Preston Smith's Corner

I know that innovation is naturally chaotic, but can’t we anticipate problems better?

June 2001 Quick Tip

Yes, you can. But first, you must know what kind of chaos you have. Perhaps you aren’t anticipating or managing project risks well, so proactive risk management would help. If customer requirements keep shifting, focus on better ways of keeping in touch with the marketplace, such as incremental innovation or creating personas.

But often the chaos is inadvertently built into our development processes. We rely on sequential stage-and-gate processes, which presume that all information is available when a task starts. However, in reality, late-stage learnings often necessitate redoing earlier steps. We also use project management tools, such as Gantt and PERT charts, which are predicated on successor tasks following predecessors with no allowance for looping back.

MIT professor Steven Eppinger has found that development processes are often routinely (but unknowingly) arranged so that an activity requires information from a subsequent task. When this happens, iteration is assured. Although some of this iteration is essential to innovation, much of it can be eliminated by judiciously rearranging activities, combining activities, or by adding bridging activities. Moreover, analysis of a development process will identify the essential iteration so that the loops that remain are known and can be managed.

Eppinger discovers, eliminates, and manages iterative loops by portraying activities in a Design Structure Matrix that clearly shows the tasks that require information from subsequent tasks. You can read about this tool for managing iteration in his article, “Innovation at the Speed of Information,” in the January 2001 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Citation information for this Quick Tip: ISSN 1529-1928, 10 June 2001.

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

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