Accelerating the Fuzzy Front End

January 31, 2014

I think most of us agree today that learning is almost always a bottleneck for our development projects. When asking people after completing a project how long it would take them to do the same thing all over again, the answers usually range between 10-50% of the time it took the first time. The second time around all obstacles involving learning would be removed and everyone could focus on producing. This is where agile methods and practices come in; designed to facilitate fast feedback and fast learning cycles to improve on the lead times.

When it comes to new product development (NPD) most organizations that I’ve come in contact with have a tendency to lose severe amounts of calendar time before the actual development begins. When I started looking into the Fuzzy Front End (FFE – “the phase between first consideration of an opportunity and when it is judged ready to enter the structured development process”) of NPD with a colleague of mine to see if- and how agile ways of working could help during this phase I came to realize that even though learning is what we try to do at this point, the real bottleneck is usually decision-making. Many organizations don’t have a set of business rules to guide them during the decision process for new products and even people on CxO positions are often paralyzed by the Parmenides fallacy; action is more dangerous than inaction.

decision

It doesn’t make sense for us to speed up the other activities of the FFE if the organization is going to waste that time on procrastinating on decision-making. So what can we do to speed things up a notch? It’s been argued that the FFE-part of NPD has an inherent uncertainty and ambiguity to it that makes it an ill fit for structured processes. Be as it may with this (I’m quite certain that we can do innovation and be creative within a framework as well though), the decision process that runs in parallel with the creative processes can definitely be sped up. With a good enough set of decision rules, any company can limit the impact of decision-making as a bottleneck.

When entering the NPD-process, we should frame the research within the limits of our corporate strategy. This will tell us what kind of opportunities to look for. Do we have a plethora of service- and product options to explore or should we stay focused on a given market segment and type of solutions? Are we Google or are we a cab company.

We should decide beforehand on the level of risk that we’re willing to accept. Are we willing to explore completely new products? Are we prepared to explore new technologies? Are we willing to create new markets? Or should we perhaps stick with extended product capabilities?

What level of organizational change are we willing to accept in order to develop and/or produce new products or services? Can we kill an entire production unit and build a new service organization? Or do we have difficulty even to introduce a new role to our organization?

How much are we willing to invest in exploring new opportunities? What payback time do we expect?

Most of us aren’t working for companies like Gore, Google or 3M. We might like to believe that we have the freedom to explore all kind of opportunities but if we snap out of this dream before we act on it, we can become a lot faster at following up on new ideas. What we need at the beginning of our NPD process is to:

  • Make all constraints explicit
  • Decide what data is needed to make a decision
  • Commit to innovation within these constraints

And don’t forget to combine fast decision-making with validated learning and agile practices to minimize the impact of poor choices, because the decisions will not always be perfect. But then again, neither were the decisions that used to slow us down.

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