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Up until the last few decades, product life cycles were in decades and a competitive position depended on incremental improvements, setting the right price and developing a large share of a large market. So top managers usually focused more on finances than on product development. 

Now the picture has changed. Success depends on coming out with new products much faster than in the past. Life cycles are in months. The technologies involved are more complex. Consumers now expect a plethora of new features and products. Many markets have become no more than small niches. Companies have had to respond more quickly to constantly changing technologies and markets. And the products themselves have become more complex. Often they are internally complex in order to make them externally simple to use. 

Once the primary assets of a business were buildings, machines, finances and the more mechanical aspects of people. They were comparatively easy to see, measure, understand and thus easier to manage. Now what people carry in their heads has become one of the most important assets. We are concerned more with learning and sharing knowledge. These are much harder to see and manage. 

We are being given all sorts of advice as to how to survive in this new world: empowerment (it used to be called delegation), cross functional teams (they used to be called committees) to get all the constraints declared up front by designers, marketeers, manufacturers, accountants and all those others who must have a say from when the product is defined until it finally moves out the door. We are told to create learning organizations and to mine the knowledge and creativity distributed throughout the company. But following all this advice leaves managers like the proverbial man who is asked to keep his nose to the grindstone, his shoulder to the wheel and his ear to the ground and somehow work in that position to produce a constant stream of miracles. The reports are that the successes of these attempts have been less than resounding. They have usually not paid the costs of instituting these ideas. Something has been missing. 

Well-planned projects often explode, usually when there is little money or time left to resolve the difficulties. Assumptions hit from out of the blue when what we assumed to be true turns out not to be true. We need a different way of thinking.

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