New product development and the power of teamwork

14th August 2019

New product development and the power of teamwork

Media reports about new product development often present innovations as individual achievements. Whilst the contribution of Jony Ive to many of Apple’s products or James Dyson to vacuum cleaner design is not in doubt, both individuals would (I hope) be the first to say that they didn’t do it on their own.

When it comes to new product development, strong leaders with a clear vision are essential, but they need the support of people who collectively understand every aspect of the product development process. They need a team. The main benefits of teamwork are easy to see. Being able to view a problem or opportunity from different viewpoints; having access to broad experience and knowledge; sharing a collective view on direction and methods. 

The power of the collective

We recently worked with one of our oldest clients who had reached a watershed in their company development. Our team persuaded them that it would be a good time to get all their senior managers around a table and conduct a product review. Crucible then created an agenda that looked at the company history, their current products, the market, their competitors and future trends. We then had a broad discussion about opportunities in the market and began to map out a five-year product development strategy.

There were three important outcomes from the meeting. First, the whole senior management team were up to date with where the company stood, and what the challenges and opportunities were. Second, people from different departments were able to share ideas and insights that had some unexpected – and very positive – outcomes. Most importantly, the collective discussion created a new direction that everyone felt involved with and committed to. 

Don’t work in a silo

The antithesis of the collective approach to product development is the remarkably common management concept of divide and rule, or information silos. This approach is based on a small top management team that makes all the decisions, which are then passed down to the individual staff or departments on a ‘need to know’ basis. Sound familiar? We’ve seen it all too often. Whilst it can work quite well if you are manufacturing a simple commodity item, it precludes the efficiencies and creative opportunities that a good team can deliver. In our experience it also usually results in poor morale, higher staff turnover and lower performance.

The most important benefit of a team-based approach is the sense of personal commitment that results from being both informed and encouraged to contribute. This is completely absent in companies where divide and rule is practiced.

The rules of play

If you want to do it right, the first step is to create your team. You need people who are knowledgeable about their function, but not dogmatic; able to present their case, but capable of seeing other’s views; and above all, positive in their approach. Ideally, your team will include representatives from all stages of the product development process, from identifying market opportunities, through design and manufacture, to dealing with maintenance call outs. You may be surprised to find out what gems the people involved in maintenance can tell the marketing department!

The second step is to arrange regular team meetings. They don’t have to be long sessions, but they do need to involve the same people each time or you will lose continuity and may as well not bother. Meetings early on in the process are likely to take longer as they will involve more discussion, whereas later ones will be more focussed.

The third and most important step is to create a productive and positive culture. In our experience, successful companies adopt a ‘no blame’ culture in which problems are identified and dealt with, not hidden or blamed on someone else. This has nothing to do with being nice – it is a hard-headed approach that recognises that the commercial success of the company depends on dealing with problems before they become a threat. Creating a culture in which people are encouraged to hide or deflect their mistakes is not good for business.

There’s a standard for that

Surprisingly, there is a British Standard that encompasses the best aspects of a team based approach to product development. Its title is BS7000 part 2: The management of product design, development and manufacture. It is not a particularly light read, but contains a lot of very useful and remarkably common sense advice about the product development process.

We approached British Standards some time ago and asked them if we could produce an executive summary of the standard. They agreed, but asked that it would only be available on specific request. So, if you would like a free copy of our ‘condensed wisdom’ from BS7000/2, please email Mike Ayre to request a copy. If you would like our more general guide to product development, which contains some of the excerpts from the Standard, please download it using the link on the right.

The bottom line

A genuinely team based approach to product development that harnesses all a companies’ capabilities is surprisingly rare. When it does happen, we always find the product development process is quicker, more profitable and a lot more fun.

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