The 7 Steps to Mastering Technical Design Reviews

preliminary design review



When it comes to the product development cycle and a phase gated design process, holding robust technical design reviews is critical to a project’s success. While there are various types of design reviews that lend themselves to different types of technologies and industries, the most common and universal examples include the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) and Critical Design Review (CDR). If you are in product development in any way, you have more than likely participated in such events. Technical design reviews serve as the formal setting in which a cross functional team can get together to evaluate the commercial potential, business risk, and production validity of a new product or design. Further, in some situations, successful completion of a design review may actually represent a milestone payment to your firm from a customer. Thus, great emphasis should be placed on getting the most out of such meetings, and getting through them successfully.

Here are the seven key elements to a succesful design review:

1. Get The Right Attendees

Despite the name, technical design reviews should include far more people than just your engineers and scientists. Instead, the list of participants should reflect a cross functional team of key stake holders and knowledgeable individuals. A cross functional team ensures that all aspect of the business will be sufficiently represented, and well-rounded feedback can be obtained. For instance, your sales team may love your product because your competitor does not have anything like it in their portfolio, but your production team may offer significant concern over its production feasibility.  So, in addition to the technical team, the list of individuals should include representation from marketing, who will want to understand the product features that make it valuable. Your participants should also include manufacturing and operations who will be responsible for producing the product, as well as quality assurance who will want to know how the product will need to be inspected and controlled within your quality system. Other participation should come from the relevant business leadership who will want to understand any of the risks associated with the project or technology and who can also serve as decision makers on key issues.

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2. Find the Right Setting

Effective design reviews occur when there is focussed and detailed discussion over a specific product or design.  Such discussions need to be very specific and detailed conversations.  To make sure your cross functional team is afforded the time and concentration to have such a conversation debate, it is always advisable to seclude the group from day-to-day activities. To do so, find a conference room that is away from the normal action where the team can be left alone.  Alternatively, consider renting a conference room at a local hotel, where the team can be given the chance to focus and discuss the project or technology with minimal disruption.

3. Predefine the Desired Outcome and Objective

Though most formal design reviews have standard exit criterion, this is not always the case. Thus, at the onset of your product design review, clearly define what it is you are trying to achieve with the review before you get to the technical content. Are you looking for the group’s approval to proceed? Are you looking for feedback on feasibility or risk? Do you seek counsel on what to do next? By defining the desired outcome of the review upfront, you are calibrating expectations of your participants of what you are discussing as well as what you are seeking from them. To give your audience an added sense of clarity, spend a few minutes explaining where are you in the design process. If your customer is likely to be issuing an updated Statement of Work (SOW) that may invalidate some of the work you’ve done to date, say so. If the marketing team requires you lock down some of the key features of the product to begin a sales campaign, tell this to the team.   Defining the desired outcome and scope up front will help eliminate wasting time on unnecessary topics, and calibrating the purpose and goals of the design review goes a very long way in helping you achieve your goal.

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4.  Reinforce Etiquette

In a modern business environment where we all have mobile phones, tablets and laptops, start off every design review by establishing basic ground rules and etiquette. “Laptops down, please. Cell phones away.” The most important part of any PDR or CDR is the feedback given by the team. The second most important part of technical reviews is the buy-in and agreement you obtain from key stakeholders and those impacted by the decisions being made in the meeting. When participants are multitasking and only half paying attention, it reduces the overall effectiveness and central purpose of why design reviews are held in the first place.

5. Be Prepared

It goes without saying that as the technology manager in charge, you need to make sure you and your team are prepared.  Have you reviewed your material enough to be able to present it effectively?  Are your employees prepared to answer questions on subtopics as they arise?  Does your technical team understand the scope and the details of what it being presented?  As a manager of a product development team, be sure your team is ready to explain their design approach, understands the technical requirements, and is ready to speak to more than the presentation slides on the screen.  Have back up data and information on hand to help keep make the review valuable and well presented.

6.  Openly Discuss Risk

Key decisions are often made in technical design reviews, and the success of your product not only depends on your ability to pass a review, but also for you to obtain support and alignment of your organization (or a customer, if they are your audience). In order to obtain this agreement, it is best to openly offer and present the perceived risks of your design as you seen them. Further, your ability to articulate and identify potential pitfalls that lay ahead gives your technical presentation added credibility. Risks can include concerns over the validity of the requirements you are working towards, or the technical feasibility of production equipment being able to act in a certain manner as required by your design. Maybe you have concerns over material compatibility, or integration of your software in a highly customized operating environment. Such are typical realities of designing new products, so it is always best to present such information to your audiences to ensure all stakeholders are making informed decisions.

7.  Fill Gaps By Assigning Actions

As with any productive meeting, record actions over the course of the technical review, and before participants depart, review the actions and clarify specifics where necessary. Many actions will pop up in the review, so be sure the specifics of what is needed are clear. Equally important is the individual assigned to complete the task, and when the action will be completed.

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Technical reviews are a very important part of the product design process. They help technical managers and leaders obtain feedback, buy-in and advice from key personnel in the business, and often serve as a means of gaining alignment in order to invest time and money in further development. Whether you are talking about an internal PDR, or and customer level CDR, set yourself up for success by calibrating the purpose of the discussion, expecting focussed participation, and openly soliciting feedback from a cross-functional team.

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