Innovation, Technical Risk, and Schedule Risk

There is a healthy tension between level of improvement, or level of innovation, and time to market. Marketing wants radical improvement, infinitely short project schedules, and no change to the product. Engineers want to sign up for the minimum level of improvement, project schedules sufficiently long to study everything to death, and want to change everything about the new product. It’s healthy because there is balance – both are pulling equally hard in opposite directions and things end up somewhere in the middle. It’s not a stress-free environment, but it’s not too bad. But, sometimes the tension is unhealthy.

There are two flavors of unhealthy tension. First is when engineering has too much pull; they (we) sandbag on product performance and project timelines and change the design willy-nilly simply because they can (and it’s fun). The results are long project timelines, highly innovative designs that don’t work well, a lack of product robustness, and a boatload of new parts and assemblies. (Product complexity.) Second is when Marketing has too much pull; they ask for radical improvement in product functionality with project timelines too short for the level of innovation, and tightly constrain product changes such that solutions are not within the constraints. The results are long project timelines and un-innovative designs that don’t meet product specifications. (The solutions are outside the constraints.) Both sides are at fault in both scenarios. There are no clean hands.

What are the fundamentals behind all this gamesmanship? For engineering it’s technical risk; for marketing it’s schedule risk. Engineering minimizes what it signs up for in order to reduce technical risk and petitions for long project timelines to reduce it. Marketing minimizes product changes (constraints) to reduce schedule risk and petitions for short project timelines to reduce it. (Product development teams work harder with short schedules.) Something’s got to change.

The relationship between innovation and technical risk must be changed. For every unit measure of innovation there must be less technical risk. Or, conversely, for every unit measure of technical risk there must be more innovation. Sounds great, but how? Well, deep questions like this deserve deep answers, answers that only the great philosophers can provide. As it turns out, the great American philosopher (and baseball player) Yogi Berra provides the answer:

If you don’t know where you are going, you will end up somewhere else.

“Where we are going”, our destination, is a solution to a technical problem which the innovation process winds us toward, and the probability we’ll “end up somewhere else”, getting lost, is technical risk. We’ve got to know where we’re going if we’re to have any hope of getting there.

The key to getting there is problem definition. Not the regular kind, but the physics-capturing kind; the kind that is expressed simply, with regular nouns and verbs, that can be explained to non-technical folks, and fits on one page. An example of this one-page problem definition can be found in a previous post. (Search the site for “one-page thinking”.) Problem definition of this type is powerful and difficult, and it’s the key to innovation. Once the real problem is defined, once the physics are understood and can be described plainly, the problem is solved, and the destination is close-at-hand.

Not many have seen or done this one-page, physics-capturing problem definition. And it’s power is severely underestimated and poorly understood. I’m sure many think I’m off my rocker when I say that one-page, physics-capturing problem definition is the key to innovation. But, I stick by my assertion. Once this hyper-rigorous problem solving helps you know where you are going, innovation can be as straightforward as entering a street address into your GPS.

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Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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