2003 Product Development Management Columns

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It’s Not About the Technology

This past summer, bicycle racer Lance Armstrong won his fifth Tour de France, cycling’s equivalent of the Super Bowl. Armstrong has written his amazing story, insightfully entitling it It’s Not about the Bike.

 

Yet, if you wander into your local bike shop, you are likely to find some guys in the corner debating the merits of clincher tires versus tubular tires, rather than being out on the road exercising with whatever tires they happen to possess. Or you will find a customer agonizing over upgrading to a Dura-Ace crankset for $270 to pare 43 grams from the weight of her bike, totally ignoring the PowerBar (i.e., candy bar) she just ate, which itself weighed 65 grams.

As with cycling, in product development it is easier to dwell on the technology and ignore the behavioral issues that render it effective. In fact, product developers are more susceptible to this than the general population, because the techies, who normally inhabit product development teams, are even more inclined toward technical solutions to problems.

In a recent book, Experimentation Matters: Unlocking the Potential of New Technologies for Experimentation, Stefan Thomke describes a host of recent technologies to enhance simulation, modeling, testing, and prototyping for product development. However, he states, “… it is not necessarily what the technology is that matters but how it is used (Page 145).” The key to effective utilization is the accompanying behavioral, cultural, and organizational changes that enable the new technology to function effectively.

Thomke doesn’t provide much guidance on making these critical behavioral changes, but his colleague at Harvard Business School, John Kotter, the guru of organizational change and leadership, does. In his book, The Heart of Change, Kotter identifies eight steps necessary for enduring organizational change, based on extensive research, and he provides case studies illustrating how organizations have either executed such steps or failed to follow them. I’ll outline his eight steps briefly:

  1. Create a sense of urgency. Unless people recognize that the current situation is unacceptable and things must change, then start telling others this, your change program is unlikely to get off the ground.
  2. Build a guiding team. Its members must possess the relevant knowledge, know how the organization works, provide credibility and authority, and know how to lead. A single manager, at any level, has neither the time nor the knowledge to do it all.
  3. Create a vision and supporting strategies. Although the vision may rule out certain areas as unnecessarily risky, it must be bold and ambitious, making clear that extending the status quo won’t work. It must also provide an imperative for speed (see step number 1).
  4. Communicate the vision. This vision must be spread throughout the organization, via multiple media, in terms that people can understand. The goal is to build buy-in so that the program extends beyond the guiding team.
  5. Empower individuals to take action. This amounts to identifying and removing barriers. Often, an important one is the reward and compensation system: are people receiving bonuses for making the change or for resisting it? Are they apt to lose their job if the change prevails?
  6. Create short-term wins. You must build momentum at this point, and complete victory may be so far off that people lose interest. A solution to this is to identify some quick, highly visible illustrations that change is occurring. This will also provide valuable feedback to the guiding team and marginalize the naysayers.
  7. Keep your foot on the accelerator. The pitfall of short-term wins is that people start believing that they are victorious prematurely. Once you have picked the low-hanging fruit, the rest will be harder. At this point, you can start jettisoning some of your old baggage, which will provide more time to make the remaining changes – and ensure that you can’t go back!
  8. Make the change stick. Unfortunately, even if you achieve your goal completely, you will not have achieved enduring change. Tradition has amazing staying power, so people tend to revert for some time. Among other things, the compensation, hiring, and promotional system all must be realigned with the new mode.

In summary, installing a new technology or new concepts, as fantastic as they may seem, will be of little value until you successfully deal with the accompanying behavioral changes. Fortunately, Kotter provides a path to follow.

 

(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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