In the white heat of the product development cycle there is always the potential for chaos.
And high tech businesses, particularly those that are in the process of scaling up, can be prone to this more than most.
The risk of chaos in high tech product development
Working in nascent or cutting-edge technologies, delivering ground-breaking innovation is fraught with the risk of delay and derailment.
In this environment multiple projects with multiple dependencies may be competing for attention, some grinding to a halt and others spiralling out of control as more requirements are added. Specifications may be forced to change as unexpected problems are encountered. Resources are pulled in all directions, and a culture of blame may develop as timelines slip and things go wrong. In the end the finished product may not deliver against customer expectation and may fail in the marketplace altogether.
Chaos in the product development cycle can have serious consequences for your business - missed deadlines, bug-ridden software, escalating costs and frustrated clients. It could impact on productivity, customer satisfaction and the sanity of your team. Ultimately, it will make your business less profitable.
The causes of disorder
“In all chaos, there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order"
Well, it’s all right for Jung, he wasn’t battling to deliver technology projects with limited resources against tight deadlines.
But in one sense an element of chaos in your process may simply be a function of your success.
The challenge of scaling up
As businesses grow and ever more ambitious products are conceived and delivered, you may start dealing with a larger number of teams both internally and externally. You could be managing relationships with third party suppliers anywhere in the world, delivering individual elements of increasingly complex projects to tight deadlines.
In sprawling projects like this, documents proliferate, process becomes more important and yet more onerous. Multiple stakeholders may be required to contribute to and approve each stage of documentation, but your business infrastructure may make version and gate control difficult to monitor and enforce.
Siloed thinking; losing sight of good governance
Against the scale of the challenge you may begin to lose sight of best practice in communications, governance and compliance.
The dangers of teams working in silos can increase, while the stakes get higher. For example, a whole product release plan might be threatened if the regulatory requirements of a single target market have not been fully captured and shared during the design phase. A software and hardware team working in isolation from each other may develop incompatible solutions, wasting huge amounts of time and money in the process.
The curse of perfectionism
Chaos in a product development process may also be driven by a desire to deliver a grand vision at the expense of efficiency.
Projects may be derailed as much by the scale of your ambition as technical failings on your part. Your team’s relentless drive towards perfection and refinement, or a desire to over deliver, can result in setbacks and delays that are entirely avoidable. In a smaller startup where teams are compact and clients are kept close, delivering close to the wire and pulling off spectacular turnarounds can seem impressive. But it can also project disorganisation and breed distrust if the pattern is constantly repeated.
That is not to say you shouldn’t constantly aim to surprise and delight through your creativity, but the moment for pyrotechnics and wild ideas is at the beginning of the process, not when you are up against a release deadline. As the author Alan Cohen points out in his 11 Deadly Sins of Product Development, by the time you are involved in the final product delivery sequence your rigour and planning should have been such that there won’t be many surprises left.
The point is, a growing business needs to be disciplined in its creative process and problem solving to maximise efficiencies and profitability.
Taming the chaos
The good news is that all of these chaotic product management scenarios can be mitigated or avoided through the adoption of best practice in every part of the development cycle.
From the outset good communication between stakeholders is essential and the adoption of PRINCE2 methodology can ensure that rigour and transparency is carried over into the delivery process.
Once a market opportunity has been clearly identified and the business case made, the product definition and ideation process can begin. When R&D is complete and proof of concept is accepted the required feature set of the product should be specified. A Product Manager should order those requirements into a hierarchy of desirability from essential to ‘nice to have’. The various iterations of documentation at this stage should focus on removing ambiguity and providing design detail. Teams should be allowed to contribute to and sign off on relevant documentation, ensuring full commercial and technical approval before each part of a build continues.
Clarity, order and precision with a lean DMS
A lean document management system (DMS) can provide the rigour for just this kind of sustainable product development. Crucially, it will also allow for the free flow of ideas which is the lifeblood of innovation.
A DMS can impose standardised folder structures, file naming convention and enforce document approval processes; all elements that will ensure a final product will meet its specifications and answer its business case. A central control mechanism can see the end of document anarchy and a focus on good governance; it can facilitate secure collaboration between internal teams, as well as external designers and developers.
Phased gate control will mean that all requirements are captured and acted upon at each stage of a build, so there are no omissions or surprises later on. Equally a graphical business process visualisation will make it easier to monitor that process and pick up on potential issues.
Aspects of the creative and development process will always be prone to chaos. But investing in the best document management system can bring order and structure to the creative piece, as well as discipline and rigour to the delivery of its end product.