Five Characteristics Of A World-Class Product Development Team

Ryan Gray is co-founder and CEO of SGW Designworks, a full-service product development and engineering firm featured in The Lean Startup.

In the world of product development, the harsh reality is that there are winners, and there are losers. So what sets a world-class development team apart from a mediocre team? It isn’t the size of the company or its budget. Some large organizations may be prepared to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into the development of a product but are weak in areas that could make said product dead on arrival.

In my 12-plus years at the helm of a leading product development firm in the Northwest U.S., I’ve seen an array of challenges affect companies of all sizes. Enterprise-level organizations may have internal development teams but are often overloaded and need help staying on schedule. Startups often lack such a team entirely. And small or medium-size companies often have in-house teams that aren’t performing well or could use help with certain specialties.

Many of our best clients have internal engineering teams — and robust ones at that — and have had to outsource aspects of the product development process. In our interactions with these teams, we’ve gathered learnings that provide the basis for this article. Here are several characteristics we’ve observed in world-class product development teams.

They don’t jump into detailed design and engineering too soon.

In both small and large companies, we often see passionate people envision a finished product before development even starts. This is problematic when there are misconceptions related to what the end user cares about and how they will interact with the product. Essentially, they don’t know what the user wants.

On the other hand, world-class development teams set aside resources to explore rough conceptual approaches and are willing to question their assumptions, sometimes accepting that the direction of their product may need to shift or that some features may need to be tweaked. This exploration, which typically takes place during phase zero and phase one of a project, can help prevent you from going in the wrong direction. User research also happens at this time and is another important aspect of the product development process that is often rushed (or overlooked entirely). 

Some smaller organizations believe these activities will cause unnecessary delays, but they are critical to developing a successful product.

They use rapid cycles to speed up development.

Organizations that are slow to bring products to market will usually find themselves losing to those that have implemented rapid development cycles. To be successful here, you must be prepared to prototype frequently throughout development to test various aspects of the product, such as configuration, software interface, functionality and even pricing. For example, each prototype of the HTC Vive — with its respective changes and subsequent tests — likely represents a cycle that led up to the product.

When you apply the same level of scrutiny to all cycles, accelerating product development cycles results in more efficiency and better design. Each cycle needs to be meaningful in that there should be clarity about what is to be learned, and the prototype should be built in a way that you acquire that learning. A core tenet of rapid cycles is that if you make a mistake or realize some aspect of the prototype won’t work, that failure is actually a win because you learn the lesson quickly and inexpensively.

From a technical aspect, it may be relatively straightforward to adopt the rapid cycle methodology. But for larger companies, rapid cycles also necessitate a change in development culture, which can be difficult to achieve. This is one of the biggest reasons enterprise-level organizations look to companies that have rapid cycles ingrained in their culture. But even when a company outsources product development, it needs to be able to quickly review the results of a cycle, adjust and move forward. If the organization unable to do this, the resulting slowdowns make it challenging for teams to meet important deadlines.

They have an integrated team but know when to hire specialists.

All members of the product development team must understand and be aligned with its long-term vision — and the strategy required to get there. Healthy collaboration also requires consistent and thorough communication. And, world-class development teams know that when talent doesn’t exist within the organization, it’s usually necessary to outsource certain elements of a project. Outsourced specialists also often provide valuable perspectives on critical aspects of the project that may not have been previously considered.

They understand the business implications of design decisions and vice versa.

Larger companies usually grasp how even minor decisions will affect the end product, as they typically have departments dedicated to understanding these variables. However, smaller companies and startups often struggle to think through how their design choices will impact manufacturing, costs, assembly and even merchandising.

For instance, questions we ask our clients include: How will a year’s volume of your product impact the materials used to produce it? Does your product need to be collapsible so it will fit in packaging that sits compactly on a store shelf? Will the product need to be assembled by the end user to decrease shipping costs? Will you be selling the product domestically or internationally?

It’s admittedly difficult to think through every possible scenario, but carefully assessing how major business decisions will impact the product’s design is well worth the time and effort.

It’s possible to have a world-class development team — as long as your organization is in a position to adopt the aforementioned practices. These can mean the difference between winning or losing the product launch.


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