Shattering myths and achieving higher profits faster from six-sigma improvements in new business development

Greg Stevens, President, WinOvationsSM, Inc.

Innovation is like a carrot and a stick in determining shareholder value. It is like a carrot in that a recent study found “Innovation” to be the number one driver of shareholder value (Baum, 2000, p. 142). In contrast, innovating poorly is like taking a stick to shareholder value. Low new business development success rates are the root cause of many corporate failures.

This article examines several long-established myths regarding innovation and new business development (NBD). The myths are damaging because they lead to low success rates in new business development. We will go on to describe how six-sigma improvements can be achieved in both speed and profitability when benchmarked against today's typical Stage-Gate new business development efforts.

The PDMA “Best Practices” studies show that 60% of all major firms now use Stage Gate Processes. (Griffin, 1997; Page, 1993) Though the activities involved have existed for hundreds of years (idea generation, preliminary investigation, detailed investigation, etc.), Stage Gate processes were formally described in the literature by the late 1950s (Jones, 1958; Johnson, 1957). Robert G. Cooper, the noted academic from McMaster University, has become closely associated with these processes, and has even trademarked the term, “Stage-Gate®.”

Part of the problem is that, just as in many other fields, “NBD experts” are often wrong. For example, in 1968, 30 new technology stocks were highly recommended by company NBD experts and stock analysts at major financial institutions. However, just three years later, the average stock in this list lost over 98% of its value (Devoe, 1999). This kind of thing happens often, especially in areas like NBD that are striving to become sciences, but are not quite there yet.

New Business Development (NBD) Myths Inhibiting Speed and Profitability

The first myth is that Stage-Gate processes work better than having no process at all. In reality there is a mounting body of evidence suggesting that Stage-Gate processes are not working as expected. A recent statistical analysis using the IRI/CIMS database found no correlation between companies having Stage-Gate or other NBD processes and commercial success from new products. While Stage-Gate processes may work on one project or in a particular firm, the results have been inconsistent. On average across all projects and firms, having a Stage-Gate process is no better than having no process at all. It is a stunning finding, and a sobering statistic (Whitley, 1998). According to academic experts, Stage-Gate processes “should work” (Cooper, 1993, 1999). However, the data shows that these “state of the art” processes simply have not worked very well in practice, in real companies.

The best way to tell if substantial improvements have been made is to measure new business development success rates over time. The “NBD experts” would lead you to believe that there have been vast improvements. Yet, the reality is that there has been no measurable improvement in success rates from launch since first measured in 1958 by Booz-Allen and Hamilton (Jones, 1958). The same approximate 60% success rate from launch has also been found in all of the western countries around the world every time it is measured, including Europe, Asia and North America (Stevens & Burley, 1997; Hultink, 1997).

There is a subtle but important distinction to be made here. Countless “success factor” studies have shown that when a good job is done with the activities making up the fuzzy front end (FFE) of NBD, there is a correlation with greater NBD success (Cooper, 1995). However, that is an entirely different thing than concluding that Stage-Gate processes themselves are associated with increased commercial success. Indeed, the IRI/CIMS database found no such correlations. How can this be?

Success factor studies for NBD are rather like noting that basketball teams that rebound well and score more points win more games. Yet, most ball-clubs (and most people involved in NBD) have been practicing many of these identified “success factors” for decades, with or without a formalized process. Another reason for the lack of improvement is that even with a “new” process, the organizations still have the same players and coaches. The point is, the people within the process make an enormous difference, both in sports and in NBD. Declaring something “new” (when it is not), giving it a name and leading a parade will not yield improved results.

Finally, many firms having formal Stage-Gate processes are not rigorously using them. Most just go through the motions (Cooper, 1999) Hence, because little has been changed in most organizations by the introduction of formal Stage Gate processes, one should probably not expect to find correlations between having a formalized NBD process and commercial success—and indeed, none have been found.

Exhibit 1

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In the March ’99 issue of JPIM Cooper says, “There is little evidence that success rates or R&D productivity have increased much.” He goes on to say: “Maybe we researchers are guilty of missing the boat here, of focusing on the wrong problems.” “There is a quality crisis in product innovation!” And, “If a factory produced such low quality it would be shut down” (Cooper, 1999). In brief, even Cooper acknowledges that it's not working. We are stuck with 40-year old processes, and 40-year old success rates, which are far too low. Later in this article, we will identify critical new NBD success factors that have indeed been missed.

The second myth is that “most NBD efforts succeed” (Cooper, 1983). It is a “warm and fuzzy” myth, designed to make people feel good. The harsh reality is that most NBD efforts fail. Fully 89% of projects at the Early Development stage fail (Stevens & Burley, 1997). The ground is littered with examples of failed NBD projects. One of the most spectacular recent failures involves Iridium® satellite phones. Five billion dollars were wasted, largely because the FFE of NBD was not done well. The resulting phones were bulky, cost $3,000 each, and reportedly did not even work in a buildings or cars. The company is now bankrupt, and facing the prospect of letting 68 orbiting satellites burn up in the atmosphere (inScight, 2000). Clearly, the seductively easy looking FFE of NBD is one of the most difficult and treacherous of all business games, routinely crushing both careers and companies.

The “Universal NBD Success Curve,” or benchmark for new business development success is shown in Exhibit 1, with the number of projects plotted vs. the stage of the NBD process. In researching this curve, we got this same result no matter whether we evaluated venture capitalist experience, the project literature, or patent results. From a patent perspective, 300 patent disclosures result in 125 issued patents, and only one significant commercial success. As noted earlier, from Stage 4 (the end of the FFE of NBD, when serious development begins), on average only one in nine projects, or just 11%, succeeds. This is clearly wasteful (Stevens & Burley, 1997).

The third myth is that, “Failure is good! If you're not failing enough, you aren't trying enough new things. You are not pushing the envelope.” This is like saying, “Bad quality is good!” Or, “Losing money is good!” The reality is that most new business development efforts do indeed fail. Instead of trying to understand the root causes and fix them, we look for excuses, and have come up with a “whopper”: that failure is good. If failure is good, then you don't even need an excuse! Yet the reality is that we need better systems, higher quality results, and more profits and growth than are typical in most corporations today. We do not need more expensive new business development failures. And, we do not need NBD processes that deliver, on average, no more than having no process at all.

The grain of truth in the myth that “failure is good” is that failures can often lead to new thinking and profitable outcomes. That is great—as long as the failures happen early in the process, and are cheap. However, the reality is that most failures are expensive and devastatingly wasteful, like Iridium. The CEO of one major global chemical company said that between ’82 and ’92, his company spent $13 billion on development efforts, with little contribution to the bottom line. The Wall Street Journal called it “a technological black hole” (McMurray, 1992). The result was a disappointing stock along with massive layoffs of personnel, and changes in top management. It would be impossible to convince anyone during this time period that “failure is good.”

The fourth myth from the “NBD experts” is that stage-gate processes work in a linear fashion. Stage-Gate processes are almost always drawn linearly (Cooper, 1993). There is yet another myth buried within this one, which is that, “Our stage-gate process is unique.” The reality is that they all typically have five to seven stages, and most of the processes of the Fortune 500 companies are very much the same. Most companies are just “reinventing the wheel” and spending millions of dollars doing it, while jealously protecting their “unique process.” We agree with Michael Schrage of MIT, when he says that we shape our models, and then our models shape us (Schrage, 1997). Our models help shape our thoughts and actions, just as the model of a flat earth shaped the actions of early navigators. The trouble with the linear model is that once it is pictured this way, people navigate accordingly.

In reality the FFE of NBD is nonlinear. It requires leaps of creativity and branching from the starting point ideas. In short, it requires non-linear thinking. Creativity is needed because starting ideas are almost never commercial, as shown in the “Universal Success Curve” (see Exhibit 1). Analysts involved in the FFE need to “morph” or change the starting idea from one that is usually pre-destined to fail, into something that can succeed. This means creating a substantially new idea during the analysis. What we observed over 15 years of practice is that when the FFE of NBD is run in a linear fashion, as less creative people tend to do, the process too often becomes an efficient idea-killing machine. In contrast, the more creative individuals typically both lay to rest the starting idea while also branching off to create a new commercial success. In short, they “morph” the starting idea into a winner. Later, in the development stages of the NBD process, the NBD process needs to become linear because costs mount significantly. Hence, in the later development stages, it is time to “lock and load”—assuming of course that you are aimed at a commercial success, which you will be if the FFE of NBD has been done correctly.

A fifth destructive myth from the “NBD and creativity experts” is that “everyone is creative, or can be taught to be creative.” Virtually all the creativity organizations and consultants claim they can teach people to be more creative. All you need to do is attend one of their programs, and rediscover your creative “inner child.” Therefore, most corporations believe that anyone can operate the FFE of NBD. Just read the (rather thick) Stage-Gate manual and follow the steps. Get a creativity “booster shot” along the way if needed. If only it was that easy.

Underlying the myth that “everyone is creative, so anyone can do the FFE of NBD” is a sixth myth, that the environment, or nurture, largely determines adult personality. This is also the “politically correct” view. Indeed, most standard psychology texts and experts through the early 1980s taught that the childhood environment predominates in determining our adult personalities. They taught that if identical twins could be raised apart in different environments, their personalities would be “enormously different” (Mischel, 1976).

Fortunately, two key experiments involving identical twins raised apart have now been run. The twins studied were separated an average of three months after birth, and were raised apart in independent environments for several decades. This is the best way to separate the effects of nature and nurture on adult personality (Bouchard, 1990).

Take the case of two particular identical twins raised apart since birth in different environments. The myth says they should be very different. Yet, both grew up to be fire captains. Both are bachelors. Both are raucous and flirtatious. Upon meeting for the first time, they noticed they used the same body language, and immediately started completing each other's sentences. They were so much alike, “It was spooky” (Rosen, 1987). Instead of being enormously different, the personalities of identical twins raised apart are on average remarkably similar. If one twin is cheerful, the other tends to be too. If one is quiet and reserved, the other usually is too. On average, approximately 80% of the core unchanging adult personality as measured by psychometric instruments (including the MBTI® or Meyers Briggs Type Indicator) is determined by genetics (Bouchard, 1993).

Even the brainwave patterns of identical twins raised apart are more than 90% alike. They are approximately as alike as the brainwave patterns of identical twins raised apart (Stassen, 1992, 1994). The very patterns of thought of identical twins raised apart appear to be almost identical. This is further strong evidence supporting the genetic nature of personality.

The second major experiment found that there is on average zero correlation between childhood environment and adult personality. It is very surprising. This is true for adopted identical twins raised apart. It is also true for adoptees raised in the same household environment (Bouchard, 1990). The findings are very clear, and again are counter to the myth that our adult personalities are largely the result of nurturing received as a child.

The data are remarkably consistent supporting a strong genetic basis for personality and creativity, and have been repeated in four separate studies globally. While controversial to the public these results are becoming widely accepted by many leading experts in the field today. From a purely rational standpoint, the data is hard to ignore.

One can argue about the exact percentages, but in brief, the age-old question about nature and nurture has been largely answered. There is a reemerging “new” paradigm for personality and creativity, which is that “Genetics is the most powerful determinant” (Bouchard, 93). Of course, the idea that nature predominates is hardly new, but it has been set-aside during the last 40–50 years by behavioral psychologists. Tom Wolf, author of “The Right Stuff” says that this sudden switch in belief, from nurture to nature, is “the great intellectual event of the late twentieth century.” Many of our personality traits appear to be instinctual, or as Wolf puts it, “The fix is in … we're all hard wired!” (Wolfe, 1996.)

The seventh myth that damages NBD effectiveness is that creativity can be lastingly taught. Virtually all of the major creativity “gurus” claim they can permanently raise your creativity. As usual, there is a grain of truth to it. There is little question that creativity-boosting exercises can temporarily raise creativity. However, the reality is that creativity is just another personality trait, largely determined by genetics. Creativity can be directly measured from personality measurements, including the MBTI® or Myers Briggs Type Indicator, via the MBTI-Creativity Index. Another reality involves the human forgetting curve. Without constant reinforcement, people forget 80% of what they learn in approximately six weeks (Ebbinghaus, 1885). This is the basis for the multibillion-dollar advertising industry. Because of the forgetting curve, any beneficial effects from creativity-boosting exercises quickly wear off. Further, most of the creativity “gurus” acknowledge this, by quietly stocking their brainstorming sessions with a few exceptionally creative individuals. In short, they “cheat” on their theories (fortunately), to ensure success.

Regarding the myth that “everyone is creative.” There is a grain of truth to it, but only in the sense that “everyone is tall.” Of course, some are much taller than others. You might even say, some are short, or some are “not tall.” Only a few exceptionally tall individuals can compete in a world-class organization like the National Basketball Association. In general we think it is more productive to teach business discipline to creative people than to attempt to teach creativity to those who in general tend to be inherently disciplined, like accountants.

The Rainmaker-IndexSM for Analysts in the Fuzzy Front End (FFE) of NBD

In the third and final part of this article, we describe how shattering the myths inhibiting the FFE of NBD has led to six-sigma improvements in both the speed and profitability of industrial innovation. We started out by asking the fundamental question, “Could the personality traits of analysts involved in the FFE of NBD affect the profits earned when their recommendations were later developed and commercialized by the business?”

The population WinOvationsSM studied was from Dow Chemical, and involved 69 analysts operating in the FFE of NBD, and all of their early-stage NBD projects. Collectively, this group completed 267 FFE-NBD projects, in both Europe and North America, spanning a 10-year time period. The opportunity analysts typically resided in the market research function of each business. They were provided with early stage opportunities to investigate by the businesses, and were expected to make a recommendation to those businesses about whether or not to further develop the concept, after a substantial business analysis. This was in effect a 10-year, $20 million dollar experiment (Stevens, 1998,1999).

All of the FFE-NBD analysts received the same rigorous training and coaching in the “Planned Innovation Opportunity Analysis” process over the entire 10-year time period. The process was developed by Bacon and Butler, and involves creating and testing hypotheses of need, value, opening, advantage and fit (Bacon, 1998). It is an iterative process with periodic management reviews.

The personalities of the analysts were measured using the MBTI, or Myers Briggs Type Indicator psychological instrument. The MBTI is used two to three million times per year in the U.S., as well as internationally. The MBTI can also be used to measure creativity. Creativity is a measurable personality trait, like extroversion or introversion, although most creative people resist the idea that you can measure their creativity (Stevens, 1998, 1999). The same is true for all of the traits measured by the MBTI: approximately 80% of the long-term reliably measured variance in adult personality (including creativity) is determined by nature, or genetics (Bouchard, 1990, 1993).

We found a remarkably strong correlation between personality and profits. Of the four MBTI sub-measurements, two personality traits correlated significantly and equally with profits that resulted when the analysts' recommendations (from the FFE of NBD) were later commercialized by the business. Hence, it is important to have a 10-year longitudinal project database. The two traits measured by the MBTI that correlated with profits are: “N” for Intuition (vs. “S” for Sensory at the other end of this MBTI scale), and “T” for Thinking, (vs. “F” for Feeling).

We refer to the resulting scale as the Rainmaker-IndexSM.”The Rainmaker-Index is calculated from the continuous scores for each of these two key MBTI personality measurements. Creativity in the Rainmakers comes from “N,” or Intuition. The ability to learn the required mental discipline comes from the preference for “T,” or thinking. The possible range for the Rainmaker-Index is from minus 78 to 102, so the full scale has 180 points. The mean in our sample is 27.8, and the median is 25. The Rainmaker-Index also corresponds closely with the MBTI-Creativity Index. The point is that the top Rainmakers are also highly creative (Stevens, 1998, 1999).

When we added up the profits per analyst we found that the analysts in the bottom third of the Rainmaker-Index earned only $90,000 each, while those in the top third earned $8.2 million each. Hence, those in the top third outperformed those in the bottom third by a factor of 95 times, or a 9,500% improvement.

We also measured personality using the preexisting MBTI Creativity-Index, which also correlated well with profits, but not as well as the Rainmaker-Index. The profits per analyst in the top third vs. the bottom third of the MBTI-Creativity Index were 11 times greater (Stevens, 1998, 1999).

Overall, the results are stunning: the starting hypotheses regarding the importance of the personalities of the analysts involved in the FFE of NBD turned out to be more true than originally hypothesized. Personality represents a very significant success factor that has been previously overlooked (Stevens, 1998, 1999). In short, who is “on the team” is of utmost importance.

At this point, many people may be wondering, “Am I the right type?” This is particularly so if they are not MBTI-”NT's,” or high Rainmakers, which make up only about 12% of the population (Keirsey, 1984). Of course, the answer is, “Yes, you are the right type.” It is not just a platitude to say that all personality types are needed in business, including NBD. The correlations between profitability and the Rainmaker-Index apply only to the FFE of NBD. Other personality types are needed for other job functions. For example, the later stages of NBD require a more practical kind of effort, with more organizational, implementation and optimization skills. In brief, the later development stages require a greater degree of linear thinking. That is usually a different kind of person than the nonlinear-thinking FFE-NBD analysts who score in the top third of the Rainmaker-Index. Indeed, there are far more linear-thinking implementers needed in the business world than creators, because the later stages of NBD take far more total effort than the FFE of NBD.

Exhibit 2

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Six-Sigma Improvements From the Fuzzy Front End (FFE) of NBD in Speed and Profitability

Another key finding from this study is that 97% of the recommendations made after Stage 4 of a 7 Stage NBD process, corresponding with the conclusion of the FFE, were profitable. This compares with a normal success rate of 11%, as seen from the benchmark Universal NBD Success Curve (see Exhibit 1). This improvement is more than six standard deviations better than the benchmark for typical Stage-Gate processes (Stevens, 1998, 1999).

Cumulative profits through 1994 generated exceeded the costs of the FFE analysis work by over 10 to 1 as implemented ($213 million profit, vs. $20 million cost). If the analysts included in this study had been preselected from the top third of the Rainmaker-Index, then the returns would have been 29 to 1, or nearly three times greater. (Today the value from this effort exceeds $800 million, so the multiples are almost an additional four times higher.)

The six-sigma NBD approach is also nine times faster in terms of profit earned per unit of effort expended (see Exhibit 2.) The increase in productivity and speed can be more easily seen by lining up the nine separate project efforts normally required to achieve one success, and comparing it with one very high quality effort which achieves the same thing (Stevens, 1997, 1998, 1999).

In short, by applying the new thinking to the FFE of NBD, we can now pick the one out of ten projects that is likely to succeed, before it goes into the expensive and time consuming later development stages of the NBD process (see the lower dotted curve in Exhibit 1). What is even more exciting is that we can also achieve success with almost all FFE-NBD projects. This is done by “morphing” starting ideas that were destined to fail into winners, with more than a 95% chance of being profitable when commercialized. In this way the analysts involved in the FFE of NBD not only sets aside the starting idea, but also creates a substantially new one (see the upper dotted line in Exhibit 1).

This is a lot more fun and profitable than sequentially killing idea after idea, as too often occurs with linear Stage-Gate thinking. Either way you look at it, the new approach represents more than a six-sigma improvement vs. the Universal NBD Success Curve. In fact, it is a 14-sigma improvement vs. traditional Stage Gate processes, and represents a new paradigm in FFE-NBD effectiveness.

The good news is blindingly simple. When you need creative results, hire creative people. One such area needing creativity is the FFE of NBD. It is almost that simple. The catch is that creative people do need to be trained in a state-of-the-art NBD discipline in order to become highly effective, as briefly described next.

A New Paradigm for the FFE Of NBD

The first step of the FFE-NBD process used to achieve breakthrough-results in NBD effectiveness is to learn top management's Gut-Level-ScreenSM. This is the business development area where the top few decision-makers happen to agree. If a new opportunity is identified within this zone of agreement, then later buy-in of a well-qualified NBD opportunity is nearly automatic. Without this buy-in, many ideas (which could indeed make money) will not be pursued, simply because they fall outside of top management's zone of excitement. We find that understanding top management's Gut-Level-Screen makes the overall NBD system two to three times more effective than normal.

The second step in the FFE-NBD process is to prioritize potential NBD platforms and product groupings via top management's Gut-Level-Screen. The product groupings share common critical elements in the marketplace. In this way, when the top priority projects are later analyzed in depth, through interviews with customers and world experts, the findings can be extrapolated across the entire group. This greatly increases the efficiency of the system.

After a potential project has been chosen, then Steps 3–4 of the FFE-NBD process are conducted, by trained FFE-NBD analysts having high Rainmaker-Indices. This involves forming and testing draft propositions. The first group of draft propositions include those that only matter within your organization: Does the potential opportunity fit top management's Gut-Level-Screen, and do you have the basis for a sustainable competitive advantage?

The second group of draft propositions is tested in the marketplace, by extensively interviewing customers and other world-class experts. In this way, we learn how they are performing the function today, what their spoken needs are, what their current system costs per unit of performance are, and what value any improvements would have. These questions are asked about how they are performing the function not only today, but in the next design cycle tomorrow.

Usually, the starting point idea is laid to rest after this first set of interviews, because commercial flaws are identified.

The third set of draft propositions is the most important one, and cannot even be written down at the start of the project. These are the Iterative-PropositionsSM. They are based on an understanding of real customer needs and value, which arises after analyzing the first set of marketplace propositions. The Iterative-Propositions are formed and tested just as rigorously as the first set of propositions. Often the customer needs that are uncovered in this process are unknown, even to the customers themselves, and have great value.

A key slide is given to management at the conclusion of the FFE of NBD. It shows the cost-performance ratio of the new idea vs. the best alternatives in the world tomorrow, from the customer's perspective. Typically, the cost-performance data is shown in a set of stacked bar graphs, comparing raw materials, labor, capital and overhead. If the starting point new idea does not have a significant advantage, then the idea should be shelved, or better yet “morphed” into an idea that is commercial. Note that this is significantly different than traditional Stage Gate processes, which focus on “go-kill” decision gates. Yet we find the most important activity in the FFE of NBD is not the “go-kill” decision, but in “morphing” the failed starting idea into a new one that is a winner. There is always a winning way.

If all a NBD process does is to make “go-kill” decisions, then that process is relatively pointless. Run linearly, it will efficiently kill over 99% of the starting ideas, because even for high quality patented ideas, only 1 in 125 has significant commercial potential (see Exhibit 1). The “morphing” of starting point ideas must therefore be an essential element of a breakthrough NBD System.

When the original idea (or more likely its “morphed” cousin) does have the best future cost-performance ratio, then and only then is it time to fire up the project champions, activate the development teams and begin to commercialize the business. Then the FFE of the NBD process is done, and it is time to begin serious development.

A final myth often heard is that, “We are already doing something ‘pretty much’ like this.” The reality is that in most companies the FFE of NBD needs dramatic improvement. You know that your NBD system is really working when most of the following guidelines are true:

1. 95% of the NBD recommendations after the FFE of NBD within your company are profitable, vs. the benchmark success rate of 11%, (per the Universal-NBD-Success-Curve).

2. Year after year, your company greatly exceeds your industry in: corporate growth rates, profitability and consistency, stock appreciation and book value appreciation.

3. You and most of your co-workers are heavily invested in your company, and new employees want to work there, with stock options. “Your money is where your mouth is.”

4. Business magazines like Forbes, Fortune or Business Week rate your company as a “gem” in your industry.

If this sounds like your company, then you have earned “FFE-NBD bragging-rights.” If not, then there is significant room for improvement, and the above guidelines can serve as an achievable vision to strive for.

Summary and Conclusions

The main take-away is highly optimistic: When individuals with a high Rainmaker-Index work within a nonlinear FFE-NBD process, with the best training and coaching, then more than a six-sigma improvement in profitability and speed is achievable vs. today's standard Stage-Gate processes.

An 85-point increase in the Rainmaker-Index correlates with $8.7 million additional profits earned per analyst (Stevens et al., 1998). This corresponds to the difference between the mean scores of the top third and bottom third groups of the Rainmaker-Index. Who knows, maybe someday this will lead to bidding wars for analysts with high Rainmaker-Indices, just as speed in the 40-meter dash translates to higher football salaries. The people you select for the FFE of NBD, and the coaching they receive are every bit as important as the process itself, and probably more so. These are critical NBD success factors that until now have been mostly overlooked.

We are no longer stuck with 40-year old success rates of 11% from early stage business development, but instead can routinely achieve 95% success rates by shattering many myths that otherwise inhibit NBD effectiveness. At first glance the new system looks much the same, but it is different, as it needs to be to achieve superior results. At the same time, the new approach can be readily integrated into most existing processes. Taken together as a system, the people, process and the coaching they receive can achieve more than a six-sigma improvement in speed and profitability vs. typical Stage-Gate NBD results.

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WinOvations, Gut-Level-Screen, Iterative-Propositions and Rainmaker-Index are Service Marks of WinOvations, Inc.

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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA

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