Monday, March 26, 2007

Focus and Innovation

In my experience, a major impediment to innovation is lack of focus. If your organization isn't clear on what it is trying to accomplish and why, you are likely to consume your resources on a myriad of time consuming projects that contribute little to the effectiveness of the current product, and leave no room for innovation.

So if you want to innovate, get control of your portfolio. It will take time for this to trickle through the organization so that engineers feel comfortable saying "no" to things they used to agree to. It is hardest when those things are also things they enjoyed doing. I've seen a dysfunction where there seemed to be a gleeful satisfaction in avoiding accountability because the system wouldn't let engineers work on what they know they are supposed to work on. You have to observe this and stop it. But in order to do that, you need a clear mechanism for establishing and communicating focus.

Steven C. Wheelwright and Kim B. Clark advocate for an "Aggregate Project Plan" which decides on the fate of projects before they begin:

Simply adding projects to the active list—a common practice at many companies—endangers the long-term health of the development process. Management needs to create a set of projects that is consistent with the company’s development strategies rather than selecting individual projects from a long list of ad hoc proposals.

Wheelwright and Clark used change in product and change in (manufacturing) process as a means to define different types of developments: Derivative (little change in either), Breakthrough (change in product and process) and Platform (the middle). They also added a bucket for R&D and another for Alliances. They then plotted circles in the boxes to represent the resources required for various projects - larger diameter circles represent more resources. Using this system they were able to get management to remove projects that weren't clearly aligned with the company strategy, and in just a few years improved productivity at a particular company by a factor of three. The graphs started as a mess and ended up being clear and compelling.

Fewer projects meant more work got done.

Bottom line: don't let the busywork prevent you from doing the important work. We all know this is good advice, but it can be hard to make it happen. Wheelwright and Clark provide a tool to help you manage up and out to hold capacity back for what it is needed for.

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