Although in our relations we love surprises, for teams a ‘surprise’ is the antonym to a well managed process. Yet I discovered that surprises are the seedlings of any innovation in product development teams. Surprises should not only be considered as a nuisance, creating turmoil and stalling progress, but also as beneficial for teams as it enhances the innovative power.
Surprises as the source of breakthrough innovation
A well known example how a surprise leads to innovation is the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Coming back from a vacation, he intends to clean up a lot of petri-dishes from former experiments. A petri-dish with an unusual mold drew his attention, a mold that apparently contaminated the experiment. It seemed that the mold seemed to have killed the bacteria that had been growing in the dish. It took him much time to make sense of the situation, but together with others he managed to come up with a miracle medicine (penicillin) 12 years later, saving many lives in World War 2. It is a well known story, often told somewhat humorously because Fleming was rather slobbish. I love the story because it underscores two aspects of innovation. First: Fleming was mindful to whatever passed by. if not Fleming but his assistants had cleaned up the pile of petri dishes in the laboratory, the event would have gone by unnoticed. Second, if Fleming would have stuck to the activities as planned for that day, he would have cleaned the dish. Sticking to a pre-established planning is a recipe to kill even the most exiting innovations.
Surprises are inevitable for multi-disciplinary teams
The essence of multi-disciplinary collaboration is two or more persons with distinctive expertise, who develop something none of them is capable to conceive individually. It is the cornerstone underlying crazes as ‘open innovation’, ‘networked innovation’ or ‘participatory design’. The combination of knowledge and activities of some persons together is not foreseen completely, and often result in surprises and, subsequently, innovation. The mechanism that underlies this, is that specialists literally ‘see’ the same events and objects differently. In my research this manifested clearly when interviewing team members who collaborated on a topic intensively for six months. They showed to have a rather distinct framing: whereas one discussed the topic entirely from a user perspective, others discussed it entirely from the perspective of technology. Point is: add another specialist, with another framing and new problems and opportunities will be ‘seen’, resulting into surprises in the team.
Surprises occur at all times
In innovation literature often a distinction is made between a stage of goal finding and exploration and a stage of engineering, production preparations and the like. Between a stage of innovation and a stage of planned execution. Often somewhat implicitly it is assumed that surprises belong to the first stage, e.g., by naming it ‘fuzzy front end’. An insight from my study is that surprises occur at all stages of product development. For example, because again and again the team changes its composition: from researchers to developers, from developers to engineers, and from engineers to production engineers. Each time the project at hand will be viewed with different frames. Also events occur in the outside world that requires to reconsider what the team is creating. Just imagine you were working on a new Nokia mobile when Apple introduced its first iPhone, changing entirely the rules of the game.
Surprises are the benefits
When discussing these insights, I am often asked how these surprises can be avoided, above all in later stages of product development. E.g. by assigning specific roles that have a helicopter view, i.e., persons that are not so quickly surprised. The assumption is that the resulting ambiguity merely leads to unwanted discussions, delay, and additional costs. Although I’m quite aware that only products that meet planning stand a chance, the point I make is that surprises lead to innovations. Innovation can be defined as ‘new to an organization’ and a surprise is ‘something new’. Indeed: 9 out of 10 surprises are unpleasant, such as an failing parts. But 1 out of 10 is an opportunity that knocks on the door and requires development. Consider Fleming’s mold that killed bacteria. If Fleming would have been part of a ‘lean’ R&D, whereby planning is sacred and developers need to deliver a product according to requirements, still thousands of persons would die every day from bacterial infections. The challenge for managing product development and innovation is NOT to reduce surprises, it is about managing how to deal with surprises well.