Building new product – My experiences (Part IV – Planning Phase)

This blog post is continuation of my earlier blogs related to ‘New Product Development – My Experiences’. Next in the series, i would talk about actual ‘Product Development’ and ‘Essential traits of PM for success of NPD’.

Product planning phase is very critical phase in the entire product development for two simple reasons

  1. Business plan is evolved to derive more precise details about development cost, timeline etc. So Product Manager could essentially validate the financial viability of developing new product once again in this phase
  2. Program Manager drafts a detailed and elaborate development plan to ensure that the product is built on time with required specification and within the budgeted cost.

Freeze product specifications

First and foremost task in ‘Product planning’ phase is to freeze the list of features that would constitute new product. PRD contains an exhaustive list of requirements. Considering TTM (Time to Market) and constraints of engineering resources, not all the features would make it to the final list. Even though PRD might provide some details on what features could be dropped for the 1st release by clearly marking the priority for each of the features, the task is not as simple as it might sound. It involves lots of tough decisions, negotiations, trade-offs. In case of B2B products, it takes time to stabilize and peak the revenues. So more often quicker TTM would be preferable, so trade-off need not necessarily be feature1 vs feature2 but also between later TTM (with feature1/feature2) vs early TTM (without feature1/feature2). The defining attributes would also provide some directions for trade-offs. For instance if the defining attributes is ease of use and reliability, then Product Manager cannot afford to miss the features that contribute to those defining factors. Instead Product Manager could compromise on other aspects like higher performance in 1st release and focus on the same in subsequent release. The final list of features has to be ultimately approved by the Product Manager and he has to be sure that the frozen list of features along with the defining attributes would provide compelling reasons for customers to buy the product. Negotiations or persuasion skills are the need of the hour for the Product Manager to ensure that the right set of features makes it to the final list.

Evolve the business plan

Program Manager has to evolve the business plan to provide granular information on the following critical items drafted at a high level in the business plan:

  • What is the total cost incurred to develop new product(s)?
  • Detailed product development plans and various dependencies
  • What is the release date for the new product?
    • In case of multiple products, the focus should purely be on the 1st product to be developed
    • In case of multiple products, the focus should be predominantly on how either existing or new platform will be leveraged to build the subsequent product(s) with lesser cost and quicker TTM

While drafting business plan, we would be only deriving a high level ballpark estimate (typically a birds view) for the above items and only during product planning phase Program Manager will outline detailed plans and alert if there is any major deviations from the business plan. For instance if the timeline or the project cost or the total resources estimated during product planning widely varies from the business plan. Moreover the objective of business plan is to ensure that the new product development is viable financially and very less would have been discussed about details of actual product development. So during business review we don’t involve too many stake holders who do not directly contribute to the estimation of product development but will play a key role in areas such as documentation, compliance, manufacturing and supply chain etc.

Meticulous planning of new product development

During planning phase, program manager has to involve all the stake holders and draft a detailed plan not only for the development of the product but also for other allied activities such as documentation, compliance, royalty, intellectual property (if any), supply chain, vendor finalization etc. The Program Manager has to derive a meticulous plan for the development of the product, so any deviations or surprises could be caught much earlier in the product development cycle. Another critical aspect of planning phase is to identify all possible risks (budgeting, vendor management, product performance etc) and assumptions. Program Manager has to outline the time frame to eliminate or mitigate the risks and validate assumptions, preferably the time frame has to be pretty early in the product development cycle so in the event of any major surprises there will be sufficient to time to implement mitigation plans.

Vendor finalization and some of the other activities covered under product planning might take longer duration, so those activities need not essentially start after PRD completion. It can be a parallel activity along with PRD preparation but entire plan for those activities would be frozen and derived post the completion of PRD during product planning phase.

Product feasibility validation

I spoke about ‘RISKS’ in earlier section under ‘Meticulous planning of new product development’, the biggest risk is the inability to build the product as envisioned initially. In such case, Product Manager has to ruthlessly kill the product instead of selling the product that does not meet the customer requirements. Here I am only focusing on how quickly Product Manager could decide to KILL the product without consuming too many resources in case of inability to build product as conceived. During ideation process Product Manager will validate whether the product to be built can meet the customer requirements and sizable amount of customers would buy the product to make sufficient margins. But Product Manager also needs to evaluate whether the development team could built the product as conceived initially. During business review, development team will do high-level feasibility analysis and provide some amount of confidence that product could be built as envisioned or conceptualized. However product development is invariably prone to surprises and several products were killed or abandoned before the launch because of the inability to develop the product as envisioned and it happens mostly in case of adapting new technology or building new product distinct from the traditional competencies of the organization. In such cases chances of failure is high, but what I am insisting here is that the Program Manager need to draft plans to validate the feasibility or ability to build the product as quickly as possible and abandon such product before burning too much money. Suppose if AIRBUS is conceptualizing to build a plane that can travel longer, it would not be wise for the development team to assert that they will never knew how long can the flight fly non-stop until it is completely built, probably there would be some simulations tools that can help make some decision even before the complete product is built. Program Manager along with the development team need to figure out such methodology so the amount of money that needs to be burnt will be very minimal.

Business review to justify product development

Since we would have done a detailed blue print for the product development during this phase, it would be wise to perform a business review once again to ensure that the product development is justifiable. During the business review Program Manager has to outline possible risks, potential delays, development cost (inclusive of engineers, HW, SW etc required to develop new product), release dates and timelines for early customer trials. Intermediate milestone dates to validate the progress of the product and to conduct intermediate demos to internal stakeholders would also be listed during the review.

Final Word: ‘Well planned is half done’, Program Manager should etch a plan that captures lots of minor details diminishing surprises during the course of product development and thereby triggering flawless execution of new product development without major deviations.

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