A question was recently posted on a LinkedIn group page: “You cannot dictate invention. Yet product development professionals must give timeframes to completion. How do you handle this topic?”
This is a great question. I have always approached this from two different angles. The first is through the portfolio management process. This is the ongoing process of assessing existing projects and considering new opportunities and regularly creating a prioritized list of projects, both active and ones for which resources will be allocated when available. The next step is to create a new product roadmap for typically a 3-5 year window, considering the definition (or lack of!) and resources available. Some of those new products will be active projects where you can see the completion dates more clearly. Others on that roadmap will be projects that have not yet been started, and maybe not even fully defined. In my opinion, this is a necessary exercise to help an organization focus resources on projects that are of highest value and attempt to visualize when specific new products might come to market.
The second aspect is related to the phase gate development process. In my preferred process, Phase 1 is a scouting phase where the definition and business model is developed, and Phase 2 is the concept phase. In a project that requires some degree of invention, this is the phase where that would be done, and would typically require the completion of an integrated proof-of-concept prototype. Typically, only at the conclusion of this phase and before development really starts, would the project completion date be set.
Of course, all of this requires senior management commitment, engagement in and an understanding of the NPD processes. That is where it can break down. If during the portfolio planning process, senior management considers the dates (maybe by quarter and year) in the medium to long term product roadmaps as firm commitments, well, then there will be problems. That is especially true if product definition is not finalized, or when it is finalized there is significant unforeseeable uncertainty associated with the project.
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