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In a recent conversation with a prospective client, we were discussing their potential route to market by figuratively walking them through our development programme illustration

Their first comment was that it was less linear and formulaic than they assumed it would be and actually looked more like a snakes and ladders board.

Well, this got me thinking. Is this a good analogy of the product development process? Do you have to be careful of landing on a particular ‘square’ in your development in case it sends you right back to the start?

The simple answer is no, but there are, however, plenty of hurdles throughout and although a particular action won’t catapult you back to the start, key omissions in your programme will.

Is product development a game of chance?

“Snakes and ladders is a game of chance. Product development is not. Actions wont send you backwards, but omissions will.”

The best way to win a game of snakes and ladders is to get to the end square using the quickest possible route. A nice lofty ladder from the start to the end point is a good way to succeed, but getting there is somewhat beyond your control. Every roll of the dice dictates your route and it’s down to chance whether you climb straight to that winning square or go the long way round. The game of product development is less serendipitous.

As a product development consultancy, we often see people who have an incredible innovation but are so eager to get it on the market that they are hell-bent on taking that ladder straight to launch. However, this approach inevitably omits key programme requirements, landing them in a position that will likely snake them back to the start, to address the factors they have missed.

It is no surprise that many innovators try to rush through steps. Product development is no quick process, especially when it comes to medical devices (which can take between three to five years to develop). And without a defined development roadmap, which is only really achieved through frontline experience, it is understandable that many innovators look to partner with a development specialist.

At eg, we have spent years refining our development pathway and have learned along the way, which steps must be factored in and, more importantly, when. Nothing we do is down to chance. Everything is planned, scheduled, reported upon and managed carefully by our team of project managers. This may not be the preferred option for many, some may want to go it alone, but rolling a dice with product development won’t get you very far, as you will only have to return and address the elements you missed. Plan every step of your route to market and leave no stone unturned to avoid any potential snakes.

Failing fast

One of the single most frustrating things when playing snakes and ladders is making your way carefully (some might say luckily) towards the top of the board, only to land on a gargantuan python which takes you back to the start. I have played many games, where I have smugly mocked my daughter as I ploughed ahead and she hit snake after snake, only to see her whizzing past me to the finish line, whilst I take the long descent back to square one!

The moral of that touching story?
1. Play nice…nobody likes a smug opponent.
2. It’s often better to face multiple smaller pitfalls early on in your journey, than one enormous downward spiral towards the end, when you’ve already expended much of your enthusiasm and energy and have much further to climb. And guess what? The same applies when developing a product.

We often use the phrase, ‘failing fast’. This might seem like a slightly negative approach; but if you have an idea for an amazing innovation and are in the process of generating concepts, you want to know what will, and more importantly what will not work pretty quickly. Dedicating time and resource to a doomed concept doesn’t do anyone any favours, so we, as a team dedicate time to analysing the approaches, including those that won’t work, so they can be taken out of the equation quickly. We then cycle through prototyping stages to iron out further faults and ensure our progression is measured and tested.

Failing fast effectively means ruling out improbable options early on in the process, and this approach forces you as a developer to prioritise risk management in your programme. Looking at a product through ‘risk-coloured glasses’ allows for pragmatic development and careful progress via a considered pathway.

Iteration is not a backward step

Looking at the development roadmap that spurned the snakes and ladders comparison, it is clear that the numerous arrows which link stages are the source of comparison. But what do these arrows indicate? When we think of product development, we think of the key stages; concept generation, design and development, transfer to manufacture and market launch.

Four very linear stage gates. However, there are multiple tasks, requirements and actions that make up these broader stages and effective development often requires each to be visited multiple times.

As mentioned, front-loading your programme with human factors and usability, risk management and market research will arm you with the information you need for a successful development, but until you start prototyping and testing your theories, in reality you don’t know for sure it will perform exactly as you wish. This is a major similarity to the fortuitous game of snakes and ladders; a snake might take you backwards, but that doesn’t mean to say you won’t have a better journey going forward (just ask my daughter!).

We must stop looking at iteration as a backwards step and realise progress isn’t always a straight line. By iterating and cycling through stages, we end up with a more rigorously tested, robust and potentially successful product than if we’d have blindly ploughed on, because let’s face it, we’d have only got so far without encountering a snake!

Don’t roll the dice with your product development

So, going back to the original question…is the game of snakes and ladders a good analogy for the product development process? I think the answer is, in some ways, yes – purely due to the repetitive (or iterative) nature of the game, but in other ways, absolutely not.

Firstly, your route to market shouldn’t be guided by luck, it should in fact be rigorously planned to include all eventualities. There should be no surprises along the way, if it is planned correctly. Rushing your idea and not having complete insight into all aspects of your route to market leaves elements to chance and this is a recipe for disaster.

Secondly, it is important to remember that iteration often leads to a better end product and isn’t an unnecessary inconvenience – it may prolong the prototyping stage, but it will save you time and money in the long run. Test, test and test again and incorporate your learnings to ensure your product is compliant, effective and a success.

Don’t leave your product’s future up to chance by rolling the dice with your development, reach out and we can help you climb every ladder to success (see what I did there?!).

For more information or to chat with one of our team about your product design and development requirements, please do not hesitate to get in touch:

Via email on, by giving us a call on +44 01223 813184, or by clicking here.