New Product Development: Sausage or Legos?

Why are new products typically treated like sausage? When developing new products, most companies keep the development process entirely under wraps. Prior to the product launch, everything happens behind a curtain of secrecy until the moment when—voila!—the product is “ready” to be presented in its fully-realized form to the world. As a result, even when we look at those products that we love the most, we know nothing about how the product came to be.

I know there are lots of good reasons why companies shroud their product development in secrecy. One obvious yet still-significant concern is security.  If you allow even the slightest peek into product development, there’s a good chance that some plant in Taiwan will have a copycat on the streets in a matter of hours.  And I suppose you also surrender some control when you let people behind the curtain: if you show video of a product that hasn’t yet launched, there is a chance the product will flop and be honored with YouTube videos that remix your footage to a circus soundtrack.

But this near-categorical cover-up of the creation process forgets the fact that most adults grew up playing with Legos. We all spent a decent chunk of our childhood sitting on the floor, surrounded by a sea of plastic, assembling whatever we could imagine. And, when we were done with our creation, what did we do? We destroyed what we made and we started again. Why? Because the creating was at least as interesting (if not more so) than the creation.

I believe there is a huge opportunity for companies to treat their products more like Legos than sausage, and use the process of creating to give more value to their creations.

As he was wrapping up a recent mini-documentary on the kitchen of the clip_image002world-renowned Alinea, Grant Achatz reflected on what might happen if his patrons were to see more of what happens in the kitchen…

“If they knew the labor that went into [the food served at Alinea], it would probably affect their enjoyment of it. Maybe they would feel like they had to enjoy it more…”

Although Achatz went on to say that he would prefer that patrons be surprised, he obviously realized that he was on to something. Recently, Achatz teamed up with Justin.tv to provide a live video feed into the kitchen for a night. The result wasn’t the disappointment of finding out how a card trick is done, but rather a greater appreciation for the magic of Alinea. And rather than show concern over the secrecy of his recipes and techniques, Achatz showed confidence in knowing that tomorrow night they would be on to the next big thing.

Just up the street at L20, another world-renowned fancy pants restaurant, Laurent Gras tapped into the same idea a few years ago as he and his partners worked on opening their new restaurant. In the months leading up to L20’s opening, Gras documented in detail the immense work and detail that was going into the creation of the place and the ultimate dining experience.

pavaillerThe following mini-dissertation on bread is excerpted from the blog: “Our Pavailler is a three deck, steam injected oven built for the purpose of baking crusty loaves of bread. Baking directly on the stone oven floor gives the dough a big push, or what it referred to as “oven spring”. During this initial rise, the intense heat from the oven floor causes the yeast to rapidly produce carbon dioxide which fills the individual cells formed by gluten. But the intense heat of the oven floor is not enough for a loaf to expand in the oven. You need steam in the oven chamber to keep the exterior of the dough from prematurely drying and forming a crust before it is fully developed…”

Sure, the description is overly-detailed (and I even excerpted it).  Sure, it’s a bit pretentious.  But come on– isn’t that part of the appeal of fine dining?  I think the description (in all of its detail and pretentiousness) is brilliant– no longer does bread just appear at your table, it is a punctuation mark on a story of craftsmanship that you’ve enjoyed all along.

I suppose that the Lego approach to product development is powerful only with those products in which you have some emotional investment.  But within that wide world, I struggle to think of a product that wouldn’t be enriched by some riff on this approach.  This goes beyond “making of” films that have been around in movies and such for years (as those are purely retrospective in nature, rather than happening as a way to build anticipation).  Rather, I think this approach could be a way to use the sometimes-scary transparency of the web to let the process of creating infuse more value into creations.  How could such an approach change the way we look at your next car?  Your next pair of running shoes?  Your next iPod?

2 responses to “New Product Development: Sausage or Legos?

  1. The head of Kraft’s Open Collaboration function spoke at an Innovation/Creativity conference at DePaul U. last week. She discussed the way in which the organization challenges outsiders as well as insiders to deal with problems or create solutions. This is not sausage making… it is inviting thought into the organization from outsiders, as well as prompting insiders from other parts of the organization to share ideas they might not be sanctioned to have within their existing job description.

    Certainly not all product development processes have to resemble sausage making.

  2. Pingback: 30 Words of Music, Day 21: Process | Then, Now, Soon…

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