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Time for an upgrade

Product development in a new era: Where traditional review processes bite the dust

Josh Turpen
product development
© Shutterstock / Bukhta Yurii

Product development is more complex than ever and teams need to adopt new systems in order to better manage and document their work in all aspects of the development cycle. How do you make the change from a traditional system to a new, sophisticated system that actually works and leads to efficient collaboration and communication in real-time?

Complexity in product development is nothing new. But it’s too easy to assume that developing complex products necessitates a convoluted process for documentation and compliance management. For decades, systems engineers and product development teams have driven complicated projects to market with slow, cumbersome, and frustrating processes.

Product development teams and systems engineers are expected to be collaborative and innovative and it all starts with creating good requirements that have been reviewed and approved by subject matter experts. Creating good requirements isn’t easy, and existing review processes can stifle innovation and slow down the development process, often relying on emailed documents, spreadsheets that are ripe for manual error, and hours-long meetings. Meanwhile, modern systems and products are getting “smarter” (hello, artificial hearts and autonomous vehicles) and more complex. This necessitates documentation and compliance management also evolving in sophistication.

What does this mean for product development teams and systems engineers? I’ll explain.

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Don’t hate the player, hate the system

Product development and systems team leaders need to advocate for a better way to manage and document outcomes from reviews at every stage in a development cycle. Why? Because products are more complex than ever, operating margins are tight, and the regulatory stakes are high.

Development teams also are faced with requirements — for components, performance, compliance, and other factors — that change constantly, often within the timeline of developing a single product.

Many teams have experienced the pains of expensive recalls, time-consuming rework, missed deadlines, and product design failures. Within regulated industries that offer safety-critical or mission-critical products, a miss like this can have life or death consequences. And when the root cause of failure can be traced back to poorly defined requirements that were not adequately reviewed, the pain gets that much worse.

The collaboration conundrum

At the very core of all product development work is collaboration which cannot happen without great communication.

In my experience, product teams’ collaboration is heavily impacted by poor communication in three key ways:

  1. Meetings with stakeholders are difficult to coordinate and expensive to host. Pitching a move from stage A to stage B requires extensive coordination. Getting to a final agreement on a product can require multiple meetings that tie up expensive resources and last hours, which wastes valuable time for all involved.
  2. A lack of alignment leads to delays. Coordinating and reconciling revisions from multiple versions of the same requirements document can cause a critical delay in getting a product to the next stage in development, and ultimately to market.
  3. Reviews and approvals get ignored or lost in unread emails. Sending emails asking for feedback from major stakeholders via a legacy document system can easily get information lost in inboxes, leaving the sender on a scavenger hunt for final approvals and signoffs. And when this type of disorganized process occurs, it can jeopardize the ability to prove how decisions were made when needed for compliance audits.

Changing the system

Time and again, I see that the teams who win against competitors are the ones that practice smarter, more efficient collaboration in real-time. Here’s how they do it:

  • Kill version control: Getting rid of endless document exchanges via email and other platforms is critical to avoiding dumb human errors and reducing mistakes that come from misinterpretations of tracked changes and in-document comments that could be two or three review cycles older than the version you need.
  • Track it like it’s UPS: Especially in regulated industries, the right approvals and signatures are crucial. Streamline and simplify the process of approval tracking so that you can focus on what’s really important: the critical thinking behind the approvals themselves. Even if a product’s compliance gets questions later on, you’ll have a complete record for audits ready to go.
  • Left hand should know what the right hand is doing: Systems engineers and product teams know the pain of assigning and distributing segments of work, and divvying it up among distributed teams. This is where a centralized review hub comes into play — it enables teams to map out and assign workflows before kicking off the dev process. Project steps and responsibilities are easily accessible and referenceable throughout development, and remove the burden of one person being solely responsible for keeping workflows and team members on track.
  • Avoid reinventing the wheel: Every new product cycle doesn’t need to feel like the first time. Forward-thinking teams figure out how to keep all processes and standards in a centralized place that lets them reuse approved requirements and templates without losing the nuances and complexities that come with each new product or work cycle.

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Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Product development isn’t war, but it’s true that it’s the planning —not the plans —that often make or break the success of a process. Planning involves collaboration, communication, and systems that serve people. Plans are just pieces of paper that people feel they have to serve, even if that service sacrifices efficiency, efficacy, and end-game success.

It sounds crazy, but sometimes the best way to improve a process is to get rid of it so you can replace it with what really works. By transforming your review process, you can create a system that lets the smart humans on your teams do their jobs better than they thought they could, without sacrificing rigor, documentation, or compliance.

Author

Josh Turpen

With a deep background in software development and consulting, Josh oversees the ongoing innovation
and refinement of Jama Software’s core product offerings. Beginning as an engineer, Josh’s career has
taken him from Indiana to Germany, Colorado, and Portland. His work with the U.S. Department of
Defense solidified his knowledge of safety-critical systems, and the vital role requirements and risk
management plays within them. Having led product and engineering organizations, with teams
distributed across the globe, Josh understands the daily challenges our customers face in a constantly
changing marketplace and the tools they need to be successful.


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