Many successful teams learn faster than their rivals, and with the support of good managers, this nimble learning helps create work environments where employees are encouraged to try new things. This synergy enhances openness to new ideas, allowing implementation of new methods that improve product innovation. Some of these team enhanced processes can include running experiments, getting a better understanding of customer use cases and the constraints they have, and focusing on improving rapid iteration. Good management and creative teamwork are key factors for increasing efficiencies relating to innovative product development.
Learn from Experiments
Successful managers understand how and when to use experiments to drive innovation. For example, one time you might run an experiment is when you have a clear idea of how to do a task, but you’re not happy with either the cost or the time required to try a new approach. The known path can be your “plan A” and then you can allocate a certain amount of effort to experimentation, to see if you can improve on what has been done in the past. This allows you to get better, over time, at the things you know how to do. As a point of caution, if you have three or four projects going simultaneously, it’s better to run one or two small experiments on each, rather than taking one project and making it subject to all the risk of your experimentation.
Another scenario you may encounter is when you’re faced with a design problem, but you’re not sure how to solve it. In this case, it would be wise not to commit to the project, and to run some small test cases or feasibility studies before committing to the full project.
Here is an article on this topic: “The Failure-Tolerant Leader” by Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes, Harvard Business Review (August 2002)
Constraints Can Inspire Innovation
Encourage your employees to explore their prospective customers’ issues regarding the product design, and then be open to finding solutions. Historically, the bicycle industry offers many examples of this.
For example, in 1927, during bicycle races, Tulio Campagnolo was frustrated by the labor-intensive process of changing a tire, which had locking nuts on each side of the wheel. This issue was made even more difficult in cold weather. The time constraints he experienced when racing led him to develop quick release skewers. These are now commonplace on most road bikes because they make the process of changing a bicycle tire faster and easier.
One engineering manager I know has regular engineering lunches where one of the brainstorming topics is “user constraints”. There is an open discussion where the team brainstorms how customers use the product in their operating world. They discuss “user constraints” and look for innovative design approaches. Similarly, solutions to your product design challenges can be found through brainstorming and team conversations when there is an openness and desire to understanding the customers’ experience.
Focus on Rapid Iteration
Managers should encourage employees to take action rather than delaying a project in order to perfect the design. There are so many unknowns in the market, and the best approach is often to take a reasonably designed product to market quickly, then follow up by learning as much as you can to improve it with a revision (compared to delaying the launch to improve the product before you enter the market).
The idea of rapid iteration can be motivating, but there’s a lot of market risk that can only be evaluated and mitigated once there is at least a working prototype. Getting a beta version into 30, 50, or 200 user’s hands does a lot to mitigate that risk. We are seeing many more “bigger betas” to drive the rich user feedback and expedite the learning cycle.
Arguably, the Kickstarter quantities begin to look a lot like “bigger betas”. Typically, the Kickstarter build size is 300-500 units. Before the volume is increased, it allows for more feedback from their user community. The Kickstarter also allows for a virtual prototype with a video, a spec sheet, and a data sheet, before releasing the first iteration.
Managers have a direct impact on their employees’ effectiveness and creativity by encouraging employees to try new things. Teams that become very good at learning can help their companies experience new levels of innovation, which is needed to truly thrive in today’s market.