A Clear Beginning

Volume 7 Letter 2

As “a vacant mind invites dangerous inmates”1 an absent vision and strategy invites dangerous outcomes. Remember, that in order to see the end one must have a clear beginning.2 Here is a story about someone who started with a clear beginning which drove a successful product development strategy.

Video phones came out in the early 1990’s and the technology was….well great; you could see who you were talking to. The trouble with video conferencing wasn’t the video quality it was the audio, which was so bad it made a string and two tin cans sound like advanced technology. The equipment was finicky – if two people spoke at once, one got cut off; move a speaker and you’d get squealing feedback. In short, the audio technology needed improvement.

Brian Hinman and Jeff Rodman set out to fix this problem. The prototype, called Gumby, (because it looked like the clay cartoon character of the same name) was a flop. It was difficult to use and the sound quality was poor. To get on track one of the owners arranged to see potential customers to obtain their input. These meetings proved valuable as they learned the device needed to be simple to use, it had to differentiate between a voice and other extraneous noises and some customers needed a recording feature. They also discovered that the speaker had to sit in the middle of the room to facilitate conversation and why the unit needed a key pad on the device itself rather than being connected to a phone in another part of the room.

After these meetings they formulated three guiding objectives for their project which would eventually become the SoundStation:

  • Superb audio quality: the product would have full duplex capability allowing more than one person to speak at a time and still be understood.
  • Easy to use – the product would have no confusing buttons
  • First class – it needed to look like a device that belonged in a conference room.

Realizing that business people don’t have time to get trained on conferencing equipment the device was designed to be easier to use than an office phone. Then, to make the product look like it belonged in a conference room they anteed up for special paints that made it look and feel like it was made of titanium. It not only had to work well, it had to sit in a conference room and look like a status symbol! Finally, the audio quality and true duplex sound capability proved to be a challenge but the engineering team was able to resolve that problem. Convincing the market that the SoundStation was truly a superior product is material for another newsletter but today this product dominates the conference telecom market around the world.

Authors Lynn and Reilly3 found that in products that later became blockbusters 80% of the time the team had set clear guiding objectives for the new product. Conversely in products that were deemed failures, less than 25% had set clear objectives. For sure these guiding objectives are not a response to every customer whim but in our story above they provided a criteria for capturing ideas that could contribute to the product’s success. What these objectives should answer are:

  • What is the product’s reason for being?
  • What level of excellence must the main benefit deliver?
  • What features must be present?
  • How will this differ from the competition – what makes it better?
  • Are the differences meaningful to the target market?
  • Who is the target market, how big is it?
  • Are there schedule constraints – trade shows, Christmas etc.?

Developing and bringing new products to market is not an exact science – there is no guarantee of success. What we can do is “rig the game” and increase the chances of success. What professors Lynn and Reilly teach us is that by setting clear guiding objectives the chances of success rises dramatically.

It sounds so simple, yet it’s so seldom done. Set clear guiding objectives for new products, for businesses, for business units etc. and up your chances of success. Remember – in order to see the end one must have a clear beginning.

1. Nicholas Hilliard
2. Blockbusters: Five Keys to Developing Great New Products, Gary Lynn and Richard Reilly Harper Business 2002

3. For the full story on SoundStation see “Blockbusters” (above) PP57 -97

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