NPI: Planning In The Innovation Funnel

September 30, 2012

Agile, Project Management

Innovation FunnelAt the beginning of the innovation funnel, concept development is the most creative and exciting stage of new product development.  As discussed in one of my early blog posts, it is critical to have an understanding of what the product will be before rushing off and trying to build it.  But what do you do once you have a concept for your product?  The next stage is the first step in bringing your ideas to market: design and planning.

If you have been following this blog for a while, you know I am enthusiastic about Agile project management techniques.  It may seem that a defined design and planning stage at the beginning of a project is anti-Agile.  It isn’t.  If you use Scrum or any other Agile technique, you know how important it is to have a prioritized Product Backlog.  This is the stage in which that happens.

Why is planning in the innovation funnel so important?  It is in this stage that you:

  • Break a large project down into smaller, more manageable pieces
  • Determine the team(s) needed to create the product and how to structure the work
  • Align the team on the product vision
  • Create the Product Backlog, prioritize it, and do a preliminary Release Plan
  • Do any preliminary research or prototypes, if needed, to understand or mitigate risks (or find out if the product is even worth developing!).  This could also be done early in development, but for high risk or short timeline projects, you may want to do this on a smaller scale while you are still in the funnel.

If you do not take the time to do these things early in the project, you will constantly be playing catch-up with your Backlog prioritization and Release Planning, rather than just adapting to normal changes that happen in development.  It will also be very difficult to keep the team aligned with the vision and the product’s definition of done if you are only able to plan ahead a sprint or two.  Starting full development without completing this stage is a recipe for unnecessary stress and failure.

To make the most out of the design and planning stage, you need to have the following:

  1. Clearly defined goals.  Just like when your project is in full development, you need a clear Definition of Done.  What are you trying to accomplish?  How will you determine when that is done?  These goals also need to be prioritized.
  2. A serious deadline.  At some point, decisions need to be made.  Either the project is killed or full development starts.  To prevent this phase from just getting absorbed into the next phase, there needs to be a serious deadline.  That way, the high priority goals get accomplished and there is a clear kick-off for full development.
  3. A small team.  Even if your goals are just to build and prioritize the product backlog, you still need your small core team to determine the size of the stories, break down large stories, validate that the backlog makes sense and identify any risks. Be careful of the team getting too large at this stage or you risk divergence as many people try to create their own version product.  Small teams are also more nimble.
  4. A tolerance for failure. If you are doing any research or prototyping, be prepared that some things will not work, will be more difficult than expected, or will just not be possible.  Be prepared to change some of your ideas of what the end product will be, depending on what you find.  It is better to fail early, learn and adapt, than to stay the course and bring a bad product to market.

How do you start a new product development or an innovation project?  What planning do you do before starting full development?  I would love to read your experiences or questions in the comments.

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

View all posts by Liza Wood

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