Listen to the podcast here.
Through a recent course, I was introduced to the EconTalk podcasts. Russ Roberts leads a weekly interview on current events, impacts on the economy and trends in society. He recently interviewed Tim Harford on the topic of his new book, Adapt. I’ve put Adapt on my wish list since Mr. Harford’s comments on EconTalk were very intriguing.
Tim Harford tells a story of a Gulf War battle in which nine US tanks suddenly encounter a hundred Iraqi tanks of Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard. The US military had satellites, simulations, computers, and sophisticated planning tools. Yet, these nine tanks of Eagle Troop, were caught in a sandstorm with no communication back to the planners. With a life or death situation on his hands, the captain made a split-second decision to engage the opponent. Luckily, everything worked out okay for Eagle Troop that day, but there were clear lessons on strategy and decision-making that Harford shares.
I think we can also learn from this message in New Product Development. First, it’s great to have experts planning the tasks. However, it is the “surprises” that can lead to disaster. In both the military and in a new product project, it is best to work the plan but also consider the contingencies if something upsets the execution of the plan as it was originally designed.
One way to consider alternate plans is through risk assessment. A quick look at the potential impacts and probabilities of occurrence for “unexpected” events allows the project team to prioritize events that may occur and to develop actions for the highest level risk events.
Second, communication is fundamental to a successful team. (See my recent post at the Idea Incubator on risk and communication.) In the case of Eagle Troop, communication between the planning authority and the implementing parties was lost. Though innovation projects are not of the same life or death scale as the First Gulf War, a product can be delayed in a commercial launch or may face technical and manufacturing difficulties impacting profitability if team members are unable to communicate effectively.
Less than 36% of NPD project leaders have received formal training in project management. Leaders understand how to process inputs and to judge whether the outcome should be decided by consensus or by fiat. Successful NPD team leaders gauge and measure the progress of the development work in order to motivate creativity and to manage the scope, budget, and schedule for the project.
While NPD and military actions are fundamentally different, the parallels in planning, communicating, and assessing risks are key to executing any project successfully.
I’m excited to read Adapt as the EconTalk interview with Mr. Harford gives me a lot of food for thought on how to better manage NPD projects. Stay tuned for more posts on how to improve your innovation programs.
Image of tank courtesy of Flickr.
Image of game courtesy of Flickr.
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