This month a new book hit the market “Flexible Product Development, Building Agility for Changing Markets” by Preston Smith. Some of you might remember him from “Developing Products in Half the Time” which he co-authored with Donald Reinertsen in 1991. That was a seminal work in the time-to-market field. His new book could be another big step in thinking for product developers.
I probably should say at this point that I reviewed several chapters for Preston while he was writing the book. I am mentioned at the end of the book with the others that helped out. The small contributions I made show up mostly in the sections on customer needs and risk management. Even so, any bias you may detect here has more to do with how I see product development rather than any loyalty to the book.
IN A NUTSHELL
To oversimplify, Preston takes concepts from Agile software development, translates them, and where necessary adapts them, for people developing other things besides software. Hence, many of the concepts aren’t new, but will be new to much of the audience. At it’s core the material revolves around how to deal with change in a development project. It is that familiar struggle — setting the plan and requirements and working to them versus changing things late in the process. Scope creep and changes late in a project can blow costs and schedule off the planet. On the other hand, when the world takes a sharp turn on you, proceeding as planned can make the entire effort futile.
This book is about working so you can make changes later in a development project without disrupting the work or costs. It’s about knowing when to preserve flexibility, how to preserve it, and when you must make hard decisions. For me all this boils down to risk management, particularly trading off the risks on either side of these decisions. An interesting part of this book is that Preston goes beyond the typical risk analysis to discuss what to do about the unknown risks or the “unknown, unknowns.” (Now who made that phrase famous a couple of years ago? Never mind.)
Preston thinks bringing flexibility to the product development process is increasingly important today. First, is due to an accelerating and increasingly chaotic world. Read that as shorter timelines, rapidly advancing technology, global competition and more knowledgeable customers (they use the internet). Second, is because current management processes reward rigidity, which then runs organizations into the buzz saw of his first reason.
To me this exposes an open secret known to many who have labored under rigid development processes in the past or still do. That is, smart developers circumvent their company process when it becomes an obstacle rather than a support. These troublemakers know you can’t steam ahead when a sudden change in the marketplace or regulatory environment, or competition just pushed an iceberg in front of you. They know that salvation will come from reworking the plan, rather than working the plan.
If Flexible Product Development helps codify that common sense for more general use Preston will have helped product developers take another big step forward.
It is an easy read and I like that he ends each chapter with a summary list of the key takeaway points to remember.