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Miracle or Money Pit? Avoiding Tragic Product Development Plotlines

Throughout the history of our human experience, tales of adventure and intrigue have fueled the imagination and propelled us to action.  To this day, stories remain one of the most effective methods for learning and improvement.  They remind us that there are fundamental patterns of actions and outcomes at work, determining the odds of success or failure.  The challenge of new product development is simply one more chapter in an expanding narrative text, as we push to achieve more.

As within the stories we tell, the most common patterns of success and failure can be boiled down into a core set of product development archetypes.  While seasoned product development teams will no doubt recognize these scenarios, the devil is still firmly embedded in the details.

CLASSIC EXAMPLES OF PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT STORY ARCHETYPES

PD Story Archetype #1.  Miracle – Heroic, Coordinated Team Collaborations

 

One of the most stirring underdog stories in recent memory, Miracle chronicles the improbable victory of the U.S. hockey team’s gold-medal victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Olympic Games.  This one has it all:

  • Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) as the tough, capable, and inspiring leader
  • A team cobbled together from a pool of talented individual contributors
  • The power of a shared goal and importance of subordinating ego and individual goals
  • Agile development cycles where feedback, learning, and repetition bake best practices into the evolving experience curve
  • Shared experience as a foundation for a coordinated collaborative effort
  • A deep appreciation for the impact of seamless handoffs at the right place in time

While this is by no means an exhaustive list of Miracle’s lessons, these points signal some of the essential ingredients in a universal tale of what leaders need to put in place in order to unleash the full power of a heroic and coordinated team collaboration aimed at achieving a gold medal, a successful new product launch, or another type of superordinate goal.

PD Story Archetype #2.  Frankenstein – Tragically Uncoordinated Contributions

 

One of the earliest glimpses into how science and technology can break bad in the hands of an evil genius, this tragic allegory showcases the futility of hoping for coordinated collaboration when incompatible pieces are stitched together into a lumbering mess.

In this second story archetype, disparate body parts assembled by Dr. Frankenstein into a shambling monstrosity graphically represent situations in which product development leaders lack an integrated vision for the entire product lifecycle. They may try in vain to breathe life into their projects, stitching lifeless, incompatible, and uncoordinated work efforts together in a patchwork quilt of product development gone bad.  The result is a mess of touchpoints signaling they’re headed in the wrong direction, pursuing a tragic product development plotline that exhibits the following warning signs:

  • A body (product development project) cobbled together from a set of lifeless parts (tasks performed by contributors) insufficiently motivated to care about achieving a coordinated and collaborative outcome
  • The futility of leaders trying to artificially infuse life, energy, compatibility, and coordination into the disparate pieces they’ve assembled—individuals, teams, partners—in a retroactive, after-the-fact manner
  • Disparate pieces, assembled in a piecemeal manner, means contributors bring no shared experience curve to the table
  • The lack of seamless handoffs and resulting series of miscues, incompatible work outcomes, delays and other timing errors, and other deadly dropped batons that impede progress toward market launch

Vigilant attention to these valuable alerts will help us determine whether we are straying off course and spiraling into the swirling vortex of costly project delays, timing miscues, and incompatible and incomplete work outcomes.

PD Story Archetype #3.  The Money Pit – Jumping in Headfirst and the Tragedies of Poor Planning and Sunk Costs

 

This plotline is a common occurrence for new entrepreneurs and others lacking sufficient development experience.  Here the most obvious danger is jumping in headfirst without sufficient due diligence, with home ownership and renovation a rich domain to mine for real-world examples of the tragic dynamics that product developers would do well to avoid.

The lesson of our third story archetype:  Don’t fall prey to the fast and facile novice-level mistake of jumping into a project headfirst and too quickly, or you’ll pay for it in the end.  Instead, developing a systematic method of looking before you leap is a pathway to avoiding the tragedy of poor planning and sunk costs.  Some signs that your product development is headed down this route:

  • Improperly vetted project partners, contractors decidedly not ‘in-the-know’
  • Absence of an overall project plan, using haphazard partners with no firm timetable, no task roadmap, and inexpert cost estimates tied to loosely-specified job requirements
  • Clumsy, non-agile development where lack of feedback and learning couple with repetitive mistakes, coalescing into an increasingly dysfunctional process
  • Lack of shared experience means no solid foundation for achieving a coordinated collaborative effort, setting the table for a tragic and expensive outcome
  • Proliferating sunk cost dynamics, with good money chasing bad

The tragic lessons we can learn from The Money Pit are a helpful reminder of the signs that our product development process may be straying in an ill-fated direction. This product development plotline is one plagued by unexpected project delays, spiraling sunk cost follies, timing miscues, and mismatched and incomplete work outcomes.

PD Story Archetype #4.  Titanic – Tragic Consequences From Overlooked Signals

 

Here, we highlight the perils of not paying sufficient attention to warning signs that your product development effort may be heading toward danger.  Titanic is a prime example of how best intentions, careful planning, firm financial support, and a solid foundation of knowledge and experience will not be sufficient to ward off imminent disaster if you and your product development team fail to detect and respond to signals alerting you to danger. Indicators that a Titanic plotline is unfolding:

  • Leaders who are well-intentioned but overconfident, relying on their experience to make expert judgments based on conventional wisdom to respond to events outside of normal operating conditions
  • ‘Outlier’ phenomena which do not readily fit into a standard worldview are often ignored, setting the table for looming tragedy
  • Ego, over-reliance on expertise, prior experience, a shared experience curve, and a superordinate goal comingle and blind us to signs that things are not what they appear to be, and our actions (or inactions) may inadvertently steer us in the wrong direction
  • While novices are more likely to see and question unfamiliar signals— the outliers— their lack of domain-based knowledge and experiences makes them ill-equipped to act upon these signals

Titanic sends a clear message to even the most seasoned product development professionals and teams: Expertise, experience, planning, financial backing, and best intentions can combine to fuel a perfect storm where attention is focused elsewhere. When caught in this storm, it becomes easy to overlook the warning signs pinging on the radar as you proceed full-speed-ahead along a toxic product development plotline.

CONCLUSIONS

 

Storytelling is a proven method for learning and continuous improvement, in product development as in all walks of life.  And story archetypes are powerful tools for distilling important lessons about the predictable patterns of actions and outcomes that invariably weave in and out of our lives, forming familiar plotlines for failure and pathways to success.

Product development provides a rich example of our push to make continuous improvements in our everyday lives.  It’s no surprise that we look to stories like Miracle for guidance and inspiration, as we work together to plan and execute our heroic, coordinated team collaborations.  And it makes sense to consult cautionary tales like Frankenstein, The Money Pit, and Titanic for lessons on how to avoid those tragic trajectories and perilous plotlines.  The story archetype approach offers something for everyone looking to achieving greater success in their product development efforts – all we have to do is keep sharing our stories.

For more guidance on recognizing bad development processes before they spell disaster for your new product, download our white paper Identifying and Fixing a Failing Product Development Process now!

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