5 Factors define The New Technical Workplaceyou can apply them to overcome organizational inertia and nurture responsive R&D strategies
Product development companies now operate in an increasingly dynamic environment. Technology continuously seeks and achieves the disruption of conventional business models. The Internet of Things is deploying with accelerating momentum, transforming almost every product into something that needs to be able talk to the world around it. Software continues to “eat the world” and, even in the domains of industrial products, customers demand higher technology content to drive formerly mechanical products. Global competition and the increasingly VUCA context reshapes every company’s management of its resources. Even the nature of jobs has changed as simple acquisition of labor shifts to the more critical and challenging attraction of talent.
In a review of yet unpublished research exploring the factors of success in R&D and product development programs, Strategy+Business notes that companies having a “responsive strategy” will be the winners in this uncertain competitive environment. Responsive strategies allow R&D managers and product development teams to adapt quickly when internal shifts or external events disrupt ongoing programs.
The S+B review of the research relates stories illuminating how an organization’s ability to respond quickly to internal and external conditions influenced the success of its product programs.
In one case, a computer company with a more traditional organizational structure was unable to fully comprehend the impact of alternative technologies emerging from its suppliers. It’s sluggishness and internal constraints doomed its product.
In another case, an automotive company was able to quickly comprehend and capture the benefits from emerging materials technologies. It used the discovery to develop new processes and generate products that enabled it to lead its competitors to market. It’s changes in manufacturing became a model that was eventually adapted throughout its industry.
What differentiates successful companies? What makes a successful “responsive strategy”? Three factors emerged from the research –
- Continuous tracking of the risks in all vital R&D projects
- Open and frequent information exchanges among staff
- Awareness of external technological and economic changes derives through ongoing planning even after product launch.
Each of these point to beneficial revisions to the design of the conventional R&D organization and its operating practices. Employees will need to be more aware of the external environment and managers will need to change the way they think about supervision.
In some cases, these changes can be costly and require some diligence in the way to identifying and capturing their benefits. But, while confronting challenges to organizational design and practices, are there other factors in a company’s operating context that can help or hinder operational responsiveness? For example, does the physical space where the corporate R&D team works influence its ability to effectively respond to shifts in the company’s competitive context? Can an R&D organization seeking agility and responsiveness achieve it through physical change to its workplace? How might companies assess their physical settings to identify modifications that could promise increased responsiveness?
The physical spaces where product design and development work is done can easily be assessed for their impact on the culture and agility of the organization. Simply looking around at how space is allocated can tell you if the organization is constrained by entitlements and hierarchy. Simply looking around at the nature of the workplace can tell you if the pace of programs is constrained by formal systems. Simply looking around can tell you why attracting and engaging talent is becoming more difficult and expensive.
In order to become a more responsive organization, R&D managers need to become facility managers and shift the lexicon of the workplace from policies to programs, and from managing furniture and space allocations to supporting how product design and development work is really done.
We’ve developed a model we call The New Technical Workplace. Reflecting our own research and experience working with product development companies, The New Technical Workplace provides a framework around five key conditions that characterize leading product development companies.
As you look around your workspace, ask these questions. Test the answers for their potential effectiveness in quickly developing the “responsive” culture that nurtures competitive success –
- Are the products of your work visible everywhere in the environment? Being associated with and developing those products is why people, even your accountants, came to work for you. They engage and find their purpose around those products.
- Is the working environment shaped around projects? Project programs are the principal organizing and operating units of your company. Projects need a place of their own.
- Can everybody who has some influence in the process have presence in the workplace? Rapid prototyping, the Minimally Viable Product and other development practices deliver meaningful results when the entire design and delivery team, including the customer, is in the room.
- Can teams self-organize and achieve proximity to key people and resources? Information spreads and knowledge is created in easily flowing exchanges among people who know and trust each other. Being close is the most important dimension.
- Is the workplace a physical representation of a platform business model? Every disruptive business model is a platform model. Technology enables people with needs to freely and informally engage with people with ideas. Your workplace should operate similarly.
Shaping the design of the product development workplace using questions like these enhances the team’s awareness of the project’s risks, moves information more quickly and effectively among members, and keeps people engaged beyond tasks.
We’ve recently used this framework to design facilities that are transforming the organization and operations of a heavy equipment manufacturer, reshaping how biomedical research applications are developed at a university incubator, and accelerating idea generation at a leading national architecture and engineering firm.
As the president of one of the successful companies cited by S+B said, “The biggest challenge is laying the foundation for all these processes. Once established, it was like clockwork, and everybody in the organization knew what to look out for.”