Finishing Well, Part 1

The 5-Step Guide to Taking Your Product Across the Finish Line

Step 1: Select the Right Product Development Firm

Finishing Well, Part 1

Product design can actually be a pretty glamorous world. Shiny new objects all around, breakthrough technology making headlines, design awards won, and buzz-worthy ideas abounding.

But what matters? At the end of the day, after all the excitement and exaggeration and egos have faded into obscurity, what’s the goal of all this?

The goal is to finish well. Truth be told, this is everyone’s goal. But it’s one that a lot of people lose track of.

In the world of product design, finishing well means creating a product that succeeds in the market and delivers results to the business. In the world of product-design consulting (aka our world), finishing well means a satisfied and happy client who makes money—and wants to come back and work with us again. In both cases, the steps required to cross that finish line have a lot in common.

Finishing well does not mean creating something that’s exciting on paper and will never find market success. It does not mean designing a concept that can’t be produced well.

In short, it’s not really about shiny new objects at all. It’s about long-term business outcomes. If that sounds less exciting, well…we tend to disagree.

Rub a Dub Dub in the Bathtub of Value

In his illuminating commentary on the “Bathtub of Value” and its essential ROI lessons, chief technology officer Gray McCord explains it like this: “It’s not how much you spend on product development that’s important. It’s how the money is spent that counts the most…While there are many dynamics that determine product success, one critical factor is how, where, and when companies invest in product development.”

It’s likely you’ll spend 80% of time and 90% of resources in the development phase—the final phase before revenue generation. Which means that your project’s finish is not only essential; it’s make or break.

“If you put a lot of investment in the up-front—great design, great usability, etc.—and it all gets butchered in that last 10%, the investment you made in the beginning goes out the window,” explains business development executive Casey Branson. “It’s our job to make sure the usability of the device marries up with the function, and that the intended design comes through in the end. That’s hard to do.”

But it’s relatively easy to build consensus around the value of a strong finish. What’s difficult is structuring a project (or an entire organization) to focus on this goal.

“The last 10% of a project is always the hardest,” explains chief operations officer John Bernero, “because that’s where the rubber meets the road—where everything needs to be right. You’re not building 1 or 2 prototypes; you’re building thousands or hundreds of thousands of these things. And once you have all that inventory, it’s got to work.”

Okay, okay, it’s important. But how to do it?

So how can you make sure your project finishes well? Moreover, how can you both select your design firm and manage the engagement to help ensure that the whole team finishes well together?

Fortunately, at M3 Design, finishing well is almost an obsession. So we’ve decided to embark on a deep dive into how to finish well—how to not just create products that excite us, but create and follow through on products that excite the market and drive business success in the end.

We’ve brought a lot of heads together to tackle this big and important topic. And everything we’re going to explore is based on mountains of collective experience: massive successes, epic failures, and everything in between.

In the end, we’ve identified 5 indispensable steps for finishing a product-development (PD) program well. We’ll tackle each of these steps here in the coming months, beginning with step 1 today.

Let’s get started.

Step 1: Select the right product development firm. And how!

“A PD firm can come up with a lot of great concepts,” says M3 president and founder Terry Branson, “but if at end of the day, the client can’t take that and create a product that makes money, I don’t think you did well.”

Frankly, many product development consultants don’t like to finish well. They prefer the “fun” stuff. And during the vetting process, it can be difficult to recognize the difference between a partner who talks the talk and one who walks the walk all the way through the finish line.

So we recommend you hone in on the following:

Listen for a finish focus

Finishing well is challenging, and a lot of product-development firms simply don’t focus on it. Maybe they’re great at getting a product concept to a certain point, but then they throw it over the wall and hope someone else brings it through the finish line. They might claim that these later steps are “just” details—easy for anyone to figure out. But it’s often those very details that make or break a project.

So don’t get misled by flashy. Listen for evidence of strong finishes from your earliest conversations with prospective PD firms—for talk of their end game. A firm that’s focused on finishing well will discuss

  • Outcomes
  • Happy clients
  • Return clients
  • Pride in their work and its quality
  • Strong desire to see projects make it to market and be successful

In fact, they may even have a story (or a few) about delivering beyond the project PO, because they refuse to stop until they’re handing over a complete and high-quality product.

If a firm’s end game is not immediately apparent, ask for evidence of successful, completed products—and ask them to describe their role in that completion.

Still not obvious? It’s probably time to get skeptical.

Get smart with references

We all know that references can be misleading. But if you know what to ask, you can get great insight from these conversations.

When you speak to the clients of the firm you’re vetting, ask questions like

  • Is the product in the market today?
  • Is it successful? What is your ROI to date?
  • Did they push you or challenge you with concepts and plans during the project, or did they seem more focused on keeping you happy?
  • At what point did they hand the product back over to you?
  • How did that transition go?
  • Did you run into any unexpected problems with the product after delivery?
  • Do you still work with them? Why or why not?

“People here are really passionate about jumping on a problem and solving it,” says Bernero. “There’s a lot of pride and ownership in solving a problem and coming up with the right solution. Nothing’s worse than not getting the opportunity to see those solutions cross the finish line.”

This type of passion will quickly become evident during your conversations with references.

Identify a finish-centric process & team

“Everyone wants to get to manufacturing and launch faster,” says Bernero. “This can drive teams to skip things along the way, which means your risk goes up astronomically.”

One challenge is that those early steps can involve some “failure,” which may be difficult for larger organizations. But it’s essential that your PD firm know how to fail well, because it’s actually a healthy part of the product-development process. And a culture that’s prepared for fast, efficient failure is one that’s positioned to finish well.

“Our early process is quick and fail, quick and fail,” explains Terry Branson. “If we’re going to ‘fail,’ we need to do it fast and early on, with lots of productive learning involved. If we focused on engineering a thing too soon, we would shoot ourselves in the foot.”

The challenge is finding a team that is well positioned to do this—namely, one designed to grasp the big picture and long-term goal.

Engineers, for example, tend to be more detail focused, so many have a natural ability to consider the myriad intricacies of producing and manufacturing a product. If you can marry that detail orientation with an understanding of the marketplace, you’ve found a stellar engineering team.

“We hire Industrial Designers for people who really understand the rigor that is requires to develop a product.” Bernero reveals, “That mentality isn’t about flashy sketches that would require packaging 10 pounds in a 5-gallon bucket. It’s about working with engineering and within the constraints of nature and physics, so that we know, all the way through, that we can execute on whatever concept we come up with in the beginning.”

Dean Drummond, senior business development executive, has identified 7 Characteristics of Rock Star Product Development Teams—each of which is key to selecting a team that can finish well. But for the best teams, it’s about more than what you see on paper.

“The designers and engineers are making a living off of this,” Terry Branson acknowledges. “But for the really good ones, it’s more than that. It’s something in their DNA that wants to create a product that really makes it and makes an impact. It’s a big deal to see one’s products somewhere and say, ‘I did that.’ These are the people we hire, and they’re the best at finishing well.”

“The end is where we start from”

Now that we’ve identified some of the key steps in selecting a finish-focused partner for your product-development program, it’s time to talk about best practices for managing the project itself—everything from kicking off with an eye for the end-game to wisely overseeing that essential and tricky final 10%.

We’ll look at this and more upcoming posts, but until then, a word of encouragement as you shift your focus from the shiny new object to the (much harder to achieve) strong finish:

While we define a successful finish as a product that achieves market success—and the happy client that comes with it—for our clients’ companies, that successful product isn’t really the end at all. It’s the beginning of what’s next.

New breakthroughs. New revenue streams. New markets opened. New rungs on the ladder to future innovations. For the individuals involved, it can (and often does) mean the beginning of a new career.

So we don’t just keep an eye on the end-game because we want clients to come scrambling back. We do it because it’s really the beginning of something better.

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
– T. S. Eliot

Up next: Steps 2 and 3


About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. M3 is a team of world-class designers and engineers that challenge convention to help their clients maximize business opportunities by creating exceptional products and experiences with them.

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