Understanding and Managing Ambiguity in New Product Development: Lessons from the Medical-Device Industry
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This dissertation explores ambiguity in new product development (NPD) projects, what its nature is and how it is managed by those participating in NPD projects. Current methods to manage NPD projects are challenged and many aspects of NPD processes are still poorly understood. Particularly the early phases of NPD are characterized by a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity, a characteristic that does not fit well with the requirement for accurate information typical of the popular stagegate approaches to NPD. The earliest of these phases is commonly recognized in literature as the fuzzy front end of NPD. Research to better understand the fuzzy front end has been called for, but there is a lack of research literature to help us understand what exactly fuzziness is. I believe that the notion of ambiguity captures much of the essence of fuzziness in NPD. However, detailed accounts of ambiguity and how to manage it in NPD projects are missing. The goal of this research was to explore ambiguity in NPD projects and to develop a model that would help understand its nature and its management. Four research questions are posed: 1. How can ambiguity in NPD projects be classified and understood? 2. How do participants in NPD projects respond to ambiguity? 3. How can participants in NPD projects reduce ambiguity? 4. Does sustaining ambiguity play a role in managing NPD projects-and if so, how? The empirical basis of this research is case data from four NPD projects in their early phases, in four Scandinavian medical-device companies. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews, document review and meeting observations. To analyze the data, Grounded Theory (GT) method was chosen for its ability to build conceptual models, with categories and interrelations, grounded in data. The resulting analysis is presented in four papers: Paper 1: “Classification of Ambiguity in New Product Development Projects.” This paper addresses the first research goal. Here we present a model that classifies ambiguity along two dimensions: subject and source. The subjects of ambiguity include Product, Market, Process, and Organizational Resources, whereas the sources of ambiguity include Multiplicity, Novelty, Validity, and Reliability. Paper 2: “Ambiguity Reduction In New Product Development Projects.” This paper addresses research goals 2 and 3. We explore the process by which ambiguity was reduced in the four NPD projects, and propose a model that enhances our understanding of this process. Ambiguity arises as multiple interpretations, and interpretations can be understood as hypotheses, hence these can be tested by using the hypothetical-deductive method (HDM). We present a model showing that ambiguity in NPD projects is efficiently reduced by applying HDM to test the multiple interpretations that give rise to ambiguity and the assumptions underlying these interpretations. Paper 3: “Benefits of ambiguity in New product development.” This paper addresses research goals 2 and 4. Here we explore how companies sometimes sustain or even increase ambiguity during their NPD projects. We present a model by which this process can be better understood. We identify four ways that NPD projects can benefit from temporarily sustaining ambiguity. These are: retaining fallback options, saving costs, saving time, and retaining ideas. Paper 4: “Managing Ambiguity in New Product Development Projects.” In this paper we present a theoretical model by which the nature of ambiguity and its management in NPD projects can be understood. It consists of an overall model and the three sub-models from each of the three preceding papers. Ambiguity can be managed by two means; reducing or sustaining ambiguity. If clarity is a main priority in the NPD project, reducing ambiguity is necessary and can be effectively achieved by applying the hypothetical-deductive method. If novelty and flexibility are high project priorities, temporarily sustaining some ambiguity can be beneficial. Managing ambiguity in the NPD project requires a constant harmonizing of the need for clarity for the sake of operational efficiency and the need for novelty and flexibility to achieve innovation.