Product development: Past research, present findings, and future directions

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Citation: Shona L. Brown, Kathleen M. Eisenhardt (1995) Product development: Past research, present findings, and future directions. The Academy of Management Review (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Product development: Past research, present findings, and future directions
Tagged: Business (RSS) Strategy (RSS), Innovation (RSS), Product Development (RSS)


In Academy of Management Review style, Shona Brown and Kathleen Eisenhardt offer a detailed review of the literature on product development. The review splits the literature into three groups they call rational plan', communication web and disciplined problem solving. They then offer a combined synthetic model that brings together all three literatures before indicating paths for future research.

The authors treat the product development literature hugely broad in scope and they focus on the structure and processes within organizations through which products are created. The literature, in this sense, can be thought of a more focused version of the innovation and organizations literature (and some overlap between those two). Brown and Eisenhardt break down the literature into three major groups:

  • Rational plan: Exemplified by the work of Rothwell et al. in the SAPPHO project, the rational plan emphasizes that successful product development requires:
    • Careful planning, a superior product, and an attractive market
    • Good execution of that plan by a well managed and competitive cross functional team.
    • Strong support by senior management.
  • Communications web: Builds largely off the work of Tom Allen on communications in organizations and focuses on a single independent variable: communication. The results of the stream indicate that external communication is critically important to product development and that gatekeepers play a critical role in successful projects. Similarly, internal communications play an important role in successful teams.
  • Problem solving: Which is built on the work of Imai and Clark and Fujimoto and others and which evolved out of study of Japanese manufacturers. Their takeaways included arguments in favor of concepts like subtle control which led to increased flexibility and better performance and product integrity which led to increased degrees of compatibility with a corporate identity (e.g., Tripsas, 2009) and system focus.

Brown and Eisenhardt argue that the rational plan tends to include too many variables to be useful and has tended to rely too heavily on single informants. The communications web theory tends to be overly focused on a single variable and rely to heavily on subjective criteria to measure success. Problem-solving, they argue, is too focused on complicated and vague concepts.

Brown and Eisenhardt then provide an integrative model with takeaways described in terms of project teams, project leaders, senior management, suppliers and customers, and financial success of products.

In their summary, Brown and Eisenhardt explain that, complementary to the research attempting to open the black box of innovation as it happens within organizations (e.g., Nelson and Winter, 1982), explaining that, "the product development literature opens up that black box by providing depth and a rich understanding of how actual products are developed within firms, a critical core capability for many firms."

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

The article has been cited more than 1,600 times in the 15 years since it was published. Interestingly, many of the most highly cited article cited it are outside the product development and include work on strategy, innovation, and organizations more broadly.