Effective Use of Silver Bullets in New Product Development: Ready, Aim, Fire, Repeat and Refine

    By: Mark A Hart, NPDP on Nov 16, 2012

    Silver bullets are desirable in new product development environments but many leaders and individual contributors do not know how to use them.

    Silver Bullet: Something that instantly solves a long-standing problem

    One of the most famous essays on Silver Bullets and software development was written by Frederick P. Brooks, the author of the book The Mythical Man-Month. In 1986, he predicted that "no single software engineering development will produce an order-of-magnitude improvement in programming productivity within ten years."

    Not a talisman or amulet

    Silver bullets are not intended to be used as a talisman or an amulet. Silver bullets do not bring good fortune to those in proximity. A silver bullet is not a passive remedy.

    Directions for using Silver Bullets

    To produce the intended results, one must do more than possess silver bullets. Success requires more than reading about silver bullets.

    Silver bullets should come with directions. In a simplified format, the directions are:

    1. Ready
    2. Aim
    3. Fire
    4. Repeat and refine

    In an NPD context, the "Ready" step includes the appropriate leadership and talent. It requires the effective communication of mission intent. 

    The "Aim" step requires wisdom. A silver bullet analogy requires that one eliminate the factors that inhibit success. The use of a silver bullet implies that problems are eliminated without destroying success factors. One must have the wisdom to aim at the appropriate items.

    Once the ready and aim pre-requisites have been achieved, one fires. In an NPD context, this is execution. To achieve success, a silver bullet plan must be implemented. 

    Success requires repetition and refinement. A new product development environment is a complex adaptive system. The system evolves. Previously identified threats and emerging threats must be eliminated for continued success.

    Skunk Works® and Silver Bullets

    The best results are obtained when silver bullets are used by skilled, vigilant practitioners to accentuate the positive factors and eliminate the negative factors in their projects.

    Silver bullets have been used in Skunk Works projects to remove impediments for the individual contributors, the team, and the development network.

    In 1943, Clarence "Kelly" L. Johnson created a Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin. According to Wikipedia, his team designed and built the XP-80 Shooting Star jet fighter in only 143 days, seven less than was required. Success factors included the unique abilities of Kelly Johnson plus the collaboration of a proficient group of individuals with a high degree of autonomy with Schwerpunkt - a concept that provided focus, direction, an actionable guidance to the operation. Silver bullets were employed to minimize distractions and bureaucracy. They were used to remove factors that "stifled innovation and hindered progress."  Kelly's 14 rules included:

    • Use a small number of good people (10% to 25% compared to the so-called normal systems)
    • There must be a minimum number of reports required, but important work must be recorded thoroughly.
    • The contractor must be delegated and must assume more than normal responsibility to get good vendor bids for subcontract on the project. Commercial bid procedures are very often better than military ones.
    • The contractor must be delegated the authority to test his final product in flight. He can and must test it in the initial stages. If he doesn't, he rapidly loses his competency to design other vehicles.
    • There must be mutual trust between the military project organization and the contractor, the very close cooperation and liaison on a day-to-day basis. This cuts down misunderstanding and correspondence to an absolute minimum. 
    • Because only a few people will be used in engineering and most other areas, ways must be provided to reward good performance by pay not based on the number of personnel supervised.

    Silver Bullets in New Product Development Networks

    Silver Bullets enable new product development networks to do better with less. In his new book, The Laws of Subtraction, Matthew E. May defines subtraction:

    Subtraction: the art of removing anything excessive, confusing, wasteful, unnatural, hazardous, hard to use, or ugly . . . or the discipline to refrain from adding it in the first place.

    May's insights on subtraction have much in common with Silver Bullets. There is overlap with Lean Startup principles.

    Now that you know the "ready, aim, fire, repeat and refine" directions for using Silver Bullets, how will you use them in your next new product development effort?

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