It’s Risky! It’s Chaotic!

It’s Risky!  It’s Chaotic!  Innovation Development is an unusual process.  The first unusual characteristic of the process is that it is risky.  The outcome is uncertain.  You may proceed with full expectation that you will get to market and midway through the process discover a fatal flaw in your innovation.  Game over.

Risk is an inherent attribute of innovation.  But most processes, especially in business, are highly reliable – the outcome is very certain.  In fact, that is why we define processes very well and take exhaustive measures to ensure their reliability for maximum customer satisfaction.  Surveys of practitioners of new product development conducted by the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA) show that projects are successful by their original objectives only 60-70% of the time.

Understanding this risk is essential to creating and managing a successful Innovation Development process.  There are ways to mitigate this risk that can be built into the process.  For example, know what you don’t know.  What?  That’s right – recognize that there are things that you need in your innovation that you do not yet know.  Brainstorm these unknowns, list them, assign them to team members, and figure them out now.  So often we just assume or hope that we will “cross that bridge when we get to it” and come to discover that there is no bridge.  Weeks or months of delay can be mitigated by the simple activity of figuring out what we don’t know and seeking answers.   Innovation is all about something new so recognize that attribute and build it into your process.  Also, just because you hit a road block does not mean the game is actually over.  Adjustments can be made which result in getting the innovation completed, perhaps with additional time or cost.

The upside of risk is that Serendipity Happens.  The development of innovation creates an environment for very unexpected and positive things to happen.  Having a good Innovation Development process increases your opportunities for positive serendipity.

The other unusual characteristic of Innovation Development is that it is chaotic.   Development is not a straight-line, serial process.  Dependencies between tasks in the process are loose at best.  Although it is preferable to proceed through the process in a planned sequential manner, like any ordinary process, it seldom happens.

I have found that constraining the process to a lock-step, sequential order is not only impractical, but also counterproductive.  As the process owner of new product development in our company, our NPD process was selected for a Six Sigma project.  Using the Six Sigma DMAIC improvement process facilitated by a competent Black Belt and with my enthusiastic support and the support of my cross-functional colleagues, we worked very well to carefully structure the process and create an elegant process flow.  It was very well documented, tasks were measured, and goals were established for each step in the process.  I thought we had the next big thing and as we revised our quality system procedure to make the new process effective, I was looking forward to a big improvement.  It got worse.

Over the next few years as we worked projects to the new process we frequently violated the procedure simply because the needs of the project dictated that we do something differently.  It wasn’t a lack of discipline.  It was clear that the chaotic nature of product development was not conducive to the normal business process.  Many things can be happening at any time in the process, so why wait?  Also, things happen and delays occur so move on to other tasks while those things get sorted out.

To describe the process of innovation, I like to show it as an information network.  It has hubs and spokes.  It is asynchronous.  A task, which is a hub of activity, can spawn another task.  Each of those tasks may require information or materials from another task, which creates a spoke between them.  All of this communicating occurs as needed, when needed – asynchronously, not synchronously.

Sounds messy?  It is, or rather, could be.  The chaotic and risky tendencies of innovation require a balance of well-defined objectives and tasks with flexibility in scheduling and resources.  With an understanding of these characteristics and good organization principles to your Innovation Development process, you can overcome these potential downsides and turn them into benefits that improve the performance of the process resulting in better innovations with less time to market.

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