Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 98
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Just Do It!

Research discovers the best tactics to accelerate product development.

Here are a couple of good day/bad day scenarios for manufacturers: It's a good day when you launch a new product (or product innovation) and find you've beaten all your competitors and have the market to yourself. It's a bad day when you're the one who's beaten and you must stand aside and watch a competitor take all the business.

Now if you tend to have good days like these, the future looks bright for you. But if you tend to have bad days, then all your days are numbered. The key, of course, is speed: to the fastest product developers go the riches of success.

Management experts generally agree that a strategy called compression best achieves accelerated product development. This strategy includes extensive planning, early involvement of suppliers in design decisions, reliance on computer-aided design programs, overlapping development steps, and using multifunctional teams. But little research has ever been conducted to support or refute the value of these tactics, and some writers doubt their value. They point to the role improvisation plays in stimulating rapid change in music and chemistry, and they believe a strategy based on improvising, called prototyping, offers a better way to accelerate product development. Prototyping includes building numerous prototypes, testing them frequently, and meeting often to assess the state of development projects.

Kathleen Eisenhardt and Behnam Tabrizi, of Stanford University, recently directed a study of the world computer industry to compare compression and prototyping strategies. They examined 72 development projects in 36 companies. They noted projects completed quickly and projects plagued with delays, and they compared tactics used with each group. They were surprised with their findings:

Extensive planning always slowed development. Early involvement of suppliers and a reliance on computer-aided design also slowed projects unless they involved predictable products for stable markets. Overlapping development steps demonstrated no effect, while using multifunctional teams consistently accelerated projects. So most compression tactics slow project development!

In contrast, prototyping tactics worked very well: building many designs, testing them frequently, and meeting frequently to evaluate progress. Prototyping tactics speed development, and including multifunctional teams creates an optimum strategy to speed product development.


Developing new products requires that people trace an uncertain path through shifting markets and technologies. Acceleration demands that people rapidly build intuition and create flexible options so they can avoid problems and exploit opportunities. Planning demands stability, and when plans suddenly make no sense, people freeze. Before they can move again, they must overcome the inertia created by plans based on faulty assumptions.

Early in a development project, suppliers are often not clear. Computer-aided design programs usually automate well-known design calculations rather than calculations needed for unfamiliar applications.

Building prototypes gives people a feel for the product they're designing. They gain an intuitive understanding of the design requirements and of the benefits different designs offer, and comparing prototypes reveals strengths and weaknesses.

Frequent testing reveals design errors early in the development project and eliminates attachment to one variation which can cause conflict. It also builds confidence: individual failures are small, designers quickly learn how to overcome obstacles, and they're anxious to build and test new prototypes.

Frequent project review meetings force people to look often at what they're doing, and to check progress against evolving markets and technologies. They're motivating and provide a sense of order and closure. Including people from diverse functional backgrounds enriches projects with fresh ideas at critical moments.

Eeisenhardt and Tabrizi's research is a rare and valuable contribution to our understanding of management, and for many of us, it will completely change how we develop new products and innovations. We can abandon labored tactics that slow progress and embrace energetic tactics best expressed with the words: Just do it!

Reference: Eisenhardt, Kathleen M. and Behnam N. Tabrizi (1995). Accelerating Adaptive Processes: Product Innovation in the Global Computer Industry. Administrative Science Quarterly, 40 (1995), pp. 84-110.

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