Book Review: Blockbusters: The Five Keys to Developing Great New Products

    By: Beebe Nelson on Sep 17, 2013

    Book Review: Blockbusters: The Five Keys to Developing Great New ProductsBLockBusters

     By:Gary S. Lynn, Ph.D and Richard R. Reilly, Ph.D. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2002. 235 pages.      

    The title Blockbusters does not advertise the more widely applicable great advice found in Gary Lynn and Richard Reilly's book, which is more aptly described in the byline, “the five keys to developing great new products.” The best practices outlined in this short, easy-to-read series of studies go right to the heart of success in new product and service development. It was written as an examination of over 700 new product development projects and launches, extrapolating common success factors on the best of these and also reasons for failures on the worst.

    Any product, project, or portfolio manager, as well as functional representatives on cross-functional teams, surely will discover that the findings outlined in the authors' studies of these 700 or more projects are well worth examining in detail. The book is very easy to read, but the material is profound; after finishing the book, one is left with the uneasy feeling that it should not be as simple and straightforward as the authors suggest to achieve success in developing and launching successful products and services, blockbuster or otherwise. But having had the privilege to read some of the early galleys before the book was published, I am as convinced now as when I first read the material that the conclusions and observations are right on.

    Witness several of the many examples of success outlined in this book. Colgate Total Toothpaste became the best-selling toothpaste in its first month on the market, knocking Crest from its vaunted position after 35 years. CAT scanners allowed General Electric to dominate the medical imaging field for two decades.

    The Handspring Visor, a personal digital assistant, captured 25 percent of the U.S. market a mere month after launch. Corning's optical fiber turned the company around from a glass manufacturer to a provider of telecommunications equipment and along the way revolutionized long-distance communication.

    How did these blockbusters succeed in hitting homeruns? They did some things that others did not do, and the set of principles the authors outline can help guide companies in their quest to develop their next big market success. Professors Lynn and Reilly of the Stevens Institute of Technology have spent a decade trying to find answers to why some things work and some do not in the area of new product development. In investigating the practices of these 700+ new product teams, they discovered five key practices that seem to have a consistently positive impact on success rates. What made these five so obvious was the level to which they were present on the blockbuster teams, and their absence on the others.

    They surveyed the teams and then interviewed over 400 individuals, including project leaders, team members, and senior executives and chief executive officers (CEOs) who were involved intimately in the development and launch of those products. Some individuals were interviewed up to five separate times to clarify and to verify the facts.

    They found several statistically significant differences that differentiated the blockbuster teams from the rest:

    Commitment of Senior Management. In the blockbuster teams, the highest level of management was involved intimately and actively with virtually every aspect of the process, or they sent a clear message that they completely backed the project and then gave the team the authority it needed to proceed.

    Clear and Stable Vision. Blockbuster teams established “project pillars” very early in a product's development. These pillars were specific, immutable goals for the product that the team must deliver.

    Improvisation. Blockbuster teams did not follow a structured, linear development process to bring the idea from concept to market. Rather, they were flexible and quickly tried many ideas and iterations in the marketplace until they developed a prototype that clicked with their customers.

    Information Exchange. Blockbuster teams shared information by having what the authors called “a well-diversified communication portfolio.” They did not rely solely on formal reports and memos. They augmented their information exchange process with a variety of informal media ranging from coffee klatches to video conferencing.

    Collaboration under Pressure. Blockbuster teams were less concerned with interpersonal differences and were more focused on goals and objectives. They worked together but were not overly fixated on bonding with each other or even on insisting that everyone like each other.

    Blockbusters demonstrates each of these five key practices with a real-world new product or service example and the story behind how each was developed and commercialized.

    Of the five practices, which one do the authors feel is most critical? One of their more interesting findings is that the “80/20 Rule” does not apply. Implementing one or two of the practices is not enough. All five practices must be performed and performed well to launch a great product. The five practices fit together like interlocking pieces to a puzzle, and it was this “fit” that helped teams create blockbusters. Further, these practices generally are well within the control of the people driving the projects. The authors do not suggest, for example, that one must launch a product into a noncompetitive market or must develop technology that leapfrogs the competition—because there may not be a choice. Many times, the cards dealt are the ones that must be played.

    Lynn and Reilly assert (supported with data) that if teams ignore these five practices or perform them poorly, their chances of launching a blockbuster are only one percent. If, however, teams do all five and excel at them, chances of overall product success increase to 98 percent, and chances of launching a blockbuster product increase to 72 percent.

    The simple math projections are pretty astounding. Few people would dare to make such assertions of sure success potential. However, these authors base their confidence on the large number of projects they examined and on their objective surveys and interviews. It is hard to argue with the conclusions.

    So, given this, why would anyone reading this book not begin implementing the practices immediately? Well, for one thing, the authors found that the successes may not be very repeatable by the same companies or even by the same teams. Most companies and their cultures tend to resist change, and most will opt to make significant changes only if they can be assured of long-term, sustainable improvement. Promises of singular successes, even if highly probable, do not have as much immediate appeal as if those successes could be assured on project after project.

    In addition, it is one thing to describe, to research, and to uncover the practices that led teams to success, as the authors have done. It is quite another to plan a project that will include the success factors described in Blockbusters. Four of the five key principles are primarily stylistic changes—they relate to the manner in which people conduct themselves or think, not to more academic, documentable, and teachable “best practices” in new product development and project management. In the area of people changes versus process or practice changes, belief issues and some pretty practical implementation barriers abound.

    People resist change in general, and they really resist change when the change has to start with their own personalities. For example, although no one would argue with the proposition that a clear vision for projects is important, few organizations seem to be successful in getting people to create these visions on a consistent basis, and part of the reason relates to lack of consistent leadership and example from upper management. Further, one of the critical five elements outlined in this book is hands-on involvement by an upper-level manager in the day-to-day activities and progress of the project. That may happen a few times on a few projects, but it is not a usual practice in the management hierarchies and practices of most companies. Most executives will get involved this way in a crisis, on rare occasions, but their standard management styles and daily priorities usually will not let them “roll up their sleeves” and get this involved on an ongoing basis, even if they wanted to.

    If this all sounds like an old refrain, it is. This stuff is actually some pretty basic business blocking and tackling, but few companies recognize the criticality of these “softer” issues. Most upper-level managers and executives will tend to insist that their project problems relate to poor processes or poor execution of processes by their people rather than to their own lack of vision, leadership, and involvement. Recent articles and books on change management and on culture change in general have tried to draw peoples' attention to the importance of these factors, but most companies have not been very successful in implementing these softer changes on any consistent basis. Lynn and Reilly once again have confirmed, this time by some pretty convincing statistics, that “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

    Bill Ausura President, Product & Portfolio Professionals Instructor, Sequent Learning Networks

    Released: September 17, 2013, 11:38 am | Updated: September 17, 2013, 11:46 am
    Keywords: PDMA Blog

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