On our last trip to Italy, Gene and I spent a day walking around the city walls in Lucca, a Tuscan town with a well-preserved medieval center. The townspeople of Lucca have been known for their prudence and conservation for many centuries. For example, the town continued to build walls around itself after those walls had been made obsolete by modern warfare. Churches are plainly adorned, and there are none of the architectural masterpieces one sees in Florence. The townspeople invested instead in solid defenses to maintain independence.
Your partners are also more interested in independence than they look, and this is one reason why partners are hard to engage with around product development. Marketing partners want to believe that they own all the customer and market knowledge, when the best products emerge by sharing both the knowledge and the opportunity to develop this knowledge with technical staff. Procurement and manufacturing partners want to lower their own risk by refusing to engage with new suppliers or adopt new materials and manufacturing methods. Sales people want to sell incremental, easily-explained improvements to your company’s existing customers because that’s the easiest way for them to earn their bonuses. These risk minimization positions protect individual functional interests at the expense of the overall company’s ability to grow.
Low Risk Tolerance Leads to Low Engagement — and Low Growth
In extreme cases, Marketing can start to see the engineers as replaceable and interchangeable with outside partners, because their normal experience working with the company’s R&D department is so uninspiring. They don’t understand how to leverage the company’s existing technical knowledge into new ideas that can lead to breakthrough or even disruptive innovation. Procurement and manufacturing partners, measured on operational excellence metrics that demand stability, may demand changes in a product design just to preserve status quo in the factories and supplier base. Sales people can refuse to sell a product, explicitly or implicitly.
Yet many organizations clamor for organic growth and innovation. They send their Innovation Teams to creativity workshops and engage outside design firms to “shake things up.” They hold massive ideation sessions to try to find one or two golden ideas that may become products. Business schools have entire library shelves full of books about why organizations need innovation and how to manage it. People make it so complicated when it’s simple: partners need to be engaged at the beginning and stay engaged.
It’s a lot more fun to work at a company that’s growing. There is money for bonuses, new plant equipment, the annual company picnic and the latest rapid prototyping tools. The sales teams get to go to Hawaii for their sales meetings. The company can bring on new people, and since most companies hire first from referrals, that helps your friends and family. People do resist innovation because it’s uncomfortable but not because they don’t want their company to succeed.
So the first step is to capitalize on that self-interest to get people engaged in the product — the second step is to keep them engaged as you develop the product — and the third step is to deliver the product as promised.
Build Engagement at a Cross-Functional Kickoff Event
The time and money spent to bring functional partners together for a Kick-off Event gets repaid over and over with improved communication, alignment and engagement. The functional partners build a comprehensive picture of all the hurdles the team must pass in order to get a great product to market on time. While many of these hurdles will be R&D’s responsibility, other groups also uncover the Key Decisions they must make and the Knowledge Gaps they need to close.
The plan that emerges from the Kickoff Event will reflect the entire team’s best understanding of the work to be done to reach the next phase, and it will be a plan by and for the entire team. The process of building this shared understanding comes through writing a Core Hypothesis as the first step of the Kickoff Event.
Bring Their Own Knowledge Gaps to the Surface
When an Engineering team brings a decision to Procurement or Manufacturing for review that involves the assumption of risk, the default, safe answer is “no, we can’t do that.” With the Rapid Learning Cycles framework, teams ask instead, “How could we do this?” and “What options do we have for doing this?” That engages the problem-solving muscles in these downstream functional partners — they have their own Knowledge Gaps to close. They become full members of the team, instead of people waiting to pass judgement on things that will be hard to change.
Not only does the process highlight the Knowledge Gaps that each functional group needs to close, but also the Key Decisions where these functional partners have valuable insights to contribute. Since they’re engaged with the project team more frequently, they are available to provide much earlier feedback.
This makes product development a lot more collaborative and engaging because the team is working together to slay a common enemy and ship the product.
Make Your Events Vehicles for Engagement
Learning Cycle and Integration Events can be structured in lots of different ways, but they are not boring. People present the knowledge they’ve built about customer and market needs, ways to overcome technology hurdles, options for features that deliver benefits that realize the vision for the product. At Integration Events, they decide what to do.
These Events occur much more often than Gate Reviews, but much less often than the typical weekly team meeting. Your manufacturing engineers may not have much to contribute to a weekly meeting devoted primarily to status updates and troubleshooting the logistics of the work. However, they would get a lot of value from attending a Learning Cycle Event every four weeks that explains the knowledge that the team is building as the product moves toward the next gate.
They benefit even more from closing some Knowledge Gaps for the team about the manufacturability of new, unique or difficult design concepts. They move from spectators to full team members for the areas that draw upon their expertise. When the team’s Key Decisions receive cross-functional review before they’re finalized, they are much more likely to stick in the weeks and months afterwards.
Even when the news is bad — no alternatives work, customers don’t like the idea, none of the suppliers meet the requirements — the team still shares the experience together, determines the consequences together, and develops a recommended course of action together. They are one engaged team.
Let Them Help You Deliver What You Promised
When your partners are engaged, they participate with you in determining the Last Responsible Moment for the program’s Key Decisions. They also have more visibility into the things about the product that are easier to change. So when new information comes in about customer needs, market demands or competitive challenges, they will be in a better position to evaluate this new information against the current state of the product. Their late-development input is less likely to be disruptive and more likely to be useful. Their own plans for launch dates, trade show promotions and early-look customer programs will reflect this greater understanding. They will help you avoid implied promises that you can’t keep, as you work together to optimize the value of the product and the launch date.
Engaged Teams Take More Risk
It’s much less risky to say “No” than it is to say “Yes” to a novel idea. But it’s almost as easy to say, “Let me think about it.” When a functional partner is an engaged member of the team, he or she is able to think about the ideas that emerge which are new, unique and seem to be more difficult. There is more time to reflect on “how COULD we do it?” instead of saying, “We can’t do it” to avoid taking on the risk of innovation, or demanding “You must do it” at the cost of a missed market window.
Marketing decisions about feature sets or engineering decisions about material choices make more sense when they’re in the context of the entire program. The reason to invest in a new idea is much easier to see when functional partners understand the Core Hypothesis that is driving the need for a new approach, and continues to stay connected with the program through the Events. That positions your partners to help you deliver what you promised.
Today, Lucca draws a lot of visitors who want to walk along the town’s famous walls and tour the towers in the medieval core. In the middle of this district is an oval square, Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. It was built on the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, preserving the shape of the amphitheatre walls. It is the type of opportunity that arises when one partner’s need for conservation combines with another’s vision for something new. Today, the piazza supports sidewalk cafes and shops catering to the tourists who come to experience the 16th century architecture, gardens and artwork.