Product Development is Like a Game of Chess

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It is a truism that engineers see the world rationally... too rationally. Everything has one or more defined answers, all you need is to find the right set of solutions.

Because of that rationalist (using the term loosely) view, many engineers who have succeeded at product engineering, building the product, have failed at product development, designing and successfully marketing the product.

The problem with product development, and especially new product development, is that you never really know if your market is ready for your solution, and even if they are ready, if they will accept the product/solution, if they will like and adopt the design, if they can and will pay a profitable price, if the packaging and channels are right. A thousand things have to go right with your product to succeed, and only a few have to go wrong for it to fail.

In response to these concerns, the entire Lean Startup movement - essentially Steve Blank's Customer Development philosophy combined with Agile Development - has arisen. Don't spend 1-2 years or more figuring out your product and then shipping; build the smallest, lightest, fastest time-to-market you can around each part, get it in the hands of customers, and learn quickly from the mistakes. It is easier to correct a small mistake every 2 weeks, then one 52 times as big (or 52 small ones) after two years... not to mention the lost time, competitors in the market, and investors and your own people losing faith.

Mike Bird, a long-time senior IT manager at BP and most recently the head of IT and then Digital Media at a British startup, coined an excellent turn-of-phrase:

It [Product Development] is like a game of chess: make one small move each term, and hope you correctly predict what your opponent will do. If they move unpredictably, respond and adjust.

This is a great analogy for how to do any form of new product development or material changes. You cannot win a chess game by moving all 25 moves before your opponent does his first move. You need to move one small piece at a time, both foreseeing your opponent's moves but also reacting and responding to them.

Likewise, it is nearly impossible to succeed at new product development, or even Web site redesign, simply by spending years in R&D and rolling out a product you believe they want, even after 1,000 potential customer conversations. You need to get the smallest part into their hands, and watch and learn how they respond. Only from watching them can you learn what to do next an respond.

And like in a chess game, where the better you know your opportunity, the more steps ahead you can see, so in product development, the better you understand your customers, the more you can predict their responses and reactions.

Do chess players make better product development managers or entrepreneurs? I don't believe that study has ever been done, but I would like to see the results.

Product Development is like a game of chess, you never know what you're going to get.