Ever wonder how the best ideas come together? Here Steven Johnson gives a preview of his book on the topic while detailing the importance of allowing ideas to develop, mingle, and grow.
Most product development processes within corporations rely on a regular transition of responsibility as an idea progresses from conceptual to final product. Some of the most common examples are transitions between inventors and feasibility assessment teams, feasibility teams and development teams and even marketing and R&D operations. Often these transitions are also where we see the product development process fail as the product idea never fully takes hold in the imagination of the new team and fades away. One of my preferred ways of visualizing the issues that can arise during transition is through an analysis of idea “ownership”.
The chart in figure 1 describes the level of ownership that a team developing a particular innovation may experience over time. As the team starts out the commitment level is relatively low, no one has spent much time on the initiative and there are many different paths to success still available to the team. Over time the team feels more commitment towards the innovation path and the sunk cost of the current program of work increases, this increases the ownership of the program.
Within every product development project there is a level of complexity that the team is expecting to encounter. This expectation can vary significantly (think landing a man on mars vs. developing a new flavour ice cream) but the important factor is that there is an expectation. Deviations from this expectation are what we call “problems” (or occasionally “lucky breaks”). Tasks that do not deviate from our expectation of complexity are what we call our day job. The chart in figure 2 describes an example of the complexity curve for a project over time.
If we begin to think about how we could measure complexity in the above example it becomes obvious that the level of complexity of a given problem could be measured by the level of commitment and effort required to solve said problem. In essence what we are saying is that every problem we encounter within the product development process will require a particular level of “ownership” in order to be overcome. This allows us to overlay the two previous charts with the common y axis of the theoretical construct “ownership”, see figure 3.
Ownership and the transition
Turning our attention to the concept of ownership as it relates to idea transition between corporate groups we can imagine a (worst case?) scenario where the ownership level of the accepting group post transition is extremely low, Fig 4. This low ownership scenario can arise for many reasons including a lack of understanding of the idea potential, a poor incentive structure (the fabled “not invented here”) or simple housekeeping such as stressed resources limiting the interest in yet another project.
Fundamentally, a project in a low ownership situation is fragile. Problems encountered during this state can cause the project to fail as those responsible for the next development stage see the hurdles as insurmountable, Fig 5. Often these same hurdles are seen in a very different light by those who continue to experience high ownership for the project.
Bridging the gap
How then to avoid issues arising from transition fragility? Obviously one cannot control when an unexpected problem may arise during a project but it is possible to influence ownership in the lead up to, and directly after a responsibility transition. Examples of how this can be achieved are numerous but a couple worth considering include shadowing programs which engage the second group in the decision processes of a project prior to transition, Fig 6. Shadowing programs allow a new transition group to develop understanding and commitment before they take ultimate responsibility for the project.
Another approach uses dovetailed leadership structures which create matrix teams during transition, Fig 7. In this instance a temporary matrix team is formed during transition consisting of the (low ownership) core of the second team reporting into the (high ownership) management of the first team. After a fixed period of time the matrix team is disbanded and reporting lines are reset. This allows for a soft transition where high ownership individuals are always present in the responsible project team.
The innovation transition process within a corporate innovation program can be a very complex procedure in which success is as much down to the personalities of the individuals as the rigor of the systems employed to control it. Companies that focus on solely on the mechanical aspects (document control, handover procedures, technology debriefings etc) may be leaving themselves open to failure through no fault other than the realities of human psychology and the timing of a project hurdle. Innovation programs that incorporate ownership management within their transition processes go a long way to reducing that risk of failure.