem through a product line system’s lens revealed the need for more software engineering was a symptom of the hardware’s design. There was a mismatch across the hardware. And the approach called for the software group to “bridge” the gap. The project constraint caused by a lack of software engineers was itself caused by the hardware mismatch.

Your Approach Matters

Notice the approach this company was taking. They wanted speed and low cost. And to go fast and keep costs down, they chose to reuse existing hardware parts and integrate the hardware using software. It makes sense at first glance. But the more significant the difference in hardware design, the greater the demand for software engineering. And the gap was so big it caused a software bottleneck to ruin the speed gain. It also turned out the mismatched hardware caused significant in-market quality issues. All toll, the results were not good for customer satisfaction and free cash flow.

Plus, by pushing speed and low-cost, the company also fell behind competitors. It turns out two competitors forged ahead with new design platforms.

The company realized they had a significant dilemma. Continuing on their current path would be difficult. They would always be too slow, and costs would mount. And the longer they tried to compete without a leverageable design platform, the further behind competition they’d find themselves.

More than Project Management

A better analysis must go beyond project management. It should purposely take a systems view of the product line. And to do so, the team must lay out future offerings for different customer groups related to the merge hardware market. It’s more than the analysis of just one project.

But most importantly, the systems analysis would show that gains could come from building unique offerings based on a common design platform; a platform that embodies both hardware parts and core software integration. The key is to develop a design platform that purposely unifies the hardware pieces and reduces the need to customize software for each use case.

Selecting a low-cost project and pushing on development speed is old-school. And as markets and technologies advance, this classic Right-Products-Right approach is quickly becoming a Wrong-Products-Wrong quagmire.

Product Line as a System

Product line managers and senior leadership must think of their product lines as complete systems composed of many parts and forces. And the system doesn’t start with Screening or selection, nor does its progress mean working faster on each project.

Viewing your product line as a system can be powerful. You’ll see how targeting innovations can deliver greater results than Screening. And the reason is simple.

The Screening approach assumes that front end idea generation is separate from a company’s development effort. You’ll often see this divide in an organization’s structure.

From Strategy to the Back-end

But the systems view is different. It ties the front-end to development. It also connects the front end and development to in-market product management. And by pulling together all work and decisions across all products and projects, the systems view calls out the alignment to a strategy or game plan.

The systems view also reveals how limited and sometimes damaging a push for faster Time-to-Market can be. Moving one part of the system faster does not mean the whole product line system is improving.

Instead, product line managers must consider their line’s full flow. In the product line strategy, the flow is continuous. And it should always be toward greater customer satisfaction, improved free cash flow, and stronger competitive positioning. And the flow’s velocity matters much.

Targeted Innovation & Product Line Velocity

Product line systems thinking changes our notion of Right-Products-Right. Screening is set aside for targeted innovation. And a Time-to-Market mandate shifts to improving product line velocity.

Building a product line systems view is challenging. It demands entire companies embrace targeted innovation and product line velocity. This is a significant, but much-needed, change.

Seeing the product line as a system of parts and forces is foundational to improving its performance. You’ll see how adding, subtracting, and manipulating the parts and forces can influence the flow. And to improve the product line velocity, such detailed work on parts and forces must be continuous. Here, the notion of bottlenecks goes beyond tasks and resources within a project plan. Instead, managers must be concerned about constraints to the entire product line system’s flow. It’s about improving the product line’s velocity, not just a project’s speed.

What’s Best

If you want to know what are the “Best” projects for your company and  how best to carry them out, the answer is simple. It’s the set of projects that drive the greatest product line velocity improvement in the near term and long-term. And if you want other managers and your top management to understand why targeted innovation and product line velocity are critical, you’ll need to build and share a clear understanding of product lines as systems.

As You Go Forward

The next time you hear someone say “we need better Screening,” consider if targeted innovation might be more helpful. And when someone calls for faster Time-to-Market, ask if the product line might be better off by shifting focus to improving the product line’s velocity.

The economy and our path forward continues to affect the markets, behaviors, and technologies that impact product line systems. It’s up to each of us to get our arms around these changes. Start by viewing your product line as a system.  Then add targeted innovation and product line velocity to your thinking.

Learn More… Consider these references:

Single-Product Mindset

Trapped in The Single-Product Mindset

Rethinking The Product Line

Product Line Velocity: Measuring The Flow

Responsive Roadmapping



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