Time to read: 5 min

Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation is not about saying yes to everything. It’s about saying no to all but the most crucial features.”

As part of the I.D. product development team at Apple, I had the remarkable experience of observing this philosophy firsthand. I sat in on many design team meetings where new and innovative products were reviewed, evaluated and refined. In one very memorable case, a product was slated to go to market and had already entered the manufacturing process – with go live in just two weeks to support a very tight subsequent launch date. Steve Jobs was in the meeting and asked a simple question: Why does the product have two arms? When no one had a legitimate answer to the question or could present a valid argument for dual arms, he made the hard and fast decision to postpone the announcement and the ship date to ensure the product was right.

It was a very difficult decision. But, as I look back, I know it was the right decision – and I have no doubt the team does as well. Sometimes when you’re in mid-race, a pit stop doesn’t feel like the right call. But oftentimes, it is the only call to avoid delays, or worse yet, commercial product failures.

Taking the time to consider design decisions in critical in the innovation process
Taking the time to consider design decisions in critical in the innovation process

Of course, Steve Jobs was famous for meetings and decisions like this one. And he set the tone for an entire industry with his quest for perfection. I have always admired his penchant for challenge and his alignment to gut instinct. And I often find myself asking similar questions in the innovation process as a result. Without fail, one of those questions is always this:

Is It the Right Product? 

The answer to this critical question is always informed by still more questions: Does the product pass the litmus test from the standpoint of all the factors that matter: Design, functionality, quality, price, usability, time-to-market, relevance to the problem being solved, etc.? By asking these questions, you will make the most powerful call on speed versus quality and when one should win over the other. But, for those who are a bit newer at this, the calls can be tricky, so let’s consider the nuances. 

Roadmaps are Key, but Judgment Calls Trump Every Time 

Good product development leaders have a solid roadmap or blueprint when they start the development process. The roadmap includes the brief highlighting the goals and objectives of the product, as well as the timelines, approval gates and leadership sign off. And the roadmap serves as a critical guardrail for streamlined execution and successful launch. But it should never take the place of sound judgement when it comes to gate or Go/No Go decisions. Is the product the right product? Does it add value to society as a whole or are you creating electronic junk for the landfill? Is it being rushed to market when it would be better served with more time for incremental prototype iterations and refinements? Is it the best product it can be? Bottom line, if it does not pass that critical test, fast tracking is the wrong answer.

If It Doesn’t Work, It Won’t Sell

Design and aesthetics are critical to the development process. When the customer falls in love with a product because of the elegant experience, it promises a strong showing. But that showing can be short-lived if the product doesn’t also work as advertised. For this reason, engineering is a vital player in the product development mix and support for the iterative engineering process can make or break the product’s commercial success. Fortunately, rapid prototyping to allow for design and engineering efficacy, as well as speed in the testing process enables quality to go hand-in-hand with design elegance. 

Additive manufacturing technology has come along way to support rapid prototyping of high resolution parts.
Additive manufacturing technology has come along way to support rapid prototyping of high resolution parts.

Price Matters

In the development process, price is often the last consideration when, in fact, it should be among the first. Indeed, unvetted pricing is a crucial error and failure to align to an appropriate market price is irresponsible. This is why I always recommend partnering with marketing and product management to assess the proper market segmentation, competitive analysis and persona alignment as a baseline for the pricing exercise. The process is a lot like a marriage – it takes time and work to drive symbiotic alignment, but the end result is pretty special.

Don’t Let Speed be the Enemy of Good

Building the best product gets harder all the time. It used to take a year to get to market, and now it can be achieved in 6 months or less! Consumer demand for customized products, right now is a key driver, and the market mandates can’t be ignored. But, I believe companies that do speed well do it with a critical eye for what it takes to do it well. Deliberate planning against a blueprint, aligned resources and expertise and an iterative process must be applied with enthusiasm because speed can be a double-edged sword and it can backfire. 

I have seen products go fast – like when Mercedes delivered a next gen C-Class model car in under 24 months. And I have seen products go slowly. Take Bang & Olufsen, for example. The speaker company worked on a single new speaker for two years before shipping. Both were critically acclaimed for quality and market success – but they both took the right amount of time to bring the right product to market. 

Speed can be done well, but it is also a delicate balancing act.  One of my favorite examples is a product I worked on at Oculus. While in development, we learned that the lens holder for AR/VR units had to be built to within microns or it would wreak havoc on the equilibrium of the system. For this reason, 3D printing wouldn’t work to enable testing of the prototypes. We had to hit pause, review and refine the right process to enable the proper functionality and tolerance for testing and then go forward. While it took considerably longer than it would have had we leveraged faster methods like 3D printing, we would have gotten to the end of the process with a product that didn’t work due to failed tolerances. 

Applying the right methods and expertise and working with partners who understand the criticality of both speed and quality is vital. Partners like digital manufacturer, Fictiv, hit 10x tighter tolerances, within +/- 0.0002 to meet highly stringent customer specs for precision tooling – and 97% on time metrics for on time delivery of prototype parts. They bring both quality and speed to a traditional process that’s been rife with delays and challenges. 

Operating with a sense of urgency is as critical as understanding the vision and goals for the product. But that urgency can’t get in the way of feature, function and market delivery veracity. Plenty of companies test the boundaries of speed and quality – but few companies come out on top. Apply these simple tricks and you’ll be far better equipped to win the race without running out of gas because you skipped a pit stop.