Manage the Fuzzy Front End

Diverge and converge concept

Diverge and converge concept

The "Fuzzy-Front-End" is the time at the beginning of the development cycle. It is the point in time when an idea is conceived to when a project is approved and a full team is formed. Don Reinertsen said that "fuzziness consumes time."

Scott McNealy (then CEO at SUN) told me that their trick to reducing development cycle time, to half their competitor's time, was that they managed the fuzzy-front-end (FFE). He realized that 50-100% of the development cycle time was lost during what he called a poorly-managed and under-resourced process.

Further, they recognized that when this process was managed, with a dedicated cross-functional team, they could get to the go-no/go decision much faster. SUN "turned the clock on" at the point where the idea was first discussed and they treated the early gestation period as part of the project to be managed and tracked and not something that "came before the development project."

In most technology companies the front end of the development process is typically left to under-staffed marketing resources that lack time and technical expertise to do the proper feasibility analysis (both technical and business) to define a product effectively. This time frame is where most of the critical technology and architectural decisions are made, along with the feature-set-definition for the eventual product (also called the "release content"). Yet it is run on a part-time basis in most cases, which directly results in extended gestation time (i.e. lost time).

There are big payoffs in better product definition and faster cycle time

Reconciling what is wanted with what a development team can deliver is the key. Managed (i.e. accelerated) FFE efforts have the following best practice characteristics:

  1. Dedicated FFE Cross-Functional Core Team members (engineering, marketing, finance)

  2. Selected & prioritized target markets/customers (using decision analysis tools & formal process for facilitation and group involvement)

  3. Defined business case (real, not fabricated) & they know the cost-of-delay

  4. Preliminary Voice-of-the-customer (VOC) converted to prioritized customer requirements (again using decision analysis)

  5. Reconciled requirements with the ability of the development group to execute

  6. Managed the process (with a weekly refreshed schedule) -- when the FFE schedule slipped they could see the impact on FCS

  7. Properly resourced the effort and had a fast-cycle-time target (usually in less than 8 weeks)