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Defining a “real need” in business and product development

In their book Lean software development: An Agile Toolkit Mary and Tom Poppendieck discuss how 3M encourages all staff to develop new products, they also discuss the approval process for these products. At 3M there are three very small “hurdles” a team must surpass to progress their idea to the next level:

  1. The product must meet a real need
  2. It must use 3M technology
  3. It must have a good profit potential

In this article I’m going to be focusing on the first hurdle “The product must meet a real need”.  Through simplicity this statement hits the nail directly on the head. We all have needs and unmet needs are what drive us to purchase products and services that attempt to fill the need. So how do we establish what a real need is?

Business and product needs are often NOT true needs and that’s ok

I must admit when I first read the criteria set by 3M the first thought that popped into my head was how do they ever release any products?! A 3M picture hanging strip is definitely not a need, I would not cease to exist without it. If I suffered a severe injury, severing my arm and was bleeding to death I doubt a post it note would provide much assistance to myself or even the most skilled of doctors trying to fix me.

Despite all of this, those (amongst other) products have passed these hurdles, products like the post it note have seen huge commercial success and 3M produces sales of \$30.2 billion a year (2015 year end). So what gives?

Something becomes a need in the context of a want

The previous example is drastic and it’s obvious a ‘real need’ in the eyes of 3M is different to a real life/death need. So after thinking about this for some time I thought I would discuss what it means to me:

A real need spawns from a want/desire for something that does not currently exist.

Here are some examples:

  • If I’m a forgetful person (I am) and I don’t want to forget something then I need something to help me remember. Enter the post it note.
  • If I want to answer a question and don’t have the answer then I need a way to find that information. Enter Google.
  • If my pregnant girlfriend wants biscuits and we don’t have any in the house I need to go and get her some. Enter 24 hour supermarkets ?

These needs are all relevant in the context of the want. It is impossible to satisfy the want without taking some action to receive gratification. This is why the world has so many products/services, everyone has different wants that they want to satisfy. To satisfy these wants they need something that they currently do not possess because if they already had what they want they wouldn’t need anything to fulfil it!

The volume of people/organisations with the same need

Finally, I would like to mention another important factor; the volume of people with the same need. It doesn’t make sense for a business to invest time, money and resources into developing a product or service that only one person has a need for. For a product to be considered a ‘real need’ there must be a viable amount of people with that need. The volume of people with the need has to be enough to satisfy the wants of the developer/manufacturer producing the product and this is where 3M’s third hurdle “It must have a good profit potential” comes into play.