Preventing Turkey-Truck Projects From Clogging NPD Flow

Turkey Truck Queue

It costs nothing in potential revenue to stop development of new product concepts the marketplace won’t accept. Often however, when faced with growing evidence of invalid assumptions on acceptance, the concept’s champions remain committed to press on with development.

As a result, the concept clogs the new product development (NPD) queue. The chief economic waste is delayed revenue growth from validated, marketplace-acceptable concepts piled up behind the clog.

Viewed from an NPD queue flow perspective, a clogging concept is like an ungainly truck, carrying a huge turkey, moving slowly down a freeway. The truck blocks fast access forward in the queue of speedy and agile cars. For these cars, there is a high cost of delay in revenue when they do not reach their destination in time.

How do turkey-truck projects get in NPD flow?

Individuals become unquestioning champions of turkey-truck projects for many reasons. A champion may be a manager in firm’s marketing department. To keep up relationships with a major customer, these champions take at face value what a source at the customer has told them about marketplace acceptance. A champion may be a senior executive, who after a casual conversation with an executive at one of the firm’s customers or suppliers advocates the turkey-truck project. Often a champion is an engineering or marketing manager, who wants to take part in a “cool” technology or market, and pushes the turkey-truck project into NPD flow.

Why is it so hard to get turkey-truck projects out of the NPD flow?

It’s really hard to stop NPD investments in a turkey-truck project. Once a champion reaches a conclusion on investment, they aren’t likely to change their minds, even when new information discovered during development shows their first assumptions are wrong.

“People’s claims that they are unaffected by bias or self-interest can be sincere, even as they make decisions that are in reality self-serving”
Leonard Mlodinow, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (2012)

Developers working on a turkey-truck project can quickly come to the conclusion the project is doomed, a death march to nowhere. However, nobody likes the bearer of bad news and in big corporations being an internal whistleblower is difficult. Often, the safest corporate career move is to transfer to another project.

Once, during teaching a class of MBA students how to phone your way into your concept’s ecosystem, I asked the students these questions.

“How many of you have at least four years NPD experience?” Twenty-three people raised their hands. “How many of you have been involved in a turkey-truck project?” Nineteen raised their hands. “If you were able to get off the project before it crashed and burned, lower your hands?” Eighteen lowered their hands. I looked at the one whose hand remained raised. He said: “Sir, I was in the military”.

Case History: Stopping A Turkey-Truck NPD Project

A client’s marketing manager was concerned about a NPD project stuck in the development queue for over a year. She said a technical manager at the client’s major customer helped start the project. The technical manager was sure his concept of an innovative twist on one of the client’s proprietary products would result in revenue growth in the house construction panel ecosystem.

A senior executive at the client became champion of the project and slid it into the NPD queue. After a year’s lack of progress the executive gave the marketing manager permission to enlist me to understand the concept’s ecosystem. However, along with permission came the restriction that I was not to be told the major customer’s identity.

After twenty-two interviews worldwide in the house construction panel ecosystem, I discovered the ultimate end-users of panels had no need for the innovative twist. Furthermore from these interviews, I gathered hints that helped me find the customer’s technical manager inside a major European company.

A few extra interviews led to an interview with an person who turned out to be the technical manager. He was eager to work with my anonymous client because his other source was “moving too slow”. After locating and interviewing marketing colleagues and the business unit manager I learned they saw no use for the potential new product. They indicated the technical manager no longer had any decision-making power inside the company.

Subsequent interviews strengthened the conclusion that this turkey-truck project should be pulled off the NPD freeway. The marketing manager traveled to Europe and validated my analysis and conclusion with trusted people at the European company. On her return the turkey-truck project was pulled into a rest area where it remains after seventeen years with zero cost of delay.