In a recent blog, we discussed how to Use SWOT to Reset Your Business and Innovation Strategy. As has been said, execution overrules strategy any day. Strategy is important because you have to know where you’re going and to explain why you’re headed there. But how you get there and when you get there is even more important.
I often think of strategy as a destination. An analogy is found in planning a vacation. The destination (for me) is often a National Park (where I’m going) so I can go hiking (why I’m going). The SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) yields insights to help in the decision-making process of laying out a business destination and innovation goals that will increase revenue and lead to customer satisfaction.
How I get to a National Park and the timing of vacation are related to workflows. I could fly to a nearby city and rent a car or drive to the park directly from home. Driving usually takes longer but allows me to easily carry bicycles and camping gear. In the end, flying or driving achieves the same goal – hiking in a beautiful place – but the execution of the plan is quite different for each case.
What is a Workflow?
We often don’t think a lot about workflows. Somehow work just gets done. If tasks or activities are behind schedule, someone calls a meeting to figure out why. But it is more efficient to establish processes upfront and follow a standardized path – a workflow – to achieve repeatable success. A workflow is thus a system or process.
Even for tasks and activities as unpredictable as developing a new product or service, we need a process that informs the project team how to convert an idea into a saleable product or service. The workflow illustrates a series of steps with assigned roles and responsibilities. The system also includes decision-making criteria to indicate whether a particular initiative should continue to advance. These decisions are particularly important for product innovation as trends in customer needs, markets, and technology can change during the development life cycle.
Workflow is NOT a Schedule
As good project managers, we always prepare project schedules. These include key milestones and deliverables. Innovation systems often use gate reviews to establish the continued attractiveness of a product idea through design and development. Product portfolio management reviews determine strategic alignment and value-add for innovation projects. The workflow captures these hand-offs and decision points as well as responsible team members to accomplish the work.
A schedule is different than a workflow in that it shows (often as a Gantt chart) which tasks must be done and in what order. A schedule shows overlaps in activities and highlights the critical path that determines the earliest possible completion date for a project. Project managers are held accountable for delayed schedules. In my vacation analogy, the airline has a specific schedule and if I miss the flight, my entire vacation is delayed.
Designing an Innovation Workflow
First, remembering that a workflow is not a schedule, list all the tasks that must be done to transform an idea into a product innovation. The list should include direct tasks (such as prototype testing) as well as indirect activities (such as applying for a patent). Next, as shown in the figure, order and prioritize these tasks to optimize the project goal. Remember that activities like concept testing can be conducted in parallel with technical development and production testing.
As you begin to order the required tasks and activities, you will find that some are dependent on others. This is not unlike putting together a project schedule but as you create a workflow, you can identify methods to optimize your resources when you recognize a dependency. In scheduling, we must increase the time if Task A must be fully completed before Task B starts. Yet in a workflow, or systems analysis, we can collate certain dependent activities or decisions for a management council or portfolio review.
The workflow considers roles and responsibilities, skills and competencies, and training needs of functional staff to complete activities. An effective workflow identifies cross-functional relationships as well as cross-training for various roles so that the project work progresses continually. Then, when hold times or transfers and hand-offs are unacceptable, resource allocation is optimized to eliminate overload (Step 5).
As with all innovation projects, the innovation system itself should be tested. Prototype the workflow on a “typical” new product development (NPD) project to identify bugs, holdups, or bottlenecks in the workflow. Then, as you implement the workflow across all projects and functions, relentlessly streamline the process. Continuous improvement and being aware of bureaucratic sand traps is key to successfully maintaining optimized workflows.
Learn more about the innovation workflow matrix here. You will see many of the common project and innovation management systems categorized by serial or integrated teams on the x-axis and via waterfall or Agile philosophy on the y-axis. Learn more about product innovation in New Product Development Professional (NPDP) certification self-study course. Then, join me on 18 June 2020 at noon CDT (1 pm EDT, 10 am PDT) for a free Q&A webinar on the Life Design Master Mind group where you will apply the Design Thinking workflow to current challenges for knowledge workers maintaining full employment. Register here and we’ll see you soon!
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