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Don’t Let Murphy’s Law Tank Your Product — Build a Realistic Development Plan

Murphy’s Law tells us any product development plan will hit some snags. Learn how to build a process that accounts for delays but still meets your goals.

Gray McCord

May 16 th 2022 | 10 minute read

It’s hard to imagine a group of people more optimistic than a team of product developers at the outset of a new project. This is especially true for startups developing their first big idea. The sheer excitement of the product’s potential to generate the ROI investors and other stakeholders expect make it nearly impossible to imagine anything going wrong.

But let’s be real. Something always goes wrong during product development. In fact, it’s common for projects to take twice as long as you anticipate and cost double what you expect. That means if you’re planning your new product and business around a series of “home run” scenarios, you could end up striking out and missing your window of opportunity altogether.

To bring your product goals to fruition, you need to build a realistic development plan that makes room for the Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, and at the worst possible time) situations that are sure to crop up. Take these 3 steps to plan for success.

1. Listen to (and Challenge) Your Product Development Team

Product development leaders are under enormous pressure to perform. In a startup environment, it can feel like you’re carrying the weight of your entire company’s success on your shoulders. And even in a well-established Fortune 500 company, there’s a lot riding on your ability to deliver a product that cements your organization’s market share while edging out your competition.

Don’t let that pressure cloud your judgment. Yes, you need to push your team to think creatively and solve problems quickly, but you can’t be so aggressive that it’s not rational. It’s incumbent on you to listen to your team’s insight and feedback while simultaneously inspiring them to level up their performance.

Assess the Strength of Your Team

Inexperience is one of the biggest threats to your product’s success. If your team is green — or just new to working with each other — take a more active role in the planning process. Question your team’s assumptions and ask how they’ll handle unexpected roadblocks. Have them conduct a variety of scenario planning exercises to imagine worst-case possibilities. Bring the benefit of your experience to the table to help the team avoid schedule slips and budget overruns.

On the other hand, if you’re working with an experienced team — or with an external partner with a proven track record in bringing successful products to market — give them more latitude. Take a close look at the team’s projected timeline and budget. Then take a step back and allow them to collectively pursue the goals they’ve laid out.

In either scenario, be mindful of your management style. Work hard to tamp down any hint of “Steve Jobs Syndrome.” Check your ego at the door, get out of the way when appropriate, and empower your team (whether internal or external) to contribute and perform.

Set Aggressive, Yet Reasonable, Timelines

Everyone wants to develop a new product in the least amount of time possible. But sometimes it’s not your team’s heightened sense of optimism that’s the problem. It’s the “we-need-to-produce-this-product-come-hell-or-high-water-yesterday” attitude from upper management that leads you to establish an overly aggressive timeline.

For example, imagine your CEO issues a mandate that your new product must be developed in six months. But your team says it will take at least a year. You may be tempted to:

  • Cut out required multiple design iterations and hope you can achieve a superior concept right away.
  • Skip prototyping and trust the design will function as imagined right out of the gate.
  • Shortchange the design validation effort and assume the product can go straight to mass-production.
  • Eliminate user testing because you’re certain you already know what your target customers need.

Avoid these pitfalls. Find your voice and speak truth to power. You’ll need to insist on building in enough time and resource to ensure the product is successful. Being realistic is the only way to minimize your risk and increase your odds of delivering the results your management team actually wants.

2. Build Contingencies Into Your Product Development Plan

As a design leader, it’s important to listen to input from your team and from executive leadership when developing your product development plan. But ultimately, it’s your responsibility to build in smart contingencies that enable your team to pivot and respond to difficult challenges when they inevitably arise. The last thing you want to do is go back to your CEO and CFO to ask for more time or additional funds.

Budget More Than You Think You’ll Need

When putting together your product development budget and schedule, a common rule of thumb is to double everything. But before you simply multiply everything by two, ask yourself:

  • What if we spend twice as much as we are planning for? Can we absorb that kind of budgetary impact? How much can we afford before the product is untenable?
  • Are there business ramifications if we need to extend our timeline? If we miss the ideal production schedule, will we lose our market opportunity?
  • When we hit a snag, what’s most important to our company: staying on budget or staying on schedule? If the schedule is most important, can we add more money to enable us to meet our deadline (and vice versa)?

Understanding your overarching priorities will help you allocate your resources appropriately and more proactively develop a plan that fits your organization’s needs.

Assume Your Prototype Will Require Adjustments

Another way to mitigate Murphy’s Law scenarios is to assume your first prototype won’t work as intended. It likely won’t — and that’s OK. Build your plan knowing you’ll need to make changes resulting from functionally testing that prototype, regulatory requirements , or user feedback. Make sure to allocate time and money to fix the problems that arise.

Create Decision Criteria to Triage Issues

You can also reduce the impact of unforeseen challenges by thinking through your design priorities in advance. Your product requirements document (PRD) lists out all the design features the ideal, “perfect” product will have.

But what happens if supply chain issues impede your ability to source an integral part? What if one of your hoped-for features will require inordinate amounts of time and/or budget to develop? Or what if market conditions change mid-development? How will you proceed?

One of our clients wanted to develop a new medical device that could dock into a charging station to eliminate the need for replacing batteries. But they also needed to produce prototypes of their device quickly so they could conduct field testing and make needed adjustments as early in the process as possible. The latter was more of a priority than the former. Therefore, they removed any ancillary design features that weren’t critical to the device’s functionality — including the dock — and added them later on. This reduced the amount of work required on the front-end so they could meet their overarching goals more rapidly.

Creating decision criteria that spells out how you’ll approach problems will help you maneuver around them more quickly. The key here is to be sure the entire team understands the priorities and is on board with the decision-making guidelines you establish.

3. Expect the Unexpected to Achieve Product Development Success

Achieving success in product development can feel like winning a game of chance. But a smart, realistic development plan significantly increases your odds of achieving the outcome you’re after.

Things will go wrong — often at the worst possible time. Help your team think through how they’ll conquer the obstacles they’re sure to face. Build in smart contingency plans. Prioritize your product’s must-haves wisely. And create a flexible plan that provides the right amount of time and resources for your team to do right by your new product.

You can’t avoid Murphy’s Law, but you can minimize its impact on you, your team, your product and your business.

About the Author

Gray McCord – M3 CTO