The Uncertainty Principle in New Products

If you ever studied physics, you will have come across Professor Werner Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle, which states – roughly – that you either know the position of a sub-atomic particle, or you know its momentum, but you cannot ever know both. And moreover, these uncertainties are inversely related: the more precisely you know the particle’s position, the less precisely you know its momentum, and vice versa.

Many years ago, as the marketing manager of an electronics company, it occurred to me that my frustration over developmental delays in the launch almost every new product resulted from an analogous relationship, and I humbly formulated Lynn’s Uncertainty Principle: for any new hardware or software development project, you either know the exact functional specification, or you know the launch date, but never both. If the functional spec must be rigorously adhered to, the first shipment date is unknown; and if the product absolutely has to be delivered by a specific date, the spec of Version 1 is unknowable in advance.

My boss, a physicist by training, offered a quantum corollary: the act of observing the project changes the result. In other words, whenever you have a design review to check on progress, it immediately either causes the project to slip another 6 months, or causes the spec to be reduced.

In the three decades since we agreed on this cynical view of new product development, there have been many attempts to mitigate the Principle’s effects – scrum, agile, critical chain, lean start-up’s Minimum Viable Product, and so on. But like Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will”), and the satisfyingly recursive Hofstadter’s Law (“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law”), the Principle always applies. If you doubt it, look at this nice chart on construction industry over-runs from the excellent CB Insights.