Book Report: Winning at New Products

I give up. I’m not going to finish this book, and I suggest that you don’t even start it. I made it through Chapter 9, which is about 2/3 of the way through the book, and that’s enough. My time is worth more to me than the remaining 140 pages.

Winning at New Products: Accelerating the Process from Idea to Launch is an incredibly dense and poorly written examination of the new product process in a wide variety of industries over the past twenty years. It has a few good points, to be sure, but it bombards you with those same few good points over and over. Most of the book is mind-numbingly obvious observations about what makes a product successful. I’ll just tell you those few good points here and save you the trouble.

The Good Parts Version

Robert Cooper has studied the new product process at hundreds of companies over the years and has gathered some useful data. Here are the few points I think it’s worth taking from the book:

  1. Do your homework up front — Research your market, focus test your concepts, and get buy-in from your own management at the start of the process. If these things, don’t look right, figure out how to adjust your concept or cancel the project. Do all of this before you go into development and spend a bunch of money.
  2. Dedicate people to new products — The people working on a new product team should report to the project leader of that team. Matrix Management just leads to less-dedicated teams and makes it much harder for the project lead to do his or her job.
  3. Involve the customer every step of the way — Test your concept with them. Talk to them to get an idea what their actual needs are. Let them test the final product in the field before you sell it to everybody so you can work out the kinks. Your customer is your strongest asset in developing a new product.
  4. Have a new product strategy — Your company is hopefully going to have more than one new product. Develop a plan for what markets you want to go after, and then develop products to fit your strategy. Adapt your new product strategy to meet changing market conditions once you see how your products are doing.
  5. Have strong go/kill gates — Have a process by which projects are evaluated based on profitability, feasibility, and fit with the strategy. Actually use these gates to kill projects based on reasonable criteria and not just the internal political power of the project lead.

All of these are very good things to do. They also aren’t completely obvious, and it’s valuable to read about them and how they have worked (or not worked) in companies in the past. But a book with these five points is about 150-200 pages long, not the 400 that Winning at New Products weighs in at. This book has so much extra junk in it that it’s hard to find the good stuff.

Incredibly obvious observations

On page 101 of the book we find the two dimensions of market attractiveness:

  1. Market potential: positive market environments, namely, large and growing markets, markets where a strong customer need exists for products, and where the purchase is an important one for the customer. Products aimed at such markets are more successful.
  2. Competitive situation: negative markets characterized by intense competition, competition on the basis of price, high quality, and strong competitive products and by competitors whose sales force, channel system, and support service are strongly rated. Products aim at such negative markets are less successful, according to both NewProd and the Stanford Innovation Project.

So what he seems to be saying here is that a product that the customer needs in a wide open and growing market will do better than a new product that is going up against an established market leader that is already doing a good job of meeting the customer’s needs? Brilliant! That must be why he spent half a chapter explaining this concept. (What you see above is a summary of that longer version.)

Completely clueless about software

I didn’t expect the book to have any examples from game companies, but there also aren’t any examples from software companies. In fact, the following quote, from page 261, shows that the author doesn’t understand software in the slightest:

For example, in the development of a new software product, the proposal “to have most of the code written and partially debugged” is a very poor milestone. Words such as “most of”, and “partially” are not measurable, and further, there is no time frame. Rather, the milestone should be quantifiable; “to have 30,000 lines of code written and fully debugged by day 95 of the project” is more appropriate.

Judging the completeness of a software project by the number of lines of code it contains is ridiculous. Unroll your loops, boys! We’ve got a milestone to hit!

Not only can you not reasonably predict the number of lines a project will contain in advance, you are also usually better off if you have fewer lines rather than more. You really don’t want the criteria by which your programmers are judged to be number of lines of code they produce. You would be driving them to copy-paste-modify more, and pay no attention to re-use or reducing coupling in their code.

Most of the examples in the book come from manufacturing. Software development is much more like the “fundamental research projects” described on page 151:

Although a fundamental research project or science project may ultimately yield a new product, often the new product cannot be well defined at the beginning. Indeed, it may take months of technical research before it’s even clear what might be technically possible. [...] the Stage-Gate process described above may be inappropriate [...]

Obviously the average software project starts with a much clearer picture of the project’s goals than the average research project, but the “we don’t know what we can do technically” aspect of them is very similar.

Credit where credit isn’t due

The book, and the author’s website, state that 60% of the businesses surveyed use the Stage-Gateâ„¢ process. The reader is left to infer from this that these companies read Dr. Cooper’s books (or paid him to consult) and implemented their new product processes as a result. While I’m sure that has happened in numerous cases, it certainly isn’t the case in most of them. In many cases, the new product process in these companies predates the coining of the term “Stage-Gate”.

The author has attempted to apply Stage-Gateâ„¢ to any new product process in any company that has a series of steps with go-kill decision points between them. It’s sort of the reverse of what happened with Scotch Tape and Kleenex. He’s trying to associate his trademark with the successful new product processes in the industry even though no causality exists.

But what about Stage-Gate itself?

The Stage-Gateâ„¢ process, as described in the book and at Stage-Gate.com is not a software development process, it’s a new product development process. It operates at a higher level than project management processes like Scrum. It emphasizes cross-functional teamwork, but in the business-level context of Stage-Gate, cross-functional means Marketing, Manufacturing, Development, and Sales, not what we usually take it to mean: Art, Design, and Code. I didn’t really understand that when I wrote my previous stage-gate post.

Most of the people on a software project work on that project within a single stage (Stage 3 – Development) of the overall project. For those people, stage-gate doesn’t affect them except to define the criteria they must meet for development to be considered finished. For those of us who are in a position to influence the “what project should we start” decisions in our companies, we should consider something like stage-gate to make informed go/kill decisions on the projects. The criteria for our “want” driven entertainment products is not going to be very similar to the criteria outlined in this book for “need” driven products, but the idea of having defined stages and gates is a good one. We just need to figure out what it is we can measure in our industry to use as a basis for our own gate criteria.

~Joe


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