10 Years – 10 Biggest Mistakes – Part 3

In tribute to our 10 year anniversary and our 100th client, we’re posting our top 10 best and most colorful screw ups. The entire list of 10 mistakes is a bit long, so we broke it into four postings. This is the third part of this short series.

  1. Technology Development vs. Product Development – We’ve seen this issue arise more often when working with startups and younger companies, but not exclusively. It has to do with recognizing the differences between technology development and product development. Technology development should always precede product development.

    Tech development is centered on fully understanding how the base technology is going to respond in both the normal and abnormal conditions. This might include the development of algorithms and sensitivity studies, looking at interference effects and confounding factors, error terms, etc.

    Product development is taking the fully understood technology and packaging it in a particular form. Of course, there are shades of grey where they overlap, but the concepts are different.

    The problems start when you try to initiate the product development process before you’ve finished with the technology. Many startups make this mistake. They have looked at the normal range of performance parameters, but have not really studied how the technology will perform over an expected range of operating conditions, much less the extreme conditions with a host of error terms.

    Don’t fall into this trap. Fully develop and understand the technology before you start the product.

  2. Stay objective – If there ever was an old adage to follow, this is it. Stay objective and use stage gates with formal charters, budgets and schedules to move from one gate to another. Don’t fall in love with ‘your baby’. It takes passion to manage your product / business, but it also takes a clear head.

    There are usually two types of risk in a new product development project: technical risk and business risk. We use an internal process that manages both in parallel, with a chartered stage gate process. Charters are internal agreements we use for each development step on both the technology side and the business side. The charter includes milestones, schedules and cost limits. This is a formal process attended by upper management…and it can be bloody.

    If you’re not ready or you did not meet your charter requirements, don’t expect charity. If this sounds harsh, it’s only because we learned the hard way how deep of a hole you can dig for yourself if you don’t force yourself to stay objective.

  3. Spec creep – It’s a term that we’ve all most likely heard and used…small incremental changes to the specification – surprise additions to your original product spec and feature set. They come from both outside the design team (e.g., sales and marketing) and inside the design team.

    Are they a good thing? Depends on your perspective.

    Are they necessary? Sometimes, but probably not as often as the sales folks want you to think.

    They can kill your projected costs and schedule. The PM needs to be on guard and protective of the design and functional specifications that form the foundation for the product. There is a waterfall effect as the product and project matures. Any changes / specification additions made halfway through a project need to be reconciled backward up the waterfall, as well as from that point forward.

    It can make a mess out of your design documentation and traceability. For all you new PM’s, develop your ‘required’ specifications in one document, as well as your ‘nice to haves’ in another. Get official approval / buy-in and then be ready to go to war. Don’t blink, budge or waver in the slightest. Tell the sales manager he/she can have their added feature as part of a post-launch upgrade kit. If a post-launch upgrade is unacceptable, be prepared to explain, in detail, the budget and schedule impact and risk of the spec changes so that all parties can make an informed decision.

Remember, this is just the third part of a four-part series. Check back later for more on the topic.

Brian Lipford


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