From Phase Zero to Product Development Hero: A How-To Guide

By Blair Erbstoeszer, Project Manager, Stratos Product Development

Everyone loves a hero. In the case of product development, these heroes are often quiet as their projects sail along smoothly, avoiding the land mines of sinking projects that have lost their way. These heroes also can often avoid the last-second hoop jumping regularly required by their teams to deliver a product.

So how can you become a hero in product development and save your team from the reactive drama that is all too common in the development process? To increase the chances of becoming a product development hero in you organization, a time saving approach is to determine whether your idea has potential before the project even starts. This iterative, upfront exercise is often called Phase Zero.

Phase Zero is an early planning phase activity for evaluating innovation opportunities while building a business case to support an investment decision. Projects that employ this phase are executed efficiently and have a higher likelihood of hitting their performance, budgetary, and schedule targets. Typical goals of Phase Zero include generating first-order confidence that a real business opportunity exists and gaining confidence that a viable product can be developed to address it.

If you already have encouraging answers or scenarios to match those goals, you are likely ready to move to the more traditional phases of product development and be a hero. If not, try to enact a Phase Zero effort to get answers to those or similar questions.

Phase Zero Essentials

While spending the time up front can be hard to do because people are enthusiastic and ready to get going, taking the time to ask important questions will pay off in spades for future success. It is important to include a cross-functional team during this phase to ensure the project is bound by all technical and business disciplines from the outset to answer all questions.

Here’s an at-a-glance overview of essential areas to gather key feedback on before launching a project:

  • IP Generation and Ownership: Many projects are started only to be abandoned later because of legal issues, preexisting patents, etc. Do the research up front and understand whether your innovation will have the freedom to operate.
  • Technology Assessment: How mature is your technology? What will the commercial configuration look like? If the product development strategy is risky, spend time on a proof-of-concept prototype. You can even consider going a step further and conduct applied research.
  • Regulatory Strategy (if required): Misunderstanding or not fully comprehending the reimbursement and regulatory needs of a product is a common place to get tripped up further down the line. Take the time now to define your strategy.
  • Business Model: Identify the factors now that you will need to make an adequate return on investment (ROI) calculation later. Rough concepts are OK at this stage, but consider profit-and-loss expectations, estimated revenue, and acceptable profit margin.
  • Knowledge of Customer and Company: Make sure you understand the top priorities of your customer and have identified the key deliverables that will result from the project. Ask yourself, “Do these deliverables meet the customer’s needs?” Also, it is imperative to determine whether or not your company or organization can actually tackle the project or if you need to partner with someone else. It is great to be optimistic, but overpromising and underdelivering rarely ends well for anyone.
  • Initial Draft: Create a beginning product development plan and identify high-level milestones and a first pass of the resources needed to successfully complete the project. Rough ideas are appropriate at this point, as a more detailed planning phase will be one of the next steps if the effort gets the green light.

In Phase Zero, keep your thoughts and discussions at a high level and don’t get bogged down in the nuts and bolts. I mean this literally since it is very easy to waste time and slip into a detailing stage that will undoubtedly change at this early stage anyway. If someone actually starts talking about which nuts or bolts should be used to fasten something, stop them and bring the conversation back to the appropriate level.

The output of Phase Zero is to come to a go/no-go decision as to whether to pursue the next level of product development—nothing more, nothing less. As you are beginning your next project, consider the above points. If the answers aren’t already evident, propose a Phase Zero effort and get the necessary participants involved to get a strategy going. Try it and don’t be afraid to be a hero.

Blair Erbstoeszer is a project manager for Stratos Product Development. He has 14 years of experience in product development as both a project/program manager and mechanical engineer, working previously for Guidant, Boston Scientific, and Microsoft. His focus has been in class II and III medical devices and cutting edge, high-volume consumer products. He has an MSME from the University of Washington and a BSME from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He can be reached at blair@stratos.com.