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 / Summer 2003 / Issue 31(originally published by Booz & Company)


My Coach and I


Knowledge Review/Books in Brief

Blockbusters: The Five Keys to Developing Great New Products
By Gary S. Lynn and Richard R. Reilly
HarperBusiness, 2002
272 pages, $24.95

In a recent study, a sample of 200 CEOs from the 1,000 largest companies in the U.S. said that they believed that new product development was the single most important source for growth in their firms. The same study showed them spending twice as much of their time on financial planning as on the development of new products. This is unfortunate, as Gary S. Lynn and Richard R. Reilly point out in Blockbusters: The Five Keys to Developing Great New Products. These two professors at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., show that the commitment of senior management time to active roles in new product development is an essential component of success.

Writing in a breezy, accessible style, the professors identify five factors that seem to feature heavily in both success and failure: senior management commitment, a clear and stable vision for the product, improvisation with rapid prototyping and fast feedback, intensive information exchange, and collaboration under pressure. Developers of so-called blockbuster products performed well in all five areas. A poor score on the authors’ Innovation Report Card in any one area equated to much-reduced chances of success. The fifth factor is actually a reflection of how well integrated the first four are.

Professors Lynn and Reilly suggest that members of senior management can play several roles — project leader, technical guru, coach, active champion — but their emphasis should be on demonstrating commitment (not just participation and support) to the success of the projects. One of the early tasks of senior management is to help establish a stable vision that describes the product “pillars” — the essential requirements — and the scope of the product. In companies the authors studied, once these pillars were established, successful new product development teams resisted changing the requirements. In incremental innovations, the requirements emerge from complete immersion in the customer context. In the case of radical innovations, customers don’t know what they don’t know, and the vision for the product must be fueled internally by the passions of the team and their belief in the innovation. Thus, the Corning Corporation’s research into optical fiber in the 1950s and 1960s was driven by the enthusiasm of its scientists — prime customers such as AT&T didn’t want to hear that their new, expensive copper networks might soon be obsolete!

Highly successful teams tended not to follow the orderly but often ponderous “Stage-Gate” product review process. Rather, they engaged in what the authors call “Lickety Stick” improvisation: Here customers are continually exposed to rapidly produced prototypes as teams search for the elusive “hot yes” — the sign that they have a “must-have” product. During this tumultuous period, effective information exchange was critical. Often teams were colocated with data and news updates displayed in “war rooms” situated close to the scene of action. Teams with regular face-to-face communication brought their products to market faster than those that operated in permanent “virtual mode.” Monday-morning meetings seemed to be the most popular way of focusing teams for the week and firing up their enthusiasm.

The contexts that sustain successful innovation in organizations are now well known at a generic level. The advantage of this book is that it goes into greater depth than usual, is based on 10 years of extensive fieldwork, and is illustrated with excellent examples, including the development of the wildly popular Iomega Zip drive and the evolution of Colgate-Palmolive’s Total toothpaste (which dethroned Procter & Gamble Company’s Crest, ending its 30-year reign). As a result, the reader gets a much better idea of what effective new product development actually entails.

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