Monday, September 05, 2005

The Bakeoff- Software, Cookie, and Product Development

Comments on a New Yorker Article 9/5/05 “The Bakeoff” by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite thinkers and writers; author of The Tipping Point, Blink, and many great articles bridging business, technology, science, and the complex ways humans act individually and in groups.

The Bakeoff concerns a top food industry development firm located in Silicon Valley testing three methodologies of invention to come up with a new cookie.

Fascinated by software development the principal decided to test 2 current approaches to software development vs. a traditional product development process.

The development processes were:

  • The XP or extreme software model where 2 people partner and iterate multiple times- in this case a foodie and a food technologist pretty much doing everything from ideas to making the cookies. This approach is now quite popular in software development.
  • The Linux or open source model where a large group of gurus attempt to collaborate- in this case the Dream Team was made up of an all-star cast of cookie technologists from multiple consumer companies.
  • The traditional model- in this case led by the firm’s director of marketing who was not a food technologist but a brilliant, high energy idea person with broad knowledge. She was supported by one of the firm’s product development directors who would execute her ideas.

The teams were all given certain tough “health” parameters for the product: fat, carbs, etc.. but otherwise free to innovate. At the end of the process the 3 cookies were sent for taste testing to several hundred consumers.

The results:

The winner based on the consumer testing was the traditional model followed closely by the open source or multiple collaborating gurus approach.

The XP model was far behind in the taste test but actually had a decent product first. They went right to work, in a highly linear fashion but did not really think outside the box.

The Dream Team had plenty of expertise and came up with 34 possibilities but due to large group size, egos, and a deliberate lack of leadership and disconnected remote nature there was to much friction to get a really innovative product out the door despite all their talents. Yet, they were close to the winners.

The winner took a long time getting going due to “idea a minute” but in the end because of her broad knowledge she was able to connect laterally to another product, a tortilla chip of all things sitting on her desk which was part of another project, to come up with the idea of a tasty coating “an explosion of flavor” similar to a tortilla chip but on the sweet side of course. which her team executed on. She was well supported by her very experienced product development person and his team. She found the big idea.

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