The most important quality in a product development partner may surprise you: lack of experience. Find out why a team with fresh eyes = innovation.
That pressing release schedule is hanging over your head and you need to outsource the work to a product development firm. Do you go with the firm whose entire portfolio consists of products like yours, or do you choose the firm with a diverse portfolio and maybe nothing exactly like what you do? It may seem counter-intuitive, but the latter is the best choice.
Let’s step back and briefly consider a couple of the reasons why you might be outsourcing in the first place:
These are valid reasons for outsourcing your development; however, they won’t necessarily help you choose the right firm. Bandwidth is an easy problem to solve but probably not very helpful if that set of warm bodies can’t perform to your expectations. An internal skill set deficiency within your company is a good reason to reach outside for help, but that leads us to a critical question. Do you want or need direct experience? For example, if you are designing a surgical drill, should you choose a team that has designed surgical drills in the past?
This is where you need to evaluate the desire for specialization within your product development (PD) firm of choice. Specialization can be good if you are looking to have the firm take care of all of the development and bring with them years of experience with this exact product. This may be helpful if you want to take a hands-off approach to the management of your PD team.
Conversely, specialization can come with undesirable downsides. The team’s years of experience can lead to a case where any design updates are only incremental in nature. What happens is the natural tendency to stick with what you know, making truly revolutionary changes difficult. This same familiarity can also breed overconfidence. This can manifest as a reluctance to expend any effort on customer research since “I already know what the customer wants.” Your partner PD team is in a design rut.
The trap of “the way it is always done” is possibly the worst downside of specialization. Over years of experience, written or unwritten rules of thumb often congeal around a type of design. While these rules are helpful in passing on institutional knowledge, they can also result in a situation where nobody remembers where this rule came from and yet it is never questioned. Has something changed in the intervening years in terms of material processes that invalidates that old rule of thumb? Did that rule of thumb arise because of a specific manufacturing constraint (e.g. limitations of a particular supplier base)? Have new technologies opened previously closed design avenues?
Here’s an example of a firm’s reluctance to change. In the past, I worked with a client who was adverse to using plastic gears in a gearbox design for a small product. The lead engineer insisted that all gears should be made of metal, based on his experience. The team at M3 was frankly a bit flummoxed by this at first. As any of you who are engineers will know, the formulas for gear stress are pretty well known and can be calculated for various materials easily. Where this reluctance to use plastic really came from was the past experience of that particular engineer. He was accustomed to using very small diameter gears at high speeds and relatively high loads. Metal was the appropriate choice in those applications.
Fast forward to the product in question where minimized gear train noise and cost were important design requirements. Plastic gears seemed like the logical choice but years of experience negatively biased our client away from plastic.
Another downside of experience is fear of failure. Imagine that your company has been designing widgets for 50 years and every few years comes out with a slightly modified but improved version. If the company’s success hinges on this product line, then the fear of failure can cause serious risk aversion. Do you really want to be on the team that screwed up the 2020 model widget?
Failure in the market is bad; however, product stagnation can result in an upstart competitor leapfrogging you and stealing your market share. Truly revolutionary designs require getting out of your comfort zone. This may mean new industrial design, novel manufacturing processes, and new materials. Making the safe but small changes won’t get you to a position of market leadership.
So how does all of this relate to choosing a outside partner? A lack of familiarity with your exact product may really be an advantage. The “lack of experience” I reference doesn’t mean you should hire a team of college interns with no oversight. You should really be looking for a firm that has a broad and deep portfolio. That team should be able to showcase work from lots of different industries. This will mean they have perspective on the ways products are designed in industries other than yours. Similarly, they should also have experience with many different manufacturing processes. A team that has only designed sheet metal boxes (even if for many different industries), doesn’t have that broad experience you are looking for.
Search for a firm with experience in sheet metal, die-casting, medical products, industrial products, high volume plastic parts, etc. A PD firm with a diverse portfolio is your best bet for product innovation.
You should search for a firm with the following qualifications:
Finding a PD firm with the right “lack of experience” is where the magic happens. The right firm will draw on their knowledge of designs and processes from other clients (including wildly dissimilar products) to deliver truly innovative solutions. They may push you toward materials or manufacturing processes you never would have considered otherwise. A good firm will also recognize their weaknesses. Self-awareness of their lack of experience with your exact product will enable the firm to push the boundaries of familiarity while leveraging the expertise of your internal team. The initial knowledge gap will also lead to a need/desire to get out and do some research in order to get an accurate perspective on the market landscape and current user needs. Working with the right team will spur innovation and create success in the marketplace.
Don’t constrain your search for a PD firm partner to firms that have a product just like yours on their portfolio page. Dig a little deeper and find the firm that has a broad range of experience and also illustrates their depth of experience. Combined with your specific expertise, this will result in the best product outcomes.