Leading your NPD team

DN Staff

January 8, 2001

4 Min Read
Leading your NPD team

Despite the growth of knowledge about how to conduct new product development, or NPD, many managers seem to have a knowing-doing gap. A key difference between the more- and less-effective product development leaders is how well they close the gap between what they know and what they do regarding NPD leadership.

Unfortunately, what we know is not clearly defined. The best leadership style may depend upon how well managers identify the parameters of the situation and adopt a compatible management style.

Some very capable leaders instinctively use cross-functional teams, while others prefer the single-leader unit approach, but neither is inherently better than the other. A single-leader unit can work faster than a team when the leader can set clear goals, make individual assignments, and hold individuals accountable. However, once a group has mastered team basics, the single-leader approach would no longer have a time advantage. In a dynamic marketplace it is critical that management know what various situations require and change how their groups work accordingly.

Team leaders are products of their environment. Their behavior is strongly influenced by how they interpret senior management's decisions and resource choices.

Some senior managers assign the bulk of NPD resource and decision-making power, as well as the authority to appoint team leaders, to the R & D function. Such pigeonholing discourages cross-functional thinking and collaboration among team members.

Consequences. This action also tends to empower the R & D function to exclude others from assuming a personal stake in the new product process or its outcome. Interdepartmental rivalries and turf protection behaviors within the new product development team can result.

The manner in which senior management selects, trains, and empowers team leaders exerts a strong influence on the outcome of the NPD process. Those selected must have good interpersonal skills-the ability to relate with others and build collaboration-as well as the requisite technical skills.

Unfortunately, non-technical skills and related training are often viewed as superfluous, perceived as only providing long-term vs. immediate and measurable returns.

Teaching lessons. To develop successful NPD processes, senior management must support the often lengthy and error-prone process of having project leaders learn the human aspects of NPD.

This same situation would occur to any other functions such as manufacturing, if given a similar assignment by senior management. Cross-functional teams must unite all of the appropriate functions into one integrated team.

Ask the manager

Q: As with most engineers, I face many problems at work. Once in a while I run out of solutions. How can I improve the probability of coming up with a new idea when I need it?

A: The simple answer is to become more creative. Group brainstorming is a common, but useful, way to come up with new ideas. However, this requires assembling a group and it takes time.

You can also use individual brainstorming. Begin with an idea dump. Let your mind wander from idea to idea, as if you were day dreaming. Write them down on individual 3x5 cards but do not evaluate them until you stop. The point is to stretch your thinking beyond a narrow perspective.

To enhance this idea-dumping process, try a technique called forced analogies. With this technique, compare your problem with an idea or subject chosen at random. The comparison doesn't matter, as long as it is chosen at random. Otherwise, your choice might restrict the breadth of available ideas. For example, how does this problem relate to herding cats? To a circus, an aging bridge, or driving a car?

The objective is to identify new linkages. Hidden in those linkages will be one or two ideas that will lead to something potentially interesting.

Once I faced two key managers who both wanted to assume responsibility for developing the software required for interfacing their two functions. I thought about the game of football where both the offense and defense have to understand the strategy and perspective of the people on the other side of the ball.

With forced analogy in mind, I asked B to present what he thought were A's advantages, and A to present B's advantages. The request took both men by surprise, but after an hour or so we came up with a good decision.

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