How to Innovate Products Faster: It's All About the Culture!

May 9, 2013
It's time to trade in bureaucracy and management meddling for trust and 'check-ins.'

Most product development managers associate innovation with risk; and risk is something that you need a lot of time to mitigate. Thus to get products to market quickly, they cannot be too innovative – right? Wrong. Companies like Google, LinkedIn and Samsung have shown that incredibly innovative products can be developed and launched to the world market with very high quality and in a short time. How do they do it?

It is clear that the edgiest companies are able to turn-out world-changing products again and again in short time-frames, and within budget. These companies refuse to see innovation versus time as a trade-off, and instead create strategic frameworks and cultures that foster and reward both creativity and speed. We don’t advocate a silver bullet, but recommend the right culture and a set of supporting principles for this kind of fast innovation. We believe in a strong culture built around trust, risk taking, and entrepreneurship will provide the best foundation for fast product development.

In our experience advising Fortune 500 technology companies, both innovation and speed are often compromised by too much bureaucracy, control, and management meddling. The brightest product development contributors spend too much time preparing for project review meetings. Innovation is not on their minds – it is making their results look pretty for slides and projecting an image of “it’s under control.” We suggest a much lighter approach to project management and a culture of trust. In fact, for a year-long development process, we propose just three scheduled “Check-In” points: A Concept Check-In, a Product Check-In, and a Release Check-In.

“Check-Ins” are different and much less formal than traditional “Phase-Gate” meetings or project reviews where managers sit in judgment of the technical team. They are more like friendly dialogs between the managers and the technical team to assure the former that the program is on track. If built and nurtured correctly, the benefits of this lean, lightweight product development process include greatly increased innovation, high-speed of development, keeping the focus on the core value proposition, and repeatability! The same teams can go on to develop other innovative products even faster.

Of course, giving a cross-functional team this kind of freedom from “control” means that managers must have a profound trust in the project team and its members. That trust starts by building a high-performance team. Assuming that you are starting with competent, motivated individuals, there are four principles to building this kind of team:

  1. Create well-defined roles and responsibilities. Having clarity around “who is doing what” will free-up teams to work on innovation.
  2. For a large project, the decision making power is defined by a set of “boundary conditions.” If the team stays inside the boundary conditions of schedule, cost, and performance, then there is no need for regular executive reviews which just waste time and choke creativity.
  3. Management should delegate almost all authority to the team members, and especially those in the core team. Each decision should be made at the level where people have the most knowledge about it without the need for long “approval trails.” If a “boundary break” occurs, then there is a simple, fast, and pre-defined way to get the conditions re-set, or to fix the break.
  4. Create and nurture a culture of trust and collaboration. Teamwork breaks down in the absence of trust, and people will spend their time in self-protection activities instead of working toward common goals.

Creating the Innovation Growth Engine

It is important to point out that high-performance teams working within this lean process framework are just part of an overall, robust strategic framework needed by each company. At the top of this framework, there should be a “strategy-to-product” cycle of strategy, management and execution. This cycle is the innovation growth engine for the company. Strategy provides the vision and actionable plan in support of the corporation’s business goals, including profits and increasing shareholder value. Management is the set of actions that support this strategy, and execution is the operational excellence in hitting timelines and budgets.

Supporting this growth engine in the strategic framework are organization and process. Building and nurturing an effective organization is one of the most important roles of management. Companies that have world-class organizations succeed in the marketplace time and again, while those that do not fall behind.

The other important supporting element is process. Without having robust processes in place to ensure that you gather the proper requirements, form the right teams and have a product free from defects before you launch, there is no way you can convert strategy to products. Many organizations encumber themselves with too much process, causing individuals and teams to spend too much time filling-out forms or waiting for permissions. Other companies have too little process, causing duplication of work, inconsistent messages to suppliers and partners, and incomplete communications. Both extremes can hobble the innovation engine, and we recommend a “just right” balanced approach.

In summary, innovating successful products rapidly requires a strategic framework that keeps the “innovation engine” running smoothly, and motivated, high-performance teams operating under a light process management system that encourages new ideas and rewards both speed and innovation.

John Carter is co-author of the book “Innovate Products Faster” (2012, ISBN 1470002906) and has been a CEO, founder, and inventor. As Founder and Principal of TCGen Inc., he advises technology firms on strategy and operations.  He is the co-inventor of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones, and shares the original patent with Dr. Bose.

Scott S. Elliott, a major contributor to the book “Innovating Products Faster,” is an innovation leader and a senior executive consultant for technology companies.  In a long career at Hewlett Packard and Agilent Technologies, he invented microwave technologies like surface acoustic wave resonators, high-speed photodetectors, and millimeter-wave integrated circuits; and he built viable processes and organizations to manufacture and support these technologies.

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