Make one to talk about: On excellence

NO ISSUE is more important to corporations today than innovation. And the key to that innovation just might be burning your planning manual . . . and getting started.

That's what innovation guru Michael Schrage said in a brilliant recent article in Design Management Journal called The Culture(s) of Prototyping.

'Effective prototyping,' he declared, 'may be the most valuable 'core competence' that an innovative organisation can hope to have.'

Mr Schrage observed that there were two types of organisations, 'spec-driven' and 'prototype-driven'. The former think a lot, write a lot of stuff down and eventually do something (usually elaborate). The latter do it, then think about it (once they have something concrete to think about).

Prototype mavens include 3M, perhaps the top big-firm innovator, and Sony, where design executive Nobuyuki Idei claims the average time from product concept to a rough working prototype is a shockingly brief one week.

'Prototypes are a way of life' in the most innovative firms, and 'an iterative culture defines the organisation, according to David Kelley of IDEO, the premier industrial designer. In such outfits, prototypes become 'the essential medium for information (transmission), interaction, integration and collaboration,' Mr Schrage adds.

At its roots, the cultural gulf between the quick prototypers and the rest is profound. Dan Droz of Carnegie Mellon University told Mr Schrage: 'The idea that you can 'play' your way to a new product is anathema to managers educated to believe that predictability and control are essential to new product development.'

I agree with Mr Schrage's conclusion that strong prototyping cultures produce strong products, but despite his artful prose, the use he makes is anecdotal. Enter Benham Tabrizi and Kathleen Eisenhardt of Stanford University's Department of Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management. They recently focused their research on the speed of product development, examining 72 projects from 36 companies in Asia, Europe and the US. They unearthed two primary and fundamentally different approaches to hastening product development. In the first, the 'compression strategy', they said the key to fast pace 'is squeezing together a rationalised product development process. The underlying assumption is that since product development is complex, it is best to plan ahead to streamline the process and then compress the remaining steps together.'

Alternatively, for the 'experiential strategy', moving faster 'simply by accelerating an existing (albeit streamlined) process . . . is insufficient. Rather, the underlying assumption is that product development is an uncertain path through foggy and shifting markets and technologies. Thus the key . . . is rapidly building intuition and flexible options.'

The authors offer and then test 10 hypotheses. Six underpin the compression strategy. The first is: 'More time spent in planning is associated with faster product development time.' The other five predict that speed will flow from: greater supplier involvement; more designers using computer-aided design tools; overlapping steps (eg concurrent engineering and production); multifunctional teams and rewarding teams for meeting schedules.

The seventh through 10th hypotheses assess the experiential strategy. Take No 7: 'More design iterations are associated with faster development time.' The remainder predict that development time will be cut by performing more intermediate tests, decreasing the 'time between' milestones, and relying on a high-ranking leader to focus the team's effort.

Working with corporate product developers, the researchers came up with precise quantitative measures for each hypothesis. Their findings: the calculative compression strategy was trounced by the 'just do it' approach.

More specifically, planning actually slowed the overall process; more use of computer-aided design also gummed up the works. Overlapping steps, greater supplier involvement and rewards for meeting schedules made little difference one way or the other. Among the variables in the compression strategy, only the use of crossfunctional teams speeded things up significantly.

Of the experiential variables, more iteration, more tests and more frequent milestones all shortened product development time significantly. Even a strong leader was a matter of indifference.

One must be wary of measuring too precisely such an inherently messy phenomenon. Nonetheless, Tabrizi and Eisenhardt's pioneering work provides a careful and systematic test of the intuitively plausible - and monumentally important - ideas presented by the likes of Michael Schrage.

TPG Communications

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Guru Careers: Pricing Analyst

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pricing Analyst to join a leading e-...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45K YR1: SThree: At SThree, we like to be dif...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Did you know? SThree is a mul...

Guru Careers: C# Project Team Lead

£55 - 65k (DOE): Guru Careers: A unique opportunity for a permanent C# Develop...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor