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Building Better Product Development Partnerships

Does your collaboration need a boost? Try these four tips.

When manufacturers need to get to those breakthrough ideas—and not just once, but regularly—partnering with a product development company can help. But if the process isn’t managed properly, it can quickly go awry. So how do you prevent a myriad of process problems?

Having worked on both sides of the product development process, in-house and as an outside partner and advisor, I have a deep understanding where things fall short. Because innovation is hard, challenges inevitably exist, especially when it comes to defining what is or isn’t innovative. 

I’ve identified four ways that manufacturers can get better results from their product development partners. 

1. Ask the Right Questions

Recognizing that innovation is a buzzword and many product development firms claim to do it, manufacturers cannot go on a potential partner’s marketing and sales pitches alone, or solely rely on the work a prospective partner did for another company. Asking the right questions is about kicking all the tires and holding nothing back.

What does the process look like? Who actually performs the work? What can we expect from the process? What innovations have you created that we would know? Which clients can we talk to about their partnership with you? What have you learned from manufacturers? What do you need to know about us? Choosing a right-fit partner means getting acceptable answers.

2. Establish Trust in the Process

Reluctant partnerships won’t foster the complicated and messy work of innovation.  Once you’ve chosen a partner, both sides should do their due diligence to get to know one another beyond the surface-level question phase. Face-to-face time at the beginning of the relationship is especially important.

Whirlpool, for instance, initially came to us 17 years ago because of our automotive experience and multi-disciplinary approach. They were open to having significant face time—at our office, in their facilities, and through live video calls—so we could each observe how the other partner works, and build rapport and understanding of each other’s culture to collaborate better. By taking the time on the front end of the process, we were able to dig deeper into pain points so we could begin to solve them more effectively, and map a more strategic approach to product innovation. We were given Whirlpool badges, a gesture suggesting we were more than contractors; we were valued partners. To this day, our partnership continues.

3. Communicate.

Early on, it’s important to articulate expectations and establish regular points of communication so that no one is wasting hours on an element of the design that ultimately isn’t applicable. Team members on both sides should know what they are responsible for and have a mechanism for sharing their progress regularly with the team because their work may impact what’s happening upstream or downstream.

Here are some essentials for good communication throughout the team:

Hold weekly project status meetings. Make them either face-to-face or through video so the team can connect tasks with people. Even if there isn’t much to discuss every week, the cadence keeps team members focused and on track. A 10-minute touch-base can be just as valuable as an hourlong working session.

In our experience, we get significantly more accomplished when we meet face-to-face. At a minimum, we convene weekly for project updates and set the expectation that more may be necessary throughout the week as questions or issues arise. Further, in-person meetings are valuable as they can alert team members to unspoken questions or concerns through body language, which can be addressed in the moment.

Don’t cancel meetings. The process is what ultimately garners results.

Be transparent. Share updates, both good and bad, with everyone on the cross-functional team, as wins and losses inevitably will impact the timeline. Keep in mind that losses are learnings rather than failures.

Keep communication simple and direct. We’ve learned over the years that some of our most effective communication is through visualization. Manufacturers can help in this process by being direct– saying, “I don’t understand,” “Show me,” “How does that work?” “Why is that necessary?”—simple statements and questions that demand clarification.  Words are not the only way to communicate. Seeing is believing. Touching it means it’s real. Manufacturers must be direct in asking for what they need to build understanding. This helps remove ambiguity and validate the written and verbal communication.   

Remove the jargon. When companies and their partners don’t use the same language, problems will ensue. We know we cannot speak the language of IoT or design thinking to companies that don’t yet do IoT or design thinking, nor do we know the inside language of specific industries. A “teach versus tell” approach reminds both client and partner how best to simplify and convey information.  When one party is using unfamiliar terminology, ask for clarification. It is better to ask more questions than risk misinterpretation.

Set a realistic calendar with phases. Everyone wants the answer to the question, “How long will this process take?” This can be difficult to answer from a start-to-finish timeline; however, the team can map out phases to give realistic timelines of how long a given process will take. This keeps everyone focused on moving the project forward and achieving milestones. 

Celebrate milestones. Too often heads are buried in work, checking one box and moving on to the next. This approach puts an unbalanced weight on end-product outcomes over incremental learning. Manufacturers should celebrate small victories (e.g., aligning on strategy, confirming design specifications, etc.) as well as bigger milestones such as anniversary dates that mark the start of innovative work, especially given that this is a new way of working. Use team celebrations as opportunities to informally reflect on what’s been learned and how far you’ve come. Discuss what lies ahead, while also building upon the trust and camaraderie developed with your partners in the process.

Remember iteration. One element that is likely to change the product development lifecycle is product iteration. From the outset, it is common for clients not to initially understand the value in iteration until they are immersed in the project. While there is no way to ensure product longevity in the market, ignoring opportunities to iterate can hamper the product lifespan, especially in a market where innovation is thriving. As we work collaboratively, opportunities arise to enhance and build upon the initial idea. At the end of each project phase, we recognize that the path can shift, and client exposure to this process helps them to understand and embrace these shifts are natural and lead to product iteration.

We recently worked with a plastics injections company on a Bluetooth-inspired monitor that will improve and expand the use of industrial batteries. Through the iteration process, we added features and improved durability that will enhance the user experience. These are findings that wouldn’t fit nicely into the timeline, but each iteration comes with its own revised phases to ensure the work moves forward toward the best possible outcome.

4. Embrace healthy conflict. 

New product innovation and the search for breakthrough ideas are actions full of risk, fear and failure. That alone increases tension. Here’s the twist, though: When trust, teamwork and open communication are evident, healthy conflict is allowed to exist. Breakthrough ideas actually require a degree of healthy conflict.

Much like the first point – ask the right questions – manufacturers can’t hold back and must also ask tough questions throughout the innovation process. Tough questions about quality, costs or timelines are the kind that typically cause conflict, especially when the desire answer isn’t what they hear (longer timelines, higher costs or impact to quality). How manufacturers reconcile this with partners goes a long way in determining product and relationship success, but it doesn’t mean manufacturers must fully submit to the partner’s suggestion. Healthy conflict means finding healthy resolution, it may require asking for new prototypes before abandoning the original vision, or seeing market projections before releasing additional budget. 

For example, recent work with a medical technologies company led us to a common fork in the road: Does our client pursue a product development process because it’s cheaper to produce with a more affordable price point once complete, or develop a better quality product? Nearly every client would opt for better, faster, cheaper if it can be successful in the end. In this case, we felt strongly that a different and more expensive product was the better choice that would yield the best results in the end—and advocated for that position. They were hesitant to make that kind of investment up front. We agreed to build the more expensive version alongside the cheaper one. The client wanted, and did, trust us but they needed to visualize the prototype. In the end, the client abandoned the cheaper option once they could see the differences. And it helped validate what we believe is a fundamental difference in how we serve clients as a partner: vendors do as asked, but partners help find the best solution.  

Most of us tend to avoid conflict at all cost, yet healthy conflict challenges our assumptions and pushes everyone beyond their previous experiences. This is where innovation occurs and how new product development processes work to reveal a breakthrough solution.

These four ideas – asking questions, establishing trust, open communication and healthy conflict - culminate into what has become an undervalued but all-important concept: teamwork.

Robert Niemiec is managing partner of Twisthink, a strategy, technology and design firm whose whose manufacturing client list includes Herman Miller, Crown, Whirlpool and Stryker. Prior to leading Twisthink, he spent more than a decade in engineering and leadership roles at Johnson Controls.

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