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Checklists don’t work for innovation and one important way you can change that

New product innovation checklistTo some, the idea of a checklist for innovation is ludicrous. How can you use a checklist for something as fluid as new product development – especially when venturing into game-changing or disruptive areas.

Of course others are using a checklist already. They just call it stage-gate and then wonder why it doesn’t always deliver the improvements they were expecting.

Checklists are useful tools for both simple and complicated tasks. They serve as a way for experts to turn their knowledge into simple steps taken in a specific order – so called best practices. They also serve as an important way to ensure that important steps aren’t forgotten when the pressure is on.

In the book, Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande gives numerous examples where checklists have made complicated procedures more reliable. One is a checklist for a dozen or so preoperative steps that have almost completely eliminated postoperative infection in hospitals that have embraced it.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that’s fine for areas where best practices are known but what happens in more complex situations? But let’s face it – you don’t always know what you don’t know and that’s where checklists by themselves aren’t sufficient. Of course, innovation is about creating new practices, processes or products – all as solutions to unmet needs. That means the standard stage-gate and project management checklists, while possibly sufficient for incremental improvement, aren’t much help with the complex domain of innovation where creative new solutions are required.

The example of complexity that Gawande uses is building a skyscraper. By comparison, building a house, or even a typical office building is a fairly straightforward challenge where most of the alternatives and outcomes are known ahead of time. However, the enormous scope and timeframe of building a skyscraper means that the project plan can’t anticipate all of the challenges which might come up during construction. Of course, since the dimensional envelope is set by the design plan, any changes ripple out and affect all of the various trades and mechanical systems – structural, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, communications, networking, acoustics, even elevators.

Rather than added command and control, construction engineering firms handle the added complexity with a distributed problem solving approach. They still have project managers and each trade still has a project plan and checklist, but they add another checklist of sorts – frequent, cross-functional communication meetings. In these meetings, each of the different functions reports on their progress, but they also share unexpected problems and any changes that have arisen. That allows each of the other functions to consider and weigh in on the potential impact. If necessary, it also allows the group to develop alternative solutions and keep the program on track.

From a new product development perspective, this just underscores the importance of a cross-functional approach to new product development – one involving all technical functions as well as marketing, sales, manufacturing, and even procurement. You still need to evaluate the potential obstacles your project faces and create an upfront plan and checklists to get around them. But as the project plays out and problems, issues, and unexpected alternatives arise, cross-functional communication plays a critical role in helping deal with the complexity and allowing you to reach your new product goals.


{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Mukul Mehta February 8, 2011, 3:44 pm

    In Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande, talks about relatively HIGH volume processes and improvements that can be made by using checklists. Surgery, Construction, flying planes are examples of relatively HIGH volume processes. For any process, success rate will increase if process is followed as intended. So it is not surprising that Checklists work very well. New Product Development in most companies is a very LOW volume process. Apple introduces one major product every one/two years. Most companies would be very happy to introduce 5 to 10 new products per year. For such LOW volume proceeses, process laws still work, but measuring and demonstrating improvements becomes very dificult. Nudging people to comply in such cases is exceedingly difficult.

    Also in surgery, construction and flying planes, the cost of catastrophic failure is very high. In new product development, it is relatively lower, so getting management and community support is difficult.

    • Michael A. Dalton February 8, 2011, 4:55 pm

      Appreciate your comments Mukul. Volume may be an important distinction, but still most companies use staged development processes which are essentially a type of checklist. But even in high volume applications, checklists run into problems when the task is complex. A checklists just can’t contemplate every possible outcome. Nor should they – as you point out, it’s tough enough to get compliance already. In my experience, the cross functional communication element has always been critically important and may be the best way to bridge both issues.

  • Keith Parris March 9, 2011, 5:36 pm

    Innovation is simple and prolific in most organisations; just ask anyone what needs to be done to change what they don’t like. The issue is selection and stimulation. Most innovations get squashed or die from lack of nuture. So the constraint is the organisational processes necessary to select those that are worthy of support, then actually delivering what is needed for the concept to grow to commercial reality.
    There are examples of businesses that allow employees to utilise some of there worktime to develop their pet project. This seems to be effective. So a checklist would cover this type of thing.

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