Classified: Learning to Let Go in New Product Development

 “Classified” is a series spotlighting some of the more powerful lessons faculty are teaching in Haas classrooms.

Four students sit around a table, staring at a small plastic device, round with a button on top. On the screen of one of their laptops is a mockup of an app that shows how the device—once it’s rigged with microphones—will help MBAs track meeting agendas. Prof. Alice Agogino is sitting with them, quizzing them on their product’s name.

She doesn’t like it.

“I like the idea of something subtle, but ‘Imprint’ doesn’t do it for me,” says Agogino, the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering and an affiliated faculty member at Haas.

Agogino is co-teaching the course Managing the New Product Development Process, where students learn the process of bringing a new product from pitch to prototype to market. It’s a class that’s intended to help students figure out how to think nimbly and flexibly—and it’s clearly working. After just a moment’s hesitation, the students start throwing out new names, while Agogino gives feedback.

“’Mentor’ is really hot right now,” she muses.

The team is working on their product for the class final, a tradeshow where each of the seven teams present their work to each other and a panel of judges. The product, “meetingMentor,” is designed to develop leadership in small groups.

Lecturer Michael Borrus, a venture capital investor co-teaching the course with Agogino, says it introduces students to a variety of ways to approach product development. “What we try and do is say, ‘Look, there are a different ways of thinking, each with its own strengths and limitations,’” says Borrus, pictured above with Agogino and Autonomous University of Mexico City instructor Marcelo López (left).

More than a hundred ideas

The course attracts not only MBAs, but also students from the schools of engineering and information sciences. Together, they form deliberately multidisciplinary teams.

Some projects come from the students’ own ideas, and some from sponsors like Samsung, which this fall backed two projects—one of them the note-taking app for MBAs. One team was a collaborative effort with a parallel class at the Autonomous University of Mexico City, and sponsored by the appliance company Mabe.

The students follow a demanding schedule, first pitching ideas and assembling teams, then doing some intensive idea creation. “You have to come up with more than one hundred ideas,” says Laura Burkhauser, MBA 16, (pictured with her team).

And that means the final product may be far from its original plan. Burkhaus and her teammates started with a mirror that took a photo, and ended up with a marketplace app for amateur photography that they dubbed Foto.

“There’s a whole unaddressed market between the selfie and wedding photography,” she explains.

Getting there took a lot of steps, including conducting in-depth interviews with potential customers, prototyping, and then going back to customers again. That back-and-forth is a necessary part of the process, Agogino says.

“And then their customers usually don’t like what they’ve initially come up with,” she adds with a smile.

So it’s back to the drawing board again, refining and refining until they have something they can present. Along the way, they receive help from coaches as well as guidance from Agogino and Borrus.

Judging the work

At the tradeshow, students’ work is judged by the types of people who may one day employ them. They use criteria like the effectiveness of how the teams have gauged customer needs, their creativity, and how well they’ve looked at the costs, revenue, and societal impacts of their product.

It’s a way of checking whether the students have been able to be flexible about their approach. “The real world’s messy,” Borrus says.

Sneha Sheth, MBA 16, learned that this isn’t something you can do while sitting in a classroom—or a conference room. “The process requires you to get out of the building,” she says.

Sheth’s team worked on a game they name “Character Quest,” which helps parents develop positive character traits like grit and perseverance in their children.  “I think the essence is getting a framework and toolkit to be innovative.”

Photos: Lee-Huang Chen