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Starting his career in data processing operations, Robert quickly transitioned to software development, system & database design, and business analysis. He has worked in the insurance, transportation supply, and healthcare industries. Robert’s early career influences included Structured Analysis and Structured Design as evangelized by Tom DeMarco and Edward Yourdon, and IBM and Microsoft project management methodologies. He led a start-up company that developed Docuscan, a system that utilizes an optical mark read scanner in physician offices to record patient encounters. As a consultant, Robert contributed to the products of several major healthcare application vendors and led numerous enterprise-wide application deployment and process improvement initiatives. He has maintained a Project Management Professional certification since 2007, contributed to the PMI Project Manager Competency Framework, taught PMP preparation courses, and led the formation and operation of project management offices for two major healthcare systems. For pmNERDS, he has participated in the development of the Continuous Performance Improvement (CPI) practice. Robert is currently the Practice Lead for Value Realization within the pmNERDS' IBM consultancy.

Features, Product Strategy, and Product Lines

If you create products with reusable features, then you can offer the same features in multiple product lines and gain a cost advantage, but make sure the product lines offering those features remain aligned to the product strategy.

Great cost advantages can be gained by creating products with features that are reusable in other of your products in one line or another. The trick is understanding how the proposed and prioritized features align with product line strategies and how they support the overall product and/or corporate strategy.

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." - Robert Orben

Secondary Education That Isn't

Among many other accolades, Hillsdale College in Michigan is one of Business Insider’s Top 100 Smartest Private Colleges. Its primary product of course is education. Much like other U.S. colleges the 170-year-old Hillsdale fundamental product strategy is to provide areas of degreed, in-demand study in concert with its mission.

However, Hillsdale’s educational strategy also includes offering non-credit lifelong learning opportunities free to the public. How can this organization which has refused government funding since its inception give its education away and remain financially viable and accountable to its donors?

One answer may lie in Hillsdale’s ability to reuse one of its educational features, easy-to-consume prerecorded lectures, in its public courses. For example, the twelve lessons in the free public course, Introduction to the Constitution, are effectively composed entirely of short, video-taped lectures by President Larry Arnn. These same recordings made once, are just as instructive and are likely presented repeatedly in its for-credit, instructor-led college courses on the same subject.

Product Strategy Rules

Rather than simply choosing a feature based on how many times it was requested or much revenue it might bring and making assumptions about how the feature should be used, walk through these steps:

Establish rules for including and excluding features in product lines according to the overall product and/or corporate strategy. For example, a lifelong learning strategy that Hillsdale may pursue to increase its educational marketplace visibility is to increase the appeal of its free online courses to the 65-85 demographic next year. Therefore, one inclusion rule might be features that “increase the usability of free public courses by 65-85 year-olds.”

Evaluate how well a proposed feature meets those rules. For example, a live chat while someone is watching a lecture online is a highly-requested feature. Does that or does that not meet the above strategy? How about an easy way to increase the volume of the video or zoom in on it, even though that was not high on the requested feature list?

Determine how much of that feature can be reused across product lines taking into account each product line strategy. Being able to easily raise the volume or zoom in on a video is not needed by young college students watching a recorded video while sitting in class (though the professor playing the video might find it attractive). But it might be useful to students attending the class online, remotely, especially if they are sight or hearing impaired.

When features are meaningful in and aligned to a product line and product strategy and have the additional benefit of being reusable across product lines, your cost position will improve, which increases your competitiveness.

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Feature Validation and Verification

If the features of the product or service you have selected to produce are validated and verified, then it will be more likely that the project development investment will increase your competitive edge, but you should consider discovering what customers do in addition to what they say about your product or service.

Focus Groups

Focus groups are popular ways to learn about people’s opinions, thoughts, and reactions to new features of products and services. They are used to gather information about how people feel and think about something that otherwise cannot be obtained by surveys or questionnaires. Unfortunately, biases can creep in. And without careful construction and execution the results can be misleading.

One of the most publicized examples of market research use of focus groups is the 1985 introduction of the new Coke. Mere weeks after its release, it was evident by the flood of complaints that the new Coke was not well received after all and the backlash caused the company to reintroduce its previous formula as Coca-Cola Classic. What went wrong?

A widespread explanation for the misleading results of the focus groups was that the wrong questions were asked. Other reasons point out that the right questions were asked, but the effects of social influence were not regarded well enough. Regardless of the conclusion about the use of focus groups to assess customer wants, you will be well served to employ additional methods. One such method is to observe what customers do.

Research Behaviors Too

In order to understand how features will be and are perceived, in addition to using focus groups or surveys, consider researching customer behaviors around your product or service in environments as close to real as possible.

First determine what is to be accomplished by the research. In the case of feature validation and verification, this kind of effort should focus on definition research and evaluation research.

Next, decide on who will be your informants or customers. Recruiting informants involves selections based on attitudes, personalities, value systems, behaviors, and experiences that match the objectives of the research. After determining the initial pool of candidates, they are screened using surveys.

Finally, determine how you will observe customer behavior either as a participant or non-participant. Many options are available for this including observing product users directly, interviewing, using field journals, recording audio, images, and recording video.

“Deal with the world as it is, not how you'd like it to be.” - Jack Welch

Learning customer wants and needs by conducting research that examines customer behavior with your product or service is a valuable addition to other tools that are available to validate and verify proposed features. Without knowing how your product or service is used in realistic environments, it will be difficult to develop a competitive set of features that are valued by your customers.

Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash

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Performance Requirements and Features

If the things that your product or service offers are compelling to your consumers, then it will stand out and be more attractive to your market, but you must take care to craft requirements that specifically address how the consumer will experience the value of those features

The difference between features and requirements is often blurry. That’s because in casual conversation, we normally allow for imprecise descriptions and explanations. But as integrated project managers looking after resource-intensive and risk-prone development efforts understanding, and expressing these differences clearly, will result in products and services that are more satisfying to buyers, and at a cost-position that is sustainable or competitive.

One of the World's most innovative companies of 2017, Casper Mattress, claims that its “breathable foams help you sleep cool.” So, not getting too warm while sleeping, is a feature their market sensing has determined to be a strong consumer desire they wanted to offer. In order to create a product that has breathable foams to help customers sleep cool, they undoubtedly established certain requirements for heat and moisture management their mattress material must meet.

Compelling Features

Identify compelling features after conducting a thorough market sensing program to understand buyer desires and your company’s ability to satisfy them. Compelling features are those features buyers will be able to visualize themselves using and quickly perceive the value to them. Such features must also have a lasting impact, and keep up with evolving expectations of your buyers. For some people staying cool while sleeping is highly desired and if a mattress can do that, they will try it and maybe buy it.

Performance Requirements

Identify the performance requirements. As you define requirements you should organize them in order to ensure that you will indeed satisfy customer needs while also being able to understand the cost of each. In your organization, you will want to focus on those requirements with the highest significance to your buyer, which if not met, will lose buyer satisfaction. These are referred to as performance requirements. Engineering mattress materials to keep the transfer of heat to the sleeper to a certain minimum, is a performance requirement. If after 100 nights you get too hot on a Casper mattress you will take them up on their free return pickup offer.

Identifying features compelling to your buyers, those they can quickly perceive offer value to them, and will provide long lasting value to increase your differentiation. Requirements clarify the direction, the steps and effort needed to accomplish the goal stated by a feature. Even more, defining performance requirements will help you prioritize the lists upon lists of requirements your project has, so you don’t miss satisfying the features most important to your buyers.

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Problem Vetting & Levels of Innovation

If problems to be addressed are ranked according to level of innovation, then your limited resources will be used most wisely to create the largest competitive edge, but you must be careful to understand how much change you and your market are willing to make.

Two important drivers of product development are knowing how much you can differentiate your solution, and how much innovation you can afford. Develop a me-too product at a reasonable cost, and your buyers may ignore yours because they can get it elsewhere. Develop an advanced capability at a higher cost, and your buyers may ignore it as well because they are not ready for it. Finding that sweet spot between satisfying your buyers desires better than the rest, and your cost-position to do that, is the challenge you need to meet in order to stay competitive.

Successful vetting of problems into which development resources are invested includes analyzing the market attractiveness of your problem solution, and your business strengths, to meet that demand.

Home Security Problems

To illustrate, let’s compare the early approaches to home security to today. After a crime wave following World War I prompted increased attention to protecting property, alarm systems were in demand. However, some weren’t ready to buy and instead subscribed to a service of “door shakers”, these were night watchmen who shook doors at night to make sure they were locked. Today companies still providing the equivalent of “door shakers” have been eclipsed by innovative, internet-ready, and affordable home security products that buyers can install and monitor themselves from anywhere in the world.

Differentiators and Cost Position

To be able to decide which problems are most worthy of developing, first you should correctly define the problem(s) to be solved, and in order to evaluate and compare them, the problems should be stated in compelling and consistent ways.

Next determine how much you need to differentiate your solutions from others. Also determine how much innovation is needed to stay competitive. Would a police siren be better than an alarm bell to scare off intruders? What are your competitors up to?

Then understand the amount of change you and your buyers are willing to make. In other words, you need to answer these types of questions:

Which problems should you address given your current product strategies and limitations? How much innovation should you afford on each project? and how will that impact your cost position relative to your competitors?

Assessing the worth of investing in resolving one problem over another by understanding the relative levels of innovation necessary for each, will give you confidence in knowing that you have identified the primary cost drivers for your development projects.

Photo by Andres Iga on Unsplash

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Problem Validation and Verification

If problems that are addressed by projects are validated and verified, then development investment decisions are made more wisely, but the problems may not be the right ones unless you understand the voice of the customer.

 

You have done a good job defining the problem or project idea that your project will address, taking care to avoid hinting at arbitrary premature solutions, so as to allow plenty of room for design creativity. You have wisely used a standard format in which to state the problem and the benefits for solving it, so that the keepers of resources will be more willing to allocate them to your project, compared to other projects that are vying for their attention. So far so good.

Now it’s time to try to strengthen your theory in order to prove that solving this problem or meeting this need, is really deserving of more investment. "Validating" the problem will either, give you more reason to keep going, or cause you to rethink your understanding of the problem. Likewise, when you have completed your project, “verifying” that the problem was addressed, will confirm that the investment was a wise one.

Validation and verification are not the same processes as functional analysis techniques, which help explain HOW buyers do or would interact with the process/product. That kind of analysis converts the already validated buyer needs, and expectations into features and requirements, that drive engineering of that value into the final product.

No, it will take a bit of work to confirm that you have accurately defined and addressed the problem. And the best way to do that is to check with your buyers. But how would you go about that? One approach is to borrow from the methods usually associated with the “voice of the customer.”

Plan for Capturing VOC

First, decide who are your target customers. No one buyer can speak for all buyers. So, you should consider various types of buyers, such as current customers, customers of competing products, potential customers, and avid or lead customers who know the product well.

Next, have product / service developers participate in capturing customer data alongside traditionally assigned marketing types and analysts. This will provide better visibility for the engineers who must make development decisions.

Lastly, be choosy about the data you capture. Some kinds of data are not suited to guiding the development effort, and some are. Also consider your ability to organize the information captured into meaningful expressions of buyer needs.

Pay Now or Pay (Much More) Later

Studies have shown that up to 80% of the total cost of a product or service is taken up by the ideation and conversion phases of development. Taking the time to validate that you have the defined the problem correctly, allows early course correction, during the time when the cost to impact relationship is much, much lower than later on, when design changes are accomplished only at high costs. Those changes include rework, warranty claims, and even buyer dissatisfaction. More importantly, problem validation and verification will reduce the chances that you develop products that buyers do not like now and in the future.

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Problem Definition Formats

If you use a common format to define problems, then you will be enabled to correctly compare and rank the value between various projects that are competing for resources, but you need to overcome the tendency to define problems without sufficient attention to perspective, levels of detail, and bias.

It has been said repeatedly and in some variation or other, that defining the problem well is half the effort of coming up with the solution. Since problem definition is so important, it makes sense to be as rigorous in the language, and format of the definition, when it’s time to put the results of problem discovery or hypothesis into a problem statement.

A well stated problem enrolls support for a project and attracts the appropriate resources to it. But, a problem well stated in a standard way is even more beneficial.

Standard Problem Definition Format

Problem definition is conducted using a variety of proven techniques. No matter if you use SMART, Six Sigma’s Five Whys, or just common sense to define the problem, a problem stated in a standard way enables leaders to better evaluate and rank projects to which precious resources will be allocated.

Like houses in the picture, standard problem statements may exhibit different colors and accessories, but they should be crafted using the same architecture.

A Standard Problem Statement Format Proposal

To improve the clarity of your project purpose, try this format to begin expressing meaningful problem statements:

  • IF…the desired outcome is achieved
  • THEN…this benefit will be realized
  • BUT…this is the primary conflict driving the need for resolution

“IF the front steps are lowered or replaced, THEN those with mobility challenges will be more likely to rent, BUT a change to the front entrance needs to be easier to navigate and attractive to all renters.”

Value of a Standard Problem Statement Format

Upon restating the purpose of each project in a standardized project statement format, the company executives now have a better idea of what each project addresses, and the benefits and considerations that affect their business. Hopefully, each project also includes research data from past and potential renters regarding how they value low or no front steps, lower gas bills, and being able to choose a carpet color.

Using a standard format to express a validly constructed problem statement will help you to correctly rank the various projects to invest in, and enroll your sponsors and stakeholders in supporting your projects, with the resources and participation they need. It will foster better understanding of your project purpose among your project team members as well, and serves as an anchor when the winds of scope change begin to blow.

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Define Acceptance Criteria

If projects have defined acceptance criteria, then project managers will be able to better manage stakeholder expectations, but how project outcomes will meet the needs should be discussed and documented early in the planning.

Boy oh boy! Isn’t it “fun" trying to define acceptance criteria? You have to know your requirements cold. And usually you have to do this early on in the project scope. when you know least about the project.

“The indispensable first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: decide what you want.” - Ben Stein

What sets acceptance criteria apart from other ways of evaluating the goodness of project outcomes? Acceptance criteria describe what constitutes a successful outcome; but successful to whom? The buyer is the one who cares most about acceptance criteria, but you have to help the buyer know that.

In the minds of all the project contributors the end product may be perfectly functional, having met the requirements. But that does not necessarily mean that the product buyer is going to be happy with it.

Take perhaps a common kitchen scene at home with a grade school age girl and boy right after dinner, where fresh baked cookies just came out of the oven. The kids are no stranger to cookies. And these are the kind with M&Ms and NO nuts. Dad actually made them up from a mix and formed them on the cookie sheet. He didn’t just thaw the frozen kind. Dad was pleased with the outcome - warm, delicious cookies that the kids would love. What could go wrong?

Evan didn’t like that a few cookies had melted into each other and had to be cut apart. Laurie thought they did not have enough M&Ms, and they both wished there were more of them. Plus, they didn’t like waiting so long for the cookies to cool down.

The missing element? Assumed, mistaken, or weak acceptance criteria.

To get going on defining effective acceptance criteria, you want to establish open lines of communication with your buyers throughout the project, not just during planning and “user acceptance” testing where these criteria normally rear their heads.

Plan for collaborative working sessions between your product designers and all product end-users, where you jointly “nail down” how the product will be evaluated for “acceptability” at various stages in the project. Take a hard line: if a requirement cannot be measured or tested objectively it should be re-stated.

Once defined and agreed upon, as for deliverables and requirements, you need to control changes to acceptance criteria.

There are many ways to document this, such as in the scope statement. The Volere Requirements Specification Template has a particularly useful spot for acceptance criteria, right there on its requirements specification “SNOW" card that is used to capture requirements, called the “Fit Criterion.” It is the objective measure of a requirement’s meaning, and is used to evaluate how a solution fits the requirement.

Well designed, well-constructed, and well understood acceptance criteria will make, not break, a project, and will enhance your reputation as a professional and successful project manager. It is time well invested.

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Establish Project Scope

If you establish proper project scope, then your project planning and execution is much more effective, but you must spend time with your customers ahead of planning to define and agree on what’s in and what’s out.

If your day job is building houses, you can call me “Captain Obvious” after hearing what I am about to say. What goes into a house and what doesn’t is an ongoing source of negotiation, compromise, and often controversy. So, builders are well aware of the importance of knowing what their housing projects include and don’t include; it’s the “air” that they breathe.

The line that is drawn in any project, like building a house, is where you should look to see what is included and what is not included in the project, this is called the scope.

Defining the scope for a project does a number of good things in setting up a project for success. But primarily, it defines what “done” means for a project. With a project scope, you can easily tell if the expected work was done or it wasn’t.

As a project manager, you will want to include in project scope, the components of the product to be delivered (e.g., the house) of course. But also remember to include the events or other products that will be needed to finish the project, like conducting an owner walk through.

Image a Box

So that you avoid a muddy statement of project scope, i.e., what the project will “do” and what it won’t “do”, imagine your project as being in a box that is closed on all 6 sides. Leave a slot open on one side where you will insert things. The things you will insert are called deliverables, what the project will produce.

Next draw a circle around the box and label it, "Project Boundaries.” Inside the circle, identify things that the project will do on the way to producing deliverables, such as “owner walk through”, “aerial photo of finished property”, “filing deed of ownership."

Finally, get agreement on the project scope from your buyers. This should not be a problem if you involved them throughout the project scope definition process.

“True genius resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.” - Winston Churchill

The purpose of establishing project scope is to clearly articulate what you are taking responsibility for delivering on the project. With it, you can plan your project more confidently, you put yourself in control of wandering scope, and you empower your project team to work efficiently and proudly. Without it, you run the risk of expensive product rework, blown expectations, and a never-ending project.

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Enable Value Realization

If a project enables value realization, then the business will experience a higher return on its investment, but the worth of the project outcome and the cost to produce it needs to be calculated and measured before and after the project is finished.

What exactly do we mean by “value realization”? And if we should help it come to be, what is “value” then?

A simple definition of value is the worth that something has, or what its benefits are, compared to the “cost” of the thing. For example, a toaster wide enough for bagels that doesn’t burn them is important me. I will likely value most the lowest cost toaster with those 2 features.

So, in order to help the value of a developed product or service come to be in a project, we and our buyers need to get real clear about what that is. This discovery effort is the first phase of the value engineering process, sometimes called the Information phase. What distinguishes value engineering from other methods of design, is its focus on function, establishing the monetary value for that function, and how to provide that function at the lowest cost.

Preparing for Value Realization

To get started, identify the project deliverables and understand what function the deliverables play in the buyer’s value chain. Function is what makes a deliverable work or sell, like "toaster slot accommodates 2-inch thick bagel half, and “user can adjust toaster heat."

A very important tool used in the value engineering Information phase is the Function Analysis System Technique diagram (FAST). FAST organizes functions into cause and effect relationships, and helps to:

1) identify product functions, 2) reveal linkage among all functions, and 3) analyze and evaluate functions.

One slightly more sophisticated way to estimate value for projects is called Expected Commercial Value or ECV. ECV uses money to quantify value. ECV is first estimated when developing the project business case for funding decisions. That formula considers the future income stream, commercialization costs, development costs, and the probabilities of commercial and technical success.

Realization

“The future ain’t what it used to be.” - Yogi Berra

After you have completed value engineering of the deliverables you will need to figure the current value of the deliverables during the payback period. For our wide-mouth toaster, you might ask, “How popular is this toaster compared to what we thought it would be?”

The important thing is that you set the expectations up front, in your project planning and during project scope, so that project outcomes will be defined and measured, how, and over what time frames.

When you help a business produce products or services, that are of high value in the eyes of buyers, at costs lower than its peers, that business will experience an increasing market share and enjoy a nice return.

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