Product Development in Uncertain Times

Vikas Malhorta

Chief Research & Product Development Officer at Dorel Juvenile Group

Learning Objectives

In uncertain times, such as the pandemic we are currently living through, organizations have a tendency to hunker down. This is manifested by a slowing or de-prioritizing of activities which are longer-term focused. What should a product development team do in these times? How should the product development function stay relevant to the organization in these times?

Key Takeaways:

  • Functions in an organization should constantly re-position themselves to stay relevant

  • Consumer insights should guide our product development

  • A fast yet meaningful reaction to the needs of consumers, based on insights, is the real need of the hour

"Whatever you think of in terms of product, whatever your industry be, think about the emotional aspect as well."

Vikas Malhorta

Chief Research & Product Development Officer at Dorel Juvenile Group


Hello, everybody. My name is Vikas Malhotra. I’m here today to talk to you about a topic which is very close to my heart. We’re talking about product development, but we’re talking about product development in uncertain times.

Let me tell you why I feel qualified to to discuss this topic with all of you. I’ve had the privilege of working, in my professional career, with some very important brands around the world. I’ve had the privilege of working for these companies. I’ve had the privilege of working in different parts of the world. I have worked in India, in the United States, in Mexico, participated in teams that are operating in Europe, in China, in Latin America. Got to see different people, different cultures very closely, which is an important part of who I have become professionally. It’s also the fact that I have experience in the manufacturing area, in operations, in product development for many years, in technology development. Last but not the least, I have seen it from the underside of organization strategy and vision making as well, which is which is why I feel confident that what I bring to you is years of experience, which I’m sure can help you in some way in your own jobs and roles at this time in our lives.

Uncertain times, obviously related to the pandemic, right? Here’s some information that I [inaudible] from a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs. What it tells us is that we’ve got challenging times ahead of us. The heads of these major companies are telling us that normal business activity as we know is going to be slow for quite some time. They’re also telling us that a quarter of our workforce will probably have to look for new jobs. Those jobs, which aren’t going to be easy to find in these times. Business travel, as we know it, is going to go down. I have bittersweet feelings about that.

Personally, for me, I clocked about couple hundred thousand miles last year. This year, I’m getting to stay at home. Not just quite a bit but really staying at home, getting to spend time with my family a whole lot. That helps in some ways, but we also know that that that’s a reflection of the troubled times that industry and business are going through. To me, this looks way bigger than a slowdown. This is really tough times. If I can make it personal just a bit, we are all hunkered down. We’re all hunkered down regardless of our businesses, what area we are in, what what business we’re in, we’re going through challenging times.

Because our businesses are struggling, I personally feel that product development has sort of taken a backseat. This challenging for us, as people whose primary job is to develop product. I can safely say that, for most of us around this video call, our passion is product development. This is who we are. This is what we come here to do every day. We’re struggling because our organizations just don’t see that ability to develop product right now because they’re trying to survive from day to day. Earlier, we used to survive from quarter to quarter. Now, we’re surviving week to week. These are challenging tasks. There’s no question about that.

This, to me, is not just a plug. What I’m going to tell you us that while everything I told you is about finances, is about numbers, etc, etc., it’s also true that this is a time where we need to bring out the emotional quotient, we need to think about what lies ahead, and we need to look at this as an opportunity. This is a time that we go back to everything that we’ve learned in our careers, and see how we can apply it now. You may think that that’s hard. We do it every day. I know we do it every day, but every day, it used to come naturally to us. It used to happen, because that’s what everybody around us was expecting from us. That’s what we came to do at work. Now, it doesn’t come naturally. We have to pull that out from ourselves, and try to develop the next wave of products because this is who we are and this is what we do.

When I say back to basics, what does that really mean? To me, at least, what it means is that we’re going to start with the consumer. As a product developer, that’s what we do, right? We think about our end consumer, and we start with them. Now, what’s happening with our end consumer right now is that they are going through a mindset shift. They’re going through a set of challenges in their personal life. They’re going through a set of challenges in their professional lives. Some of them are affected badly by the pandemic, some of them are affected mildly by the pandemic, etc. Their families are affected, and so on, and so forth. So their mindset is changing, their thinking is changing. Believe it or not, the new normal, that phrase, it’s almost a cliche right now, but it’s true.

Our responsibility, as product developers, is to figure out, what does the new normal mean for my consumer? What is the new normal mean for my consumer? How can I help my consumer live their lives better in the new normal? If we can figure that out, I think we have a path forward. But this insight generation has to be quick and simple. It’s got to be quick, because things are changing around us very quickly. As I mentioned earlier, if we are going to look at this as an opportunity, we have to look at this as a quick, short term opportunity. We have to make it work for ourselves and for our consumers really quickly. If therefore, that element of speed has to be defined in everything that we do in this timeframe, the insights generation part, which is the first portion needs to be done simply and quickly as well.

I have a few tips for you about that. They’re quick. They’re simple insights. Believe me, they do work. I’ve tried those out myself in my own organization. First and foremost, I think, right now, insight generation, the best way to do that is to use your own teams. It’s difficult to find people outside of your organization who are willing to work with you to create those insights. Let’s try to pull out those insights from our teams. Let’s look at the proverbial consumer that’s sitting inside our own organization, and use them to generate insights.

Create boundaries for the insight generation. For example, you can think of boundaries in terms of timelines, how long do you want to spend in Insight generation. You can think of boundaries in terms of the operating space you have, etc. Don’t jump to conclusions on the product. Use the insights processes that’s supposed to be from that perspective, which is allow yourself the opportunity to understand what’s going on in the minds of the consumer, how their lives are being impacted. Therefore, what are they looking for, and therefore, what can we provide them? Those steps cannot be ignored.

Last but not the least, if you do this, even in a short amount of time and with limited resources, you’re going to get a ton of insights. Be joyful. Please don’t look at every insight as equally valuable and as equal opportunity. Be joyful, pick the right ones, and move forward with those. Now, did I say it’s a short term opportunity? I think I did. And I’m going to say it again and again and again. What I’m gonna emphasize is that this short term opportunity can be realized if we are smart about picking the right product ideas as a consequence of that. Those right product ideas are definitely the ones which would have faster turnaround. To me, fast turnaround product ideas are those which you can build on using the following ideas that that I use in my organization, with my team, with our set of consumers.

Look for adjacencies on products. We have a certain kind of product range. Look for something that’s close to that so that the development of those products is basically an offshoot of existing platforms that you may have. Resurrect half baked ideas. We always have new product ideas, which are in the works. A lot of them get shelved, that’s the nature of product development, because they never make the cut. But some of them are half baked, sitting on a shelf somewhere in in your organization, in that closet that nobody visits for want of better ideas that are already out there. Go pull them out, because they might be the secret to your next great product development effort.

Build on your brand strengths. Your brand defines what your consumer is looking for from you. Build on that. Look for product ideas, which are right on point to the strength of your brand. Another way of saying that is remember what your consumer is expecting from you. If you have been known for a certain promise to your consumer, please stay true to that promise. That helps you narrow the scope of your workload. That helps you come across to your consumer as consistent and reliable. At this point of time, consumers are looking for consistency and reliability in a world that is fast changing around that, which leads me to the next point. Lend an emotional hat. Whatever you think of in terms of product, whatever your industry be, think about the emotional aspect as well. People are going to appreciate it, take that one from me.


Lastly, it’s not always about the product, it’s about what you bring to the consumer. Some of the ideas do not have to be about product itself. It has to be about the value that you’re bringing to your consumer. Think about it. That will help your product development efforts going forward in these times and with speed.


Something I had to bring out. This is about masks. My message for you is, even the Mona Lisa has a face mask. You go out there, you see there are masks everywhere, everybody is is selling masks to you. How is that? How is that that everybody is selling masks to you when when as little as three months ago, this was not what they did?There’s organizations out there who have looked at the immediate opportunity. They have looked at their current capabilities, their competencies, their areas of strength, and they have determined that face masks is something they can do in addition to everything else that they do already today.


So you have masks of all types. You have masks for people from all walks of life, you have masks with your favorite sports teams logo on it, you have masks that can be worn for short periods of time, you can you have masks that can be worn for long periods of time. Trust me, developing a face masks sounds like something which is very simple and easy, it is still challenging. It has its nuances, it has its concerns that you need to avoid, it has its specification requirements. Yet, there are these numerous companies around us, small and large, who have managed to flood the market with a plethora of masks.


What’s happening next is, every few days, you find that a better mask is coming up, something that you can wear for longer, something that provides better protection against airborne particles and viruses, something that that does not cover your face while it actually does cover it, so it’s got a transparent element to it, and so on. This thing is changing so fast, how is it that those guys are able to do it?


Another example, I’m going to throw out to you about adjacencies. How many of you, I’m sure some of you did hear about the fact that Ford created a new version of that police cruiser, which disinfects the cruiser through high temperatures through its age vac system, I guess, while the vehicle is parked. That’s very frequently that that happens with police cruisers. Now, here’s an automobile company that saw what was going around, that saw what their product range was, and they came out with something very basic, simple, it’s adjacent to their product. I’m sure there was this idea that was sitting in somebody’s on somebody’s shelf, and they brought it out. I’m also sure that this does lend a helping hand. It’s an emotional hand. It hits every element of what’s needed. It was fast and it was quick.


Those things are possible in our industry as well. I’m just out here to tell you that if we do those kinds of things, our organizations will support us in building that next product, which is what we are here to do, and which is what is required for our organizations to survive through through this pandemic, and in the future beyond that. But as you do that, my other advice is that you need to garner internal support. Support from within the organization is essential to do it right.


From a guy who just gives you tips, here are three simple steps from my side. Involve other functions in every step of the journey, in the generation of insights, generation of product ideas, and so on and so forth. Every step of the journey. It should feel like this is not coming only from the product development team. It should feel like everybody in the organization wants to it. When somebody looks at an idea, it should feel like it’s their idea. They need to be bought into it. The way to get them bought in is to involve them right from the very beginning. Speed. I’ve said it a few times already, I’m going to say it one more time. If you come up with ideas, which can be executed and implemented quickly, I think you’ll find that there is organizational support for those ideas.


Last but not the least, build on existing product. There are a number of people in your organization, whether they’re in the Supply Chain side, whether they are in the operation side, etc, who would like to see more volume on existing product. You can’t probably give them more volume on existing product, but you can give them more volume on existing product platforms by building on your existing products. That also helps you with the [unintelligible]. I’ve done talking about speed, but one more time, a plug for speed. Build on existing products, get the support of your organization behind you.


If we were to do all this, I think it helps us in several different ways. Our teams, people who want to do product development, they stay motivated and energized. That’s what they want to come to work to do, and you’re giving them the opportunity to do that. There’s no better motivation for that. Our functions stay relevant in our organizations. People continue to believe in the power of your team as it relates to the organization at large. Because even in times like this, you’re able to step up and come to the table with the right opportunities. That speaks a lot for your team, for your organization, for you as a manager out there, for you as a director out there, you’re not only getting kudos from your team, because they’re now getting motivated, but you’re also getting kudos for your team, from other parts of the organization. It’s true that you’re supporting in the revival of your own organization.


So having said all that, I believe that what I have brought to you is not something which is a process to do something new, it’s not a methodology to 5 step approach and 17 step approach to get something out, but it’s a mindset that I recommend that we try to adapt these times. Instead of looking at these times as challenging as they may be, look at the opportunity that lies ahead. That’s it for today from my side. I’d really thank you for being patient listeners. Feel free to send me feedback. My email address and my contact information will follow through. Please, I’m looking forward for your feedback. Thank you very much everybody.

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