Archive for the ‘product development’ Category

Innovation made easy… or else

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

Many of my posts originate when two interesting ideas collide–two things I’ve read, possibly from very different points of view or with different objectives in mind, somehow fit together, or together illuminate something to me that’s clearer than either piece on its own.

Today there are three such things. Let’s call them stories of innovation made easy. First is the paper “The Ergonomics of Innovation,” by Bob Sutton and Hayagreeva Rao in September’s McKinsey Quarterly, which despite its awkward title is very clearly written and argued. Its central point, illustrated by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s campaign to save 100,000 unnecessary hospital deaths, is that the best innovations are often the simplest and most basic. In other words, a partial solution that is easy to communicate and to implement may bring far more value than a more complete solution that is more complex and difficult to bring into production. Here’s a synopsis of Sutton’s and Rao’s argument:


A basic idea from ergonomics is that physical and cognitive “affordances” can help people to think about, know, and use something more easily and to make fewer errors. The IHI campaign didn’t use the language of ergonomics but nonetheless applied its logic in hundreds of ways by designing and spreading affordances that made it easier for the staffs of the participating hospitals to change.

I’ve meant to write about this article for several weeks. But two more things I’ve read this week buttressed Sutton’s and Rao’s arguments. First is a report from Mark Schneck at Anecdote on a talk from this year’s ActKM Conference in Australia. This simple change didn’t save 100,000 lives but may have saved 100,000 hours wasted reading emails:

Jane mentioned that one of the actions from their knowledge strategy has had a big impact. This simple action was for all staff to write a clear description in the subject line of their emails. Adopting this practice has helped staff deal with information overload by being able to quickly identify emails that they need to deal with, and which ones can be simply deleted.

Finally, today Andrew McAfee blogged about an innovation at American Airlines that simply isn’t sticking:

According to American, “Customers with PriorityAccess privileges will be invited to board first or board at any time through their exclusive PriorityAAccess lane, which allows them to bypass lines after general boarding has begun.” The new configuration seems to be pretty uniform; I’ve seen it at every airport I’ve flown out of over the past month, which is more than a couple.

The new configuration also seems to be uniformly ignored. My fellow travelers and I have continued to line up and board just as we always do, except now we use two narrow lanes instead of one broad one. I haven’t yet seen us fliers make any effort to sort ourselves into the ‘right’ lane, and I certainly haven’t seen anyone voluntarily take themselves out of the lane reserved for the elites and rejoin the general boarding hoi polloi.

More importantly, I also haven’t seen American’s gate agents make any effort to sort us properly. I’ve heard them make announcements about the two lanes, but that’s as far as it’s gone….

It struck me at some point over the past month that I was witnessing an excellent example of why so many business improvement efforts fail: it’s not that they’re not good ideas, it’s that they’re not easy enough to enforce. American’s PriorityAAccess boarding procedure is a straightforward case of what used to be called ‘business process reengineering,’ and it’s also a microcosm of why reengineering so often failed. It’s one thing for a small group of smart people to study an existing process and figure out a way to execute it better. It’s quite another to then deploy that new-and-improved process broadly — across many business units, geographies, and/or interdependent groups.

In other words, the PriorityAAcess procedure didn’t provide enough affordances to allow harried gate agents to easily deploy it. So they didn’t.

This is an important lesson for me. My automatic mindset seeks out the elegant, complete solution. I don’t gravitate toward the simple, dumb solution. Even though, as I’m learning, that one may be the best of all.

(Bonus: this also reminded me of the previously blogged about innovation at a Singapore hospital, where a cheap webcam helped significantly reduce wait times in the emergency room.)

Related post:
Stop studying the problem, and just try something!

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Stop studying the problem, and just try something!

Friday, February 22nd, 2008

Yesterday I tried to make the case that most business situations are complex and not predictable ahead of time. Time spent developing foolproof strategies, detailed plans, etc., is time wasted.

What to do? One answer is probes, or inexpensive experiments. I’ve already cited Boudewijn Bertsch’s posts this week on the Cognitive Edge guest blog, and at the risk of going to the well too often, I’d like to discuss him again today.

He recently posted on the efforts by the Alexandra Hospital of Singapore to reduce waiting times for patients by offering a real-time webcam image of the emergency room waiting area on the web. People considering visiting the ER could view the image on the web and anticipate how long they might have to wait before seeing a doctor.

The webcam idea was a small, cheap solution. It might not have made any difference. But the hospital tried it, and found that waiting times improved. [One explanation: at times when the ER was already busy, patients with minor complaints either waited to come in, or found another hospital.]

If the webcam had not made an improvement–no problem, just take it down, and the hospital would have written off an investment totaling $400.

Boudewijn mentions that the Alexandra Hospital’s continuous improvement program used elements of the Toyota Production System. There’s a lot to the TPS, but one aspect that I find fascinating is that workers who propose ideas are asked to estimate the impact of the change. Then once the change is implemented the actual results are compared to the estimate and shared with the worker. Is it surprising that the estimates get better and better? [This Harvard Business Review article illuminated that feature very clearly.]

In a somewhat similar vein to the Singapore hospital, Google experiments with new products. They put them out there, without formal launches, people discover them, Google adjusts and tweaks, and the products develop a large following, or not. In the latter case, they retire the product, again with little fanfare.

Google has gotten some criticism about the frequency of their product failures, but what is being missed in this is that they are performing lots and lots of low-cost experiments. Their unconcern for media criticism allows them to put a lot of probes out there and “see what sticks,” whereas many many competitors in the IT world stick with an approach of: develop for two years, study the market, then make a splashy launch.

Google gets a lot more at-bats than its competition. If they fail more, it doesn’t matter, because they are cheap failures. The number of successful products, at least to my eyes, is much higher.

So if you’ve got a great idea, or even merely a good one, find a cheap way to try it out. If it doesn’t measure up, kill it. Repeat often.

(Photo by svaziphil via stock.xchng)

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Rendering Authenticity

Friday, December 14th, 2007

I’ve been struggling through the new book “Authenticity” by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, and I’ve been wondering why I’ve struggled. It’s not a badly-written book, and I remember reading and liking some articles adapted from their earlier book, “The Experience Economy.” I’m also interested in the idea of authenticity (link to prior post). But nonetheless, I’ve read the book in fits and starts. It’s been a chore.

As I was reading it this week, an idea hit: It’s not just this book. I would have trouble reading any book that tells companies how to “render authenticity” through their products and services. (You can find a dictionary definition of the word authentic here. The third and fifth definitions most closely match what we’re talking about in this post.)

The term “render” brings to mind soap factories–heavy processing, reformulation.

Authenticity is or should be natural, intrinsic, emerging from the essence of the thing. It’s also, to some extent, in the eye of the beholder. Facebook has squandered some of its authenticity by its recent attempts to monetize. MySpace’s is long gone. This is probably true of many internet startups. In growing out of hobbies or cult experiences to real businesses, they surrender authenticity. This is natural and maybe not a bad thing.

Large companies trying to conjure authenticity is a fool’s errand, in my mind. One example of “perceived authenticity” cited by the authors is the HOK-designed baseball park, such as Camden Yards in Baltimore and its brethren. Camden Yards, when built, was authentic—a one-of-a-kind, new “old-style” ballpark. But when similar HOK designs emerged in Texas, San Francisco, Cincinnati, etc., it became merely a template. A good experience? Yes. Authentic? No. If you want baseball authenticity, go to Fenway or Wrigley.

I recall a Jay Leno comedy routine that he performed on David Letterman many years ago. It went something like this:

“Have you seen the new item they have in the supermarket? Soft cookies in a package. Now, this is interesting. Fresh cookies are soft. Stale cookies are hard. Now the food companies have discovered a technology that allows them to make stale, soft cookies.” Spoken this way, packaged soft cookies are not only funny, they’re unappetizing.

Authenticity is a fresh cookie. “Rendered authenticity” is a stale, soft cookie.

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(Bonus: the Jay Leno routine mentioned above. The way the food company discusses the soft-cookie idea seems like how a meeting on rendering authenticity would go.)

Boeing learns hard lessons about partner management

Friday, December 7th, 2007

(UPDATE: 11 Dec 07 – Boeing confirms it’s on schedule for first 787 flight in 1Q2008)

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that the trend toward collaborative product development would create a premium for partner-management skills rather than pure technical skills for innovators. Nowhere is this in bolder relief than in the Boeing 787 project, some of the travails of which are profiled in a front-page Wall Street Journal article today (link – $$).

What surprised me the most were the issues resulting from inadequate supplier management; specifically this:

“In addition to oversight, you need insight into what’s actually going on in those factories,” says Scott Carson, the president of Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes unit. “Had we had adequate insight, we could have helped our suppliers understand the challenges.”

And this:

But many [Boeing partners], instead of using their own engineers to do the design work, farmed out this key task to even-smaller companies. Some of those ended up overloading themselves with work from multiple 787 suppliers, Boeing says.

The company says it never intended for its suppliers to outsource key tasks such as engineering, but that the situation seemed manageable at the time. “We tended to say, ‘They know how to run their businesses,’” says a Boeing executive familiar with the company’s thinking.

As Boeing knows now, selecting a strategic partner and entrusting it with designing, building and delivering a critical subsystem is far different from sourcing a standard part from a supplier. The prime contractor has the right and obligation to critique, probe and view its partner’s activities from the inside (you need Doubting Thomases).

In the short term, these delays hurt Boeing. There is PR impact. And financial hits, in the form of penalty payments and cash-flow delays. But it is important to remember that the 787 product will have a 30-year life cycle. By that count, a 6-month or even 1-year delay in deliveries will have a negligible long-term effect.

It’s also good that Boeing is not trying to mask its mistakes and instead to discuss and learn from them. Not everyone agrees: the Journal article states, “Lessons that Boeing is learning the hard way could end up helping rival Airbus.” This will be true to some extent–but the highly complex lessons Boeing is learning will be hard to glean from the outside. If Airbus gets too confident in its follower role, it will overlook its own inevitable mistakes and let Boeing get out even farther ahead.

(Photo: the 787 Dreamliner. Courtesy of Boeing)

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An important new resource for improving innovation

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Upon first reading this month’s Harvard Business Review, I skated over “Breakthrough Thinking Inside the Box” (free link). I was probably too wrapped up in the storytelling article. Or I was concerned that this was another “strategic secret in 3000 words or less.”

After carefully reviewing the article today, it was a mistake to skip over it the first time. “Breakthrough Thinking” is a practical, useful and surprising look at generating new business ideas. The authors, Kevin Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford and Renée Dye, remind us of how frustrating typical brainstorming sessions are (“invent an idea for a new business in the next 20 minutes”). Then they go further to describe how such meetings can be infinitely more productive by laying out simple constraints to focus the mind and describe what form a useful new idea might take.

The creative usefulness of constraints is no secret, but “Breakthrough Thinking” is novel because it closely connects the right-brain creative flow process to a highly practical (and vital) business problem—improving innovation. I was also impressed by the rigorous approach used to create the method and the extensive in-use testing done before publicizing it (kudos to McKinsey).

My favorite part of the article is the sidebar “21 Great Questions for Developing New Products,” which should be cut out and pasted on the wall of every product manager, R&D vice president, or C-level executive. I can’t count how many meetings I’ve been in where using this list would have greatly increased the results. I’ve thought of four or five instances where I can use the list in my own work, right away.

So, read “Breakthrough Thinking.” Paste “21 Great Questions” on your wall. And let the great ideas flow.

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For consultants, adopting the "Google 20%" is vital

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Let me paint you a picture. You’re a consultant, and a company makes you an offer: Please work full time on our account. We’ll take all the hours you can give us. Imagine, further, that this assignment lasts two or three years. Then, as with all consulting arrangements, it ends.

Now what do you do?

Paradoxically, the assignment has been so good that it has left you unprepared for the next one. And the more of yourself you devoted to that one assignment, the less time you spent keeping your contacts up to date, learning new skills, and marketing to other clients.

No one would trade the two-year client for a six-week client, but the six-week client cannot put your consulting business into the kind of long-term jeopardy the two-year client can.

The answer? Adopt the “Google 20%.” Recall that Google asks each of its employees to dedicate one day per week to new projects of her choosing. A consultant who does the same automatically has a bank of time to spend on projects that, while they may not have a near-term payoff, are vital to the long-term health of the business. Examples: reading new literature, writing journal articles, taking on speaking engagements, trying brief assignments that open up new areas of experience, writing a blog, writing a newsletter, serving on an advisory board, developing a product idea…. The list of useful projects is endless, if only you dedicate the time and commit to using it productively.

It’s not a strategy that’s easy to implement. Convincing the client to take a little less than all of you can be tricky. Fitting in the 20% work around client needs also takes flexibility. And forgoing the immediate income can be very, very difficult.

But the payoff is great. Rather than being at the mercy of your client (no matter how wonderful they are to you), you are in control of your career and destiny. Frankly, continuing to build your skills (even in areas outside your current assignment) is something your clients should demand of you anyway.

(Photo by michelleho via stock.xchng)

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More on using the Cynefin framework

Friday, November 16th, 2007

If you found value in Dave Snowden’s and Mary Boone’s recent Harvard Business Review article (discussed in an earlier post), you should read Dave’s post on “safe-fail probes”–it’s sort of a second chapter to that article focusing on applying the Cynefin framework.

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HBR article demonstrates that leaders need to manage complexity

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

“We need to document our processes!”

I heard this again and again at various companies I worked at over the years. And that’s a fine goal, to document processes. But the thinking–that if processes are documented then we will be able to perform high-quality work and be successful–is flat-out wrong in many circumstances.

Why? Because many (and many of the most important) business problems can’t be reduced to a repeatable process. This view is described in an article in the November Harvard Business Review, “A Leader’s Framework for Decision-Making,” by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone (link – $$). (Prior references to Dave Snowden’s work can be found here: 1, 2, 3.)

In it, Snowden and Boone describe the Cynefin framework, a model that helps put business situations into a context that guides how they should be addressed. The framework has four primary segments:


Simple – repeatable processes that can be described by best practices (e.g., how to determine whether a mortgage applicant is qualified)

Complicated – “the domain of experts,” according to Snowden and Boone; where complete data is available, and issues can be solved with analysis (e.g., finding underground oil deposits)

Complex – where multiple variables interact unpredictably – “the realm of ‘unknown unknowns,’ …the domain to which much of contemporary business has shifted.”

Chaotic – where no manageable patterns exist, “the realm of unknowables” –e.g., September 11, 2001. In this case, the best response is to do something and assess what happens.

So, back to documenting processes. Simple processes and their best practice should be documented and followed. Complicated processes, too, can benefit from discipline, though there is value in dissent and dialogue. Documenting complex processes doesn’t do much of value–repeatability is impossible and in fact counterproductive to attempt.

Here are some business processes that would fall into the complex domain:

  • new product development (how people learn about and use products can have a significant effect on how the product evolves)
  • entering a new market or geography
  • making an organizational change
  • a B2B sales pursuit

So how to manage these if they can’t be boiled down to a cookbook? Boone and Snowden recommend involving more people in decisionmaking (sounds a bit democratic); setting some rules or guidelines to channel behavior (i.e., in a sales pursuit, we will never respond to a tender that we didn’t know was coming); encouraging dissent; creating an environment where good things can emerge, and nurturing those things.

In my experience, managers are still trying to shoehorn all their business problems into the simple or complicated domains. The more quickly they accept the complexity of many critical areas, and manage them appropriately, the sooner we’ll stop wasting human resources and start achieving better business results.

And that’ll be something worth documenting.

(graphic: the Cynefin framework from Cognitive Edge via Wikipedia)

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On Gary Hamel’s "The Future of Management" part 1 – Management Innovation

Monday, October 15th, 2007

When we think of innovation, we think of products. The Segway, the iPod, the Roomba, the hot cellphone of the quarter. It’s not surprising: they make good copy, and they can be photographed.

But, according to Gary Hamel, in his new book “The Future of Management,” product innovations are a short-lived form of competitive advantage. A highly-successful new product gives you only a few years of excess profits before imitators and, yes, more innovative products commoditize it. (Doesn’t it seem that the RAZR’s heyday was a thousand years ago?)

What about business model innovations? Examples cited by Hamel include Zara (”chic but cheap couture”) and Southwest’s low-fare airline model. While more sustainable than product innovations, global consulting firms and the ever-growing practice of outsourcing allow new business models to spread rapidly across industries.

Finally, for companies desiring long-term advantage, Hamel points to management innovation. These are entire new ways of organizing, orienting, incenting and acculturating staff and leadership. Significant management innovations are rare, but they can provide decades of value. Hamel cites historical examples such as DuPont’s development and utilization of return on investment, Procter & Gamble’s brand-management approach, and Toyota’s use of each employee’s ability (see how Toyota describes its approach here). In each case, the companies achieved advantages that lasted decades.

Why are management innovations so sustainable? Here’s Hamel’s explanation:

Amazingly, it took nearly 20 years for America’s carmakers to decipher Toyota’s advantage. Unlike its Western rivals, Toyota believed that first-line employees could be more than cogs in a soulless manufacturing machine [JC note: ironically, the result of a much earlier management innovation--Frederick Taylor's division-of-labor model]. If given the right tools and training, they could be problem-solvers, innovators, and change agents. Toyota saw within its workforce the necessary genius for never-ending, fast-paced operational improvement. In contrast, US car companies tended to discount the contributions that could be made by first-line employees, and relied instead on staff experts for improvements in quality and efficiency. (p. 29)

In other words, management innovation is hard to imitate because it goes against the training, experience and culture that a company has developed over its recent history. It means rewriting tacit rules that have gone unquestioned and that in most cases have led to the company’s success in the past.

This, of course, means that establishing management innovation is terribly hard work, full of complexity and requiring learning and development on the part of all staff. But most importantly it requires unflagging commitment of the leadership, since they have the most invested in the status quo.

More tomorrow on “The Future of Management.”

Note: you can find excerpts of the book here.

Other posts on this topic:

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

A look back at this week–value of dissent, getting value from mistakes

Friday, October 5th, 2007

Further to the post about the value of dissent, Max Boisot wrote a riotously funny post on how rows (pronounced the British way, raows, and meaning fights) between him and a collaborator improved the quality of their work together.

And on the idea of publicizing and learning from mistakes, the Wall Street Journal Informed Reader pointed out an article in Wired Magazine by deputy editor Thomas Goetz advocating that data from failed or abandoned studies be made available to researchers. One repository of this type of information, Mr. Goetz points out, is the lusciously named Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine.

(The above also reminded me of the HBR article stating that finding uses for output of terminated R&D projects is one way to improve R&D cost-benefit.)