How to turn Conflict into a Breakthrough

Everyone wants to transform, but nobody wants to change. — Frederica Mathewes-Green

Right now, there is a dynamic at work in your organization that is preventing innovation — ideas are getting lost in translation.

In technology-driven businesses, there are two functionally and physically separate teams: the one that does the R&D, and the operations team that turns technology into a product to take to market.

When I was running the R&D portfolio program for a Fortune 100 company, I was charged to facilitate the transfer of technology from the R&D lab bench into the product operation. There was usually some intense resistance to accepting validated research from R&D into the product group. I would often see two groups of very talented people locked in a vehement argument about why or why not the researched product change would or wouldn’t work.

Different Teams, Different Pressures

There is real value in tapping into those tensions and facilitating shifts in viewpoint.  A breakthrough program can transform a portfolio and perhaps a company.  What is the Post-It Notes business worth to 3M, or microprocessors to Intel? If tension is allowed to restrict innovation, friction will ultimately cost your organization time, money and energy that could be much better spent.

But too often it can be like watching travelers lost in a foreign land who were trying to communicate with the natives: it was fruitless and frustrating for both parties. When two camps are incomprehensible to each other, they just get louder and more entrenched – ultimately leading nowhere.

The reason conflict erupts at these team boundaries is because each faces different risks and pressures. For example, the product design people are under deadline and cost pressure, while the manufacturing engineer is under conversion cost and quality pressure, and sales just needs to hit the numbers.  Put them all in a room with a proposed innovation and watch the mayhem begin.

So how do you get everyone on the same page?

The Power of “Boundary Objects”

What is needed in these situations is a “boundary object.” Boundary object is a sociological term to describe something that has meaning on both sides of a boundary and that can be used to facilitate communication. This is a common ground from which communication can start.

For example, if the lost traveler needs to locate a business, pointing to the image of its logo can easily get the cab driver moving in the right direction. The logo is a boundary object.

I was at an MIT program once where a program manager for the military described an application that has stuck with me for years. This manager was charged with taking manufacturing costs out of a fighter jet program and described the lack of progress that occurred for months as the design team would roll out large, full-scale drawings of the airplane in meetings with the manufacturing team and the heated discussions that would ensue.  He described this ineffective ping pong game and his personal frustration.

Finally, after a long stretch of this, he had a breakthrough thought: the project manager called his next meeting in a hangar with a live aircraft.  He had equipped the meeting with rolls of butcher paper, tape, markers and Post-It notes.  The productivity of the meeting soared. For the first time, there was a 3D object to point to, have discussions about, and leave notes on — an object both groups understood.  The avalanche of breakthroughs began, and they more than made their goal.

Characteristics of great boundary value objects are:

  • It can be described in a shared language. For example, when you see teams invent a new language before your eyes – real communication is starting to happen.  One of my favorites was when a cross-functional team started to use the term “form factor” to describe positive attributes of a design.
  • Provides a concrete way for individuals to identify their differences and dependencies. For example, reducing the number of parts by using standard fasteners makes the manufacturing so much easier, but must be taken into account very early in the design process or it will drive a huge delay in the design.
  • Facilitates a process where both parties at the boundary can jointly transform their knowledge.  This is one of my favorite things to be part of – for example, when a brilliant researcher and engineer come up with something that is so elegant that neither would have anticipated.  An example of this kind of shift is the move from drum to disk breaks — an improvement in costs, parts count and performance all in one step.

Transformation: The Key to High-Value Transactions

The key to high-value transactions is transformation: the point where two bodies of backgrounds and experiences come together and develop a new, shared understanding. I’ve had the experience of being in the room the first time that a paper design has become a prototype — a tangible form — hundreds of times, and it’s always a cleansing, almost surreal moment for the team.  While many surrogates are used in the design process, there is nothing like the touch and feel of the user interface, heft of the device or speed of operation to solidify deep understanding and feedback.

Let me give you a recent example: one frequently overlooked parameter when using remotely-controlled cameras is latency – the time between when a command is sent from the control center and an action occurs on the remote camera. I was reviewing an installation that was rendered unusable because the feedback loop was so long that the operator would overshoot both ways when attempting to focus in on a point of interest. By bringing together a network designer and the operator, they found that a few point-to-point wireless links were all that was needed to make the system useful again.

Truly agile organizations value this rich input highly, and go out of their way to make sure that the team’s gene pool is sufficiently deep enough to bring out these new and insightful views – which ultimately raises the bar for the organization.  They get the end user involved early and don’t allow their concerns to be overlooked.

Really good business cases do this for an organization, one layer removed from the actual product.  Great business cases have narrative, analysis and pictorial representations that allow each key stakeholder to evaluate the effect of their investment in that product or proposal from their unique viewpoint.  A well-crafted business case is essential to seeing the innovation happen in the organization.

Have you put the innovation prevention department out of business?  I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please drop me an email or tweet me.

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