Surviving Product Development


with communication, processes and tools
by Tony Gatica
April 2011

Overview

In recent years there have been a few TV shows that focus on outdoor survival. During these shows the star, a survival expert, is dropped off in some remote region of the world with three items: a camera, his survival skills, and a trusty multi-tool. The show’s premise is for the survival expert is to find his way back to civilization and survive his environment. During his journey he documents his travels with the camera to inform the audience of his particular challenges and the best method to overcome them.

A similar journey exists during product development. The “star” in this case is the product development team. Their challenge is to successfully navigate the perils of product development, whether it is a schedule constraint or regulatory issue, while also keeping stakeholders informed about the obstacles and solutions. Much like the survival expert’s kit, the development team also uses three items to “survive” the unique challenges of product development: communication, processes, and tools.

Communication

If the TV show is to be successful, the star needs to communicate with the audience to keep them informed about what he’s doing. Without that critical activity there would be no show. Similarly, during product development, stakeholders need to be kept informed about the project progress so there are never any “surprises”. In order to communicate effectively, the style and frequency must be tailored to the message.

  • Level of detail
  • The level of communication detail between the product development team and stakeholders varies depending on the message’s intent. Below are different communication levels and examples of each.

    • High Level – Short, bulleted summaries. Example: project status reports
    • Mid Level – More detail but still summarized in 1-2 pages. Example: meeting minutes
    • Low Level – Very detailed discussions. Example: design reviews

    Best-in-class product development teams know how to efficiently and effectively keep stakeholders informed during all stages of the product development cycle.

  • Frequency of communication

    The frequency of communication relates closely with the level of detail and can vary depending on the project duration and complexity. For example, short status updates might occur on a weekly basis as they are high level summaries of the project. Formal project reviews may occur on a less frequent basis, such as monthly, as the level of detail discussed is much greater. Though the frequency may vary, the goal remains the same: to keep stakeholders up to date on project progress.

  • Content of the message

    Similarly, the message content also correlates with the amount of detail. In status reports, the budget and schedule can be summarized in a small graphic that explains everything at a glance. Its purpose is to only inform the reader of the high level details. At the other extreme, a detailed presentation with graphics and analyses would be prepared for a design review. The content is greater and serves more purposes, such as explaining design trade-offs, presenting analyses performed, and providing historical documentation for regulatory filing.

Processes

The survival star would likely not live through a challenge without his honed survival processes like building shelter or starting a fire. The TV producers therefore would not hire just anyone to host the show, knowing that without specialized skills and processes, the star would not last more than one filming (literally!). The same is true with product development. Unseasoned product development teams might blindly proceed with the first idea they come up with, thus resulting in a design direction with high product cost, schedule slip, or increased design complexity. Only expert product development teams have the skills and processes to deliver the right solution to the product stakeholders.

In order to be thorough and efficient, expert product development teams follow their refined processes. These processes let the team focus on the project solution yet also regularly review the design and overall progress. Quality is a direct result of following these processes, as they require regular collaboration with experts of varying disciplines.

  • Design Reviews

    Design reviews provide opportunities for outside reviewers to constructively critique the design and offer insights about the solutions being presented. The reviewers are often not part of the development team and therefore bring fewer biases or preconceptions into the review. This allows fresh perspectives from discipline experts. Gathering a wide range input helps prevent problems from appearing later in areas such as regulatory compliance, manufacturing, or usability.

  • Project Reviews

    Project managers use project reviews to keep stakeholders aware of the project status. This is one of the most important product development activities as it keeps everyone informed about the project’s health. In these discussions, everything regarding the project is presented and discussed. Some of the topics include:

    • Accomplishments – What has been completed to date?
    • Plans – What will be worked on between now and the next project review?
    • Risks – What items have been identified that could negatively affect the project?
    • Schedule – Where is the project is in relation to the overall schedule?
    • Budget – What has been spent to date and what are the projected costs to complete the project?

    The project reviews also allow the stakeholders to keep the product development team informed about any business decisions that could affect the project.

Tools

Lastly, the TV star knows that dependable tools are critical to walking out of a survival challenge alive. It also takes his specialized skills to use those tools effectively. Best-in-class product development teams utilize technology effectively to work with the product stakeholders. While email is probably the most utilized communication tool, there are additional ones that are used as part of effective project collaboration.

  • Product Data Management (PDM)

    This tool is exceptionally helpful if the product development team needs to integrate with the customer’s internal team. In the example of CAD (computer aided design), using a PDM tool that is accessed via the Internet allows the development team to share and collaborate simultaneously on the same electronic files as the customer’s internal team, thus alleviating the nightmare of email-based revision control. Additionally, stakeholders can see the design evolve in real time, almost as if the external development team is working on-site.

  • Web-based presentation tools

    Sometimes the product development team needs to review something with the stakeholders between regularly scheduled meetings. Although preferable, a face-to-face meeting is not always possible. For these impromptu meetings, low-cost web-based presentation tools—such as Microsoft® Live Meeting or Cisco WebEx—allow the development team to share information with stakeholders with the added benefit of visually highlighting specific areas for emphasis in real-time. While this works effectively with Office documents (papers, presentations, schedules, or spreadsheets) it can also be used with 3D design tools, such as electrical or mechanical CAD, allowing ad-hoc design reviews and frequent feedback from the client. Furthermore, modifications can be made to documents in real time, therefore encouraging group input and feedback.

  • Collaboration sites

    Web-based collaboration sites, such as 37signals® Basecamp®, provide a central repository for documents, discussions, tasks, and calendars. The team can post new content and select who should receive notification. This keeps a history of the project in a centralized location, where all members have access, including the product stakeholders. Revision control is utilized to ensure that all documents are the latest versions. Without this, out-of-date data, schedules, or requirements could negatively affect the product development project.

  • Phone

    While using the phone as a tool may seem obvious, it is often overlooked as an important way to access the person the product development team needs to urgently speak with.

Summary

The survival TV show is possible because of three important things the star uses: his camera (communication), his adaptability to the environment (processes), and his multi-tool (tools). Take one away and there is no show. The same is true with product development. Only through the combination of these items is the product development team able to successfully navigate project challenges and keep stakeholders informed about the journey.

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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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