Building A World Class Product Development Team

By Ryan Gray

Product Development – it’s sexy, it’s cool, everybody wants to be involved with it. It is where new ideas are tested, new revenue streams are defined, and businesses turn around. But as an r&d manager or NPD director, what does it really take to build a world-class product development team?

Success in product development requires a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different capabilities. It is more than just a vision, it is more than just solid engineering. It is more than experimentation and prototypes. It is coordination, planning, risk analysis, careful budgeting, management, and communication.

Building a successful NPD department is similar to building a great product development company. First, one must identify the mission of the group. Where does the team’s responsibility start and stop? For example, does the NPD group / r&d department define the customer needs and research user behaviors? Or is that a marketing / sales function? Does the product development company optimize supply chains, or is that a function of the procurement and sourcing group? There is no ‘wrong approach’, but a definition of the boundaries is critical. If the entire organization is not crystal clear about which team is responsible for what, the result will be confrontation, bruised egos, and frequent re-directing.

As an example, let’s look assume that the product development team is defined as follows: It takes input from sales and marketing about what the customers need. The development team uses that as a starting point to develop a solution AND validate the input from marketing / sales. The development team then must produce an output that can be pulled into manufacturing and procurement, without surprises. This is a common definition of boundaries for internal NPD groups in mid-sized businesses. This is also a pretty good summary of what businesses are looking for when they consider hiring an outside product development company.

Using the definition above for the development team’s mission. To be successful, the development team is going to need:

  • A visionary that understands the need and use-case, but that also identifies creative ways to solve the problem. For internal teams, this may be a program manager that is able to get buy-in from leadership on specific projects. For a product development company, this may be a client manager that is expert in helping client companies to understand the development approach and the related risks.
  • A project manager that is able to define and own project scopes. The individual is able to articulate the project, and take responsibility for project budgets, timelines, etc. Other experts may focus on industrial design, design for manufacture, regulatory compliance, etc.
  • Subject matter experts as appropriate for the product (such as mechanical engineers, firmware developers, electronics engineers, etc). These are the people doing the heavy lifting of development. They are designing, building, and learning to achieve the project scope.

Most development teams will be focusing on multiple projects in parallel. In the case of a product development company, the time will be working in multiple industries at the same time as well. Switching between projects (context switching) can make things get inefficient quickly. To mitigate this, leadership needs to pay close attention to which team members are well suited to working on many small development projects, and who does better on one large project. If managed properly, development efficiency can be quite high.

What about recruiting? What types of people are most effective in product development teams? We have found that the individual that makes a very strong application or support engineer does not often enjoy the pace and risk associated with development work. As one may expect, designers and engineers that are strong in rapid development often do not excel in sustaining engineering roles. Designers and engineers that gravitate towards building and testing, as opposed to deep analysis seem to be happiest in product development roles. That being said, analytical and detailed work is very important to successful development. But for development to progress at the pace often required in NPD groups, a mix of the two approaches is required.




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