Social Product Development

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Big Ideas are Overrated


“Hurry up and innovate!” What if that was your task for the day? How do you force your mind to come up with a huge new idea? And when it does, is the result something that can be acted on?

My perspective is that when it comes to brainstorming, real breakthroughs come from order and a stream of incremental successes. Having a structured way to allow unstructured thinking may seem counterintuitive, but I believe that it helps focus the mind by breaking down a problem into manageable units which can be worked on simultaneously by a team. In this way, an individual would be forced to expend more thought and energy exploring a specific dimension on the problem – one that otherwise might have evaded attention. Then, by aggregating smaller, disparate ideas, a bigger and more meaningful solution may arise. John Baldoni discussed this concept in the Harvard Business Review blog with his post “How to Encourage Small Innovation.”

To see how this might play out in a generic sceanrio, take for example the marketing task of naming a new product. One tactic would be to get a group of people in a room with a clean whiteboard and jot down as many names as possible. This is a traditional brainstorming approach which often times works just fine. However, another approach would be to frame the “innovation target,” in this case a product name, along certain dimensions, such as product attributes. In this way, you could have one person focus on names that encompass one of the product’s key functional differentiators, say, fuel-efficiency. Another could think of names tied to the product’s cost advantage. Each person would see the in-process ideas being generated by everyone else. This would potentially spawn new variants by taking a tangent on someone else’s thought. Plus, people could fuse ideas that span multiple attributes. Thus, a structured methodology would help to elicit freeform thinking, foster continual, incremental progress, and enable idea synthesis to ultimately arrive at a better answer.

Can the same freeform collaboration benefits ring true in the more technical realm of product development? Drew Gude, Microsoft’s Director of Hi-Tech Industry Solutions talked about this in his recent article “Unstructured Collaboration is Key to Increased Innovation and Business Agility in 2010.” Yet, Drew contends that PLM systems lack the requisite flexibility to support this time of interaction. I offer a different angle. Think about the underlying PLM platform acting as the secure foundation that handles the necessary product development chores of version/access control, change management, component management, and the like. This would afford teams a degree of rigor and methodology that a company requires when dealing with its lifeblood: product data. Now, weave into the tried-and-true PLM system, a layer of technology designed to enable freeform thinking and knowledge sharing. And here, I don’t necessarily mean seismic new product ideas that will yield millions in sales. These “breakthroughs” could be as small and seemingly innocuous, gained from a real-time visual whiteboard session between a designer and a manufacturing engineer aimed at discovering a better way to design a plastic molded part. Maybe the win isn’t a new product line, but a reduction in the mold complexity which leads to a shorter manufacturing lead time and lower associated tooling cost. By supporting both the “organic thinking” associated with freeform exploration -- delivered as needed, where it’s needed -- along with the careful configuration management required for released product data, a social PLM system could help make these mini-vations commonplace. And maybe, when you string together a few of them, the cumulative results become quite significant and better things start to happen.

So, perhaps a structured environment like PLM might just be the best thing for the unstructured mind. What do you say?

Photo source: Ross Mayfield's photo stream on flickr

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