Product Development Strategy: Internal Process Improvement
By Michael Tomasini
Product-driven businesses – particularly those in the technology, media, and telecom sectors – continually seek to develop new and innovative ideas to drive expansion and reach future goals. As these firms move through the business lifecycle, too often they neglect a critical aspect of their business: self-reflection. To align long-term strategic priorities with continual business development, the most successful firms are those willing to look inward, identify opportunities for improvement, and act upon them.
It is vital for all product-oriented businesses – large and small, nascent and established – to ensure the existence of consistent, coherent, and efficient product development practices within the firm. Consistent processes increase stakeholder buy-in throughout the organization and help grow the volume of ideas moving through the development funnel.
Maintaining a coherent strategy can lead to a significant increase in the quality and applicability of individual business ideas. And efficiency means that development processes are lean, do not waste anyone’s time, and bring products to market quickly.
These improvement philosophies apply to the ideation and iteration of business cases as well as their review and ultimate approval/rejection. Almost every firm has an established process, a “way of doing things”, based on historical successes. And to be sure, no two companies are the same. But for all firms, recognizing opportunity for efficiency is the first step towards realizing tangible improvements.
1) Standardize the Business Case Process
Upon examination of product development, it is wise to first look at existing business processes to determine their clarity and consistency. Getting a firsthand perspective of idea generation, business case iteration, and organizational decision-making can reveal process gaps and opportunities for improvement. Common problems at this stage include:
- Inconsistency (e.g. one business case is approved with no accompanying documentation, while another requires dozens of hours of collateral development)
- Lack of transparency (e.g. a product manager’s idea is put on hold and he doesn’t know why)
- Extended business case development and review requirements (e.g. a new idea undergoes too many business case iterations)
Impactful improvement does not require complex and resource-intense redesign; instead, the introduction of a standard and visible design, review, and implementation process can do wonders for organizational buy-in. Other possibilities include the implementation of multi-stage business case review (first manager-level, then executive approval) and variable approval requirements based on initiative scale (e.g. required capital, development hours).
2) Make Strategic Goals Coherent & Transparent
It is common, particularly within large and mature organizations, that strategic information and new developments are held “close to the chest”. Even when information flow is transparent, it can be siloed within separate organizational functions. Perhaps one region is left unaware of imminent network upgrades, and have thus been unable to appropriately prepare sales and engineering teams. Outlining strategic priorities and developments in a transparent way throughout the organization can help to align the generation of ideas to better meet the needs of the firm. Doing this also increases the accountability of the firm’s decision-makers, increases the quality of those business ideas, and further enhances productivity.
3) Assess & Prioritize Business Cases
Through introduction of a reformed process and transparent strategic direction, a healthy volume of quality ideas should be moving through the funnel. This introduces another problem (though admittedly one many firms would love to have). Rather than a scarcity of ideas, there is a lack of sufficient resources and budget to move forward with all possibilities. At this point it becomes vital to hone the methods used to assess and prioritize new ideas, so that the process becomes lightweight, efficient, and does not unduly tie-up organizational resources.
Weighting and prioritizing strategic initiatives is not a turnkey solution, but depends heavily on a firm’s individual characteristics. A business’s priorities are ever-changing and it is to their benefit to think creatively and act according to their competitive advantages. Business case assessment and prioritization is therefore dependent on specific market, business scale, financial situations, and competitive environment. The key factor is not to have a pre-defined set of criteria to be met, but to set out goals and points of emphasis ahead of time to help guide both the business case creators to build stronger cases and to enable the decision makers to act effectively, focusing most strongly on those things that matter to the company.
These suggestions are useful for stakeholders at any firm to consider. They are particularly appropriate for firms that have undertaken a major acquisition or merger, are shifting to the next phase in the business lifecycle, or find themselves in a rapidly evolving environment and require accelerated time to market in order to succeed. It is, however, universally true that decisions should be made through a process that is clearly defined and that follow the strategic priorities of the firm. In order to assess new ideas objectively, this standard must be laid out in advance, circulated to the relevant parties, and consistently adhered to. It is not always immediately obvious that the business case development process – or even the review and prioritization process – lack consistency, clarity, and efficiency. There is also undoubtedly benefit to keeping certain things “close to the chest”. But finding the correct balance of strategic priorities with available resources and tolerance for risk can create a suitable framework for a compelling product development strategy. <>
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