David Dobson

Who should drive product development?

Competing interests

Getting the process, activities and priorities of a product development organization right is one of the most important things a company can do.  The cost and time it takes to bring a product to market necessitates the involvement, at one time or another, of a lot of people and most departments in a company.  Seeing that broad participation is required and that many departments have a very personal stake in the success of their company’s products, who should lead this critical effort?  Who has the greatest contribution to make in the planning and execution of a product development program?

After spending many years both on the corporate and consulting sides of the equation and having watched the battles that take place to gain control of the product development agenda, I thought I’d put together a few notes. The following is a primer that attempts to illustrate the peculiar characteristics of the many players that make a contribution to a company’s products. After reading the descriptions below, I’ll let you decide who should lead product development.

DISCLAIMER  – Stereotypes are not always ill informed and negative.  Sometimes they have an element of truth to them. So that I don’t single out and offend any one group within a company, I’ve chosen to offend everyone equally  ;-). So let’s survey a few key roles that have a say in determining which products get developed and which ones don’t.

The Executive:
The end goal of the executive team is business growth and peer recognition.  Usually these folks are taller, a little better looking than the rest of us… and they wear really nice watches.  The C-Suite is populated with those who have understood organizational behaviour at a deep level and have managed to work in and through the system to get results.  To these people, products are like players on a chess board.  There isn’t a great interest in the details of how something was made; what they really want is to win and see a positive number in the bottom right hand corner of the spreadsheet (and a big bonus at the end of the year).

You can count on the fact that the guys with the money want a significant return on their investment.  It doesn’t matter to them what the product does, how it works or if it makes you feel good about yourself.  These are simple, single minded folk – show them a good business plan and ROI, and you’ve won their support. 

The team in marketing wants all new products to achieve an elevated level of brand recognition, awareness and market share (whatever that means).  It’s the idea and appearance of success that this group values and as a nice-to-have, the product sold in large numbers each year.  Marketers are master story tellers.  If they do their job right, they can take a dog of a product and spin it into a compelling ‘must have’.

These are the ones who, in the past, had an unhealthy obsession with Lego, ‘Meccano’, Fischertechnik and other ‘nerd toys’.  These were the ones who would rather spend their Friday nights tinkering with a machine than enjoying a fine novel or ‘getting down’ at the school dance. The engineer is obsessed with the technical aspects of a product.  They think that the way a product is designed and built is the sole factor in determining its commercial success.  Let these guys run the show, and you’ll end up with a well-made and very expensive cyborg, every time.

Product Managers:
Product Managers are relative newcomers to the scene.  These hybrid creatures have a mixed pedigree.  They are part marketer, wannabee engineer, arm chair designer and amateur financial analyst.  The end product to these mysterious blenders of business and design is not the end product itself but the product requirements document.  To them it’s all about a well written brief that seeks to capture a market need – the sacred and sometimes hard to interpret letter that must be revered and obeyed.

Industrial Designers (disclosure – these are my peeps):
Designers are the ones who analyze and try to understand the intangible characteristics of a product.  Things like usability and user experience are high on their hierarchy of priorities.   They are the cultural interpreters, the ones who translate and synthesize the technical into something understandable and usable.  IDs often stand out in the office due to their love of the visual, their embrace of the unusual, and its impact on their choice of clothing.

Ph.D’s  (the ‘Research’ team):
The folks with doctorates in biology, chemistry, and physics are a strange and often very proud lot.  Their love and knowledge of science sometimes gets the best of them.  When they look at the products they help create, all they see are the scientific elements at the core of the product.  Engineering and design are mere necessities practiced by lower beings, mere laborers brought in to slave through the mundane details and necessary grunt work.

People from Manufacturing are the practical ones.  These folk are a tough lot.  The ones tasked with taking an often incomplete design and slogging through the details of how a product should really be made.  ‘Soft’ issues like end-user delight and scientific excellence are all interesting but not necessary for a product to be successful.  These graduates of Industrial Engineering and other technical programs only care about, and measure success by, their ability to ‘get the darn thing out on time’!

The folks in Quality (usually small in number, which often triggers a certain defence mechanism in the brain) have a fetish for control and perfection.  Because they are the ‘keepers’ and enforcers of standards and other forms of crowd control, they tend to see the products they police as children, needing their constant guidance, without which they will become delinquents, headed for a life of shame and embarrassment (i.e. product recall).

Are all sales people former jocks who found out that their athletic abilities have a stale date? Why would the folks in Sales care about good engineering, quality, or efficacy?  All they care about is, “Will the crazy thing sell?  Can I meet my quota before I get canned? Will I get my commission check?  Will I get to go to Vegas for the annual sales meeting?”.

So there you have it.  These are the folks who individually and collectively have a say in what product should be developed.  Given the home truths expressed above, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on who should set the agenda and lead product development.

Image: © Can Stock Photo / Sergieiev

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