The Balance Between Creativity and the Need for a Structured Development Methodology


Ken Haven

April 8, 2017

There is a natural tension between creativity and the need to make decisions and get products to market. We generally want the best, most creative, wiz-bang product with all the features one could ever want, and could continually brainstorm and create new ideas, each one perhaps better than the last. We could bring in people from different backgrounds, different experiences with different issues, gather that information and then work to translate that into the ultimate product...someday.

The reality is that in order to make money, companies need to get products developed and into production as quickly as possible—the longer it takes to conceive, develop, and manufacture a product, the more that process costs. All the while, money is flying out the door with nothing coming in, and the more it will take to simply break even on a product, and eventually make money.

So how do you strike a balance between creativity and the need to make money? By utilizing a structured development methodology that allows for creativity within a defined framework, timeline, and budget. The process starts with a clear definition of the product/market requirements, which should include:

As the process evolves, it is often natural for the scope of the project to creep, as the creative juices start to flow—“if we’re adding video, can we also add face recognition, for an extra layer of security?”, or, “we have a touchpad, can we add fingerprint recognition”? Or, instead of using a metal chassis, can we use a high strength plastic one instead?

The key here is a structured approach that utilizes strong project management and close interaction between the product requirements team (ie, marketing), the development team, and the manufacturing team. This team works together to strike a balance between creativity and the need to make informed decisions in a timely manner in order to meet the schedule and cost objectives of the program. Changes to the requirements, or creative innovations/changes to things such as the architecture or implementation need to be weighed against the timeline and cost goals/constraints of the program. In the example above, the addition of facial recognition, while a creative idea, may add many weeks (or months) to the program, require significant changes to the hardware and software systems, and increase the BOM cost. These impacts need to be weighed against the potential benefits, as well as potential delays in getting into manufacturing. Having a defined and agreed upon process for managing product requirements is critical. This process would include:

1. The concept of a feature freeze to document the product requirements

2. A feature freeze change process that's triggered whenever there’s a request for significant changes in the requirements

The feature freeze and any associated changes is reviewed and signed off by all invested parties. The feature freeze document includes both what the product does AND does not do. The document also includes financials for the project (budget and schedule projections), which are updated any time there is a change to the feature freeze document.

Often the same is true for implementation of a particular feature or aspect of a design—teams can brainstorm and research potential new, innovative ways of implementation, but at what cost? These types of activities, while perhaps interesting, must be balanced against the need to meet the schedule and cost constraints, as well as the particular value a new innovative approach may yield vs. a more common approach.

A strong, structured product development methodology along with strong project management skills will help to keep projects on schedule and within budget while allowing for creativity in the areas where it can produce the greatest benefit.

About the author

Ken Haven has been CEO of Acorn Product Development since the company’s founding in 1993. Ken has more than 25 years of product development experience including technical leadership roles with NeXT Computer, Attain, Inc., and Hewlett-Packard. He holds MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.