Integrating the Fuzzy Front End of New Product Development

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Many companies formulate product strategies, routinely choose among new product concepts, and plan new product development projects. Yet, when asked where the greatest weakness in product innovation is, the managers at these companies indicate the fuzzy front end.1 They recite some familiar symptoms of front-end failure:

  • New products are abruptly canceled in midstream because they don’t “match the company strategy.”
  • “Top priority” new product projects suffer because key people are “too busy” to spend the required time on them.
  • New products are frequently introduced later than announced because the product concept has become a moving target.

Times have changed since 1983 when Donald Schön described product development as a “game” in which “general managers distance themselves from the uncertainties inherent in product development and . . . technical personnel protect themselves against the loss of corporate commitment.”2 Since then, new product development has become a core business activity that needs to be closely tied to the business strategy and a process that must be managed through analysis and decision making.3 Now, general managers cannot distance themselves from the uncertainties of product development, nor can technical personnel protect themselves against corporate commitment.

As enhanced capabilities for concurrent engineering, rapid prototyping, and smoothly functioning supplier partnerships have helped reduce product design and development times, management attention has begun to shift to the cross-functional front-end strategic, conceptual, and planning activities that typically precede the detailed design and development of a new product.4 Here, new product ideas gain the shape, justification, plans, and support leading to their approval and subsequent execution. Yet, despite widespread recognition of the front end’s importance, there has been limited systematic examination directed at improving its effectiveness.

Our exploratory study of front-end activity in eleven companies highlights best practice based on our assessment of seven critical activities. We begin by taking a systems view of the front-end process based on existing academic and practitioner literature. After discussing how companies should manage the front end as part of a normative model of the process, we use data from case studies to identify challenges and solutions.5 Next, we describe an approach for creating a successful process and present a checklist and diagnostic for front-end practice.

What Is the “Front End”?

Prior research has focused on the success factors for new product development (NPD).



1. The notion of the fuzzy front end and its importance was first introduced in:

P.G. Smith and D.G. Reinertsen, Developing Products in Half the Time (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991).

See also:

A. Khurana and S.R. Rosenthal, “Discovering the Shortcomings in the ‘Front-End’ of New Product Development: Findings from Cross-Industry Case Studies” (Boston: Boston University School of Management, Manufacturing Roundtable working paper, 1996);

K.B. Clark and S.C. Wheelwright, Leading Product Development (New York: Free Press, 1995);

S.R. Rosenthal, Effective Product Design and Development (Homewood, Illinois: Business One Irwin, 1992);

A.K. Gupta and D.L. Wilemon, “Accelerating the Development of Technology-Based New Products,” California Management Review, volume 32, Winter 1990, pp. 24–44; and

R.G. Cooper and E.J. Kleinschmidt, “New Products: What Separates Winners from Losers?,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, volume 4, September 1987, pp. 169–184.

2. See D.A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (New York: Basic Books, 1983), p. 266.

3. H.K. Bowen, K.B. Clark, C.A. Holloway, and S.C. Wheelwright, “Development Projects: The Engine of Renewal,” Harvard Business Review, volume 72, September-October 1994, pp. 110–120.

For a business process view, see:

T. Davenport, Process Innovation: Reengineering Work through Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1993), chapter 11.

4. See Cooper and Kleinschmidt (1987);

Gupta and Wilemon (1990);

Smith and Reinertsen (1991);

Rosenthal (1992); and

Clark and Wheelwright (1995).

For a study on factors explaining “good” product definition, see:

G. Bacon, S. Beckman, D. Mowery, and E. Wilson, “Managing Product Definition in High-Technology Industries: A Pilot Study,” California Management Review, volume 36, Spring 1994, pp. 32–56.

Of the key factors for NPD success identified by Bacon et al. and other researchers, several pertain to front-end issues: product-core competence fit, senior manager responsibility for NPD planning, clear understanding of user needs, explicit description of product concept and definition, careful planning, specifying contingency plans, and resource planning. For purposes of description and understanding, we divide Bacon et al.’s interpretation of product definition into product strategy, product definition, and project definition, primarily because these activities involve different analytical and implementation approaches. See, also:

W.E. Souder, Managing New Product Innovations (Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1987);

Booz Allen & Hamilton, “New Product Development in the 1980s” (New York: Booz Allen & Hamilton, 1982); and

R. Rothwell, C. Freeman, A. Horsley, V.T.P Jervis, A.B. Robertson, and J. Townsend, “Sappho Updated — Project Sappho Phase II,” Research Policy, volume 3, number 3, 1974, pp. 258–291.

5. We first identifed a series of operational problems encountered in new product development and linked them to activities and practices at the front end. For that analysis, see:

Khurana and Rosenthal (1996).

6. Bacon et al. (1994); and

Gupta and Wilemon (1990).

While there has been limited research on the front end, researchers who study new product development often include some NPD success factors that pertain to the front end. See, for example:

Smith and Reinertsen (1991);

Rothwell et al. (1974); and

R.G. Cooper and E.J. Kleinschmidt, “Determinants of Timeliness in Product Development,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, volume 11, November 1994, pp. 381–396.

7. Roberts and Fusfeld call a set of foundation-type activities “critical functions for enhanced innovation.” They portray project-specific activities as a six-stage process starting with preproject activities. See:

E.B. Roberts and A.R. Fusfeld, “Staffing the Innovative Technology-Based Organization,” Sloan Management Review, volume 22, Spring 1981, pp. 19–34.

8. M. McGrath, Product Strategy for High-Technology Companies (Burr Ridge, Illinois: Irwin, 1995).

9. These are the top three levels of the strategic hierarchy presented by McGrath (1995). McGrath describes product strategy in a four-level hierarchy starting with strategic vision and then proceeding to product-platform strategy, product-line strategy, and, finally, individual projects.

10. Bacon et al. (1994).

11. McGrath (1995); and

R.G. Cooper and E.J. Kleinschmidt, “New Product Performance: Keys to Success, Profitability, and Cycle Time Reduction,” Journal of Marketing Management, volume 11, September 1995, pp. 315–337.

12. McGrath (1995);

Cooper and Kleinschmidt (1995);

D.G. Ancona and D.F. Caldwell, “Beyond Boundary Spanning: Managing External Dependence in Product Development Teams,” Journal of High-Technology Management Research, volume 1 number 2, 1990, pp. 119–135; and

D.G. Ancona and D.F. Caldwell, “Bridging the Boundary: External Process and Performance in Organizational Teams,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 37, December 1992, pp. 634–665.

13. Selected research on these issues includes:

K.B. Clark and T. Fujimoto, Product Development Performance (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1991); and

K. Imai, I. Nonaka, and H. Takeuchi, “Managing the New Product Development Process: How Japanese Companies Learn and Unlearn,” in R. Hayes, K. Clark, and P. Lorenz, eds., The Uneasy Alliance: Managing the Productivity-Technology Dilemma (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1985), pp. 337–375;

L. Dwyer and R. Mellor, “Organizational Environment, New Product Process Activities, and Project Outcomes,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, volume 8, March 1991, pp. 39–48; and

D. Dougherty, “Interpretive Barriers to Successful Product Innovations in Large Firms,” Organization Science, volume 3, May 1992, pp. 179–202.

14. Cooper and Kleinschmidt (1995).

15. The creation of product concepts is discussed in:

C.M. Crawford, New Products Management, 3rd edition (Homewood, Illinois: Irwin, 1991).

Customer requirements should drive all product design and development, including the creation of product concepts. There is a growing body of information on how such requirements ought to be obtained and translated into product requirements. One familiar technique for translating customer requirements into product attributes is quality function deployment (QFD). See:

J.R. Hauser and D. Clausing (1988), “The House of Quality,” Harvard Business Review, volume 66, May–June 1988, pp. 63–73; and

G.L. Urban and J.R. Hauser, Design and Marketing of New Products, 2nd edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall; 1993).

16. Bacon et al. (1994).

17. Bacon et al. (1994); and

K.M. Eisenhardt and B. Tabrizi, “Accelerating Adaptive Processes: Product Innovation in the Global Computer Industry,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 40, March 1995, pp. 84–110.

18. R.H. Hayes, S.C. Wheelwright, and K.B. Clark, Dynamic Manufacturing (New York: Free Press, 1988);

Dwyer and Mellor (1991); and

R. Cooper, “Third-Generation New Product Processes,” Journal of Product Innovation Management, volume 11, January 1994, pp. 3–14.

19. See Rosenthal (1992);

Smith and Reinertsen (1991);

Cooper (1994); and

R.G. Cooper, “Stage-Gate Systems: A New Tool for Managing New Products,” Business Horizons, volume 33, May–June 1990, pp. 44–54.

20. Bacon et al. (1994); and

Cooper and Kleinschmidt (1995).

21. For a description of phase review systems, see:

Cooper (1990); and

Rosenthal (1992), chapter 2. See also:

M.E. McGrath, M.T. Anthony, and A.R. Shapiro, Product Development Success through Product and Cycle-Time Excellence (Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1992).

22. An alternative approach that is emerging in the best companies is based on platform planning and emphasizes that product opportunities are related to the development of product platforms. See:

McGrath (1995); and

M.H. Meyer, P. Tertzakian, and J.M. Utterback, “Metrics for Managing Research and Development” (Cambridge: MIT Sloan School of Management, working paper 3817, 1995).

23. S.C. Wheelwright and K.B. Clark, Revolutionizing Product Development (New York: Free Press, 1992).

Several product development researchers have raised the issue of roles, e.g., project managers (Wheelwright and Clark, 1992), and core team and executive reviews (McGrath et al., 1992). However, our interest is in looking at how these roles influence the front end of new product development and what challenges arise as a result of the interactions among these roles.

24. In some companies that do platform planning in a serious way, one can visualize the development of a platform concept or architecture also as a front-end deliverable.

25. Meyer et al. (1995).

26. Wheelwright and Clark (1992).

27. Ancona and Caldwell (1990); and

Ancona and Caldwell (1992).

28. Clark and Fujimoto suggest that in such cases, there is often “little or no attention to integrating a clear sense of customer expectations into the work of the product development organization as a whole.” See:

K.B. Clark and T. Fujimoto, “The Power of Product Integrity,” Harvard Business Review, volume 68, November–December 1990, pp. 107–118.

29. Though not all platforms or product lines can plan for multiple releases at frequent intervals, proactive planning of product releases a few years ahead is desirable. For example, Sony does not necessarily plan multiple releases but achieves the same objective by freezing the product design early on. It then begins work on the next product model concurrently to incorporate changes in customer needs or technology. See:

Meyer et al. (1995);

McGrath (1995); and

S. Sanderson-Walsh and M. Uzumeri, “Managing Product Families: The Case of the Sony Walkman,” Research Policy, volume 24, September 1995, pp. 761–782; and

P.R. Nayak and J.P. Deschamps, Product Juggernauts (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1995).

30. See, for example:

R.R. Kamath and J.K. Liker, “A Second Look at Japanese Product Development,” Harvard Business Review, volume 72, November–December 1994, pp. 154–170.

31. K.A. Howard, “Postponement of Packaging and Product Differentiation Lowers Logistics Costs,” in A.K. Chakravarty, ed., Globalization of Technology, Manufacturing, and Service Operations (New Orleans: Tulane University, Goldring Institute, A.B. Freeman School of Business, Proceedings of Symposium, 7–8 January 1994).

32. Apparently, such redundancy is at the heart of Toyota’s development success. See:

A. Ward, J.K. Liker, J.J. Cristiano, and D.K. Sobek II, “The Second Toyota Paradox: How Delaying Decisions Can Make Better Cars Faster,” Sloan Management Review, volume 36, Spring 1995, pp. 43–61.

In the context of design, simultaneously working on multiple subsystem/component alternatives generally leads to a faster product development cycle. We suggest that the same is true for planned and anticipated redundancy in the face of technological or other risks.

33. Other interrelationships that have been mentioned in previous research, e.g., Bacon et al. (1994), and used at several case study sites include: the need for strategic alignment between product development efforts and overall business strategy, the direct links between product definition and project planning, the close association of project planning and staffing policies, and the need to modify the roles and responsibilities of key organizational members as a function of project complexity and size.

34. P. Lawrence and J. Lorsch, Organizations and Environments (Homewood, Illinois: Irwin, 1969); and

Clark and Fujimoto (1991).

35. D. Dougherty and E.H. Bowman, “The Effects of Organizational Downsizing on Product Innovation,” California Management Review, volume 37, Summer 1995, pp. 28–44.

36. Ward et al. (1995); and

M. Iansiti, “Shooting the Rapids,” California Management Review, volume 38, Fall 1995, pp. 1–22.

37. This notion of balance also reflects our agreement with an article on balancing instinctive and fully analytical decision making. See:

A. Langley, “Between ‘Paralysis by Analysis’ and ‘Extinction by Instinct’,” Sloan Management Review, volume 36, Spring 1995, pp. 63–76.

38. In the “pre-emergent” stage, a company has no formal front end, nor does it perceive the need for one; none of the companies we studied fell into this category. This situation is common either in start-up companies in which a few principals make product development decisions informally, or in business units where structured product innovation is not yet the basis for competition. NPD activities for such organizations are tightly integrated, but often a few senior managers do this tacitly.

39. See, for example:

S.L. Goldman, R.N. Nagel, and K. Preiss, Agile Competitors and Virtual Organizations: Strategies for Enriching the Customer (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1995).

40. See Meyer et al. (1995); McGrath (1995); and

Sanderson-Walsh and Uzumeri (1995).

For a proposed new model of the stage-gate system, see:

Cooper (1994).

41. A full description of why a company should adopt more than one front-end solution, and what these solutions might look like, is beyond our scope. While we do not yet have a full map of “compatible contexts,” some of the contingencies we have discovered are: radicalness of product, maturity of industry, experience of the business unit with formal front-end processes, small or large firm, and entrepreneurial or conservative firm. We are currently writing a paper that more fully develops this perspective.

a. In addition to the eleven cases directly involved in this research, we also draw on and cite examples from prior knowledge of several cases of new product development projects that the second author researched in 1989 to 1991.

See: S.R. Rosenthal, Effective Product Design and Development (Homewood, Illinois: Business One Irwin, 1992).

b. B. Glaser and A. Strauss, The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (Chicago: Aldine Publishers, 1967); and

K.M. Eisenhardt, “Building Theory from Case Research,” Academy of Management Review, volume 14, number 4, 1989, pp. 532–550.


This research was sponsored and supported by the Boston University Manufacturing Roundtable, School of Management, and a research grant from Seiko Epson Corporation, Japan. The authors acknowledge the cooperation of the U.S., Japanese, and European companies that participated. They also thank Professors Jinichiro Nakane and Hiroshi Katayama of Waseda University, Japan, and acknowledge the help of Paul Callaghan, doctoral student at Boston University, in data collection.

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