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Zero Waste Engineering: Overcoming Organizational Constraints

This is part 3 of a 3 part series for industrial enterprise business leaders on bringing your customers into the product development process. In part 1 we defined the concept and outlined the basics of the methodology. In part 2 we discussed common objections that we have heard from internal stakeholders at our clients to the concept. In this post we will outline how to overcome organizational constraints.

“Old guards will tell you to innovate and be creative, but won’t mention that it’s ONLY ok as long as it’s something they’ve already thought of and agree with.” -Richie Norton

In our last two posts we dug into one of the core pillars of our Zero Waste Engineering™ process – Conspiring with you Customers. In the first post we discussed the methodology, and in the second we addressed common organizational objections that we’ve heard in the course of our consulting experience. 

In this post we’ll talk about how to actually get started inside of your organization. How do you go about getting your customers more involved in your product development process given the constraints and processes already in place inside your organization?

First, let’s discuss the three personality types that we tend to find trying to drive disruptive digital innovation inside their companies. 

The Bulldozer

The Bulldozer is typically a young, energetic engineer. They’ve often had a side project going – and that side project has had a mild amount of success. This success has given them enough organizational support to continue their side project, but not enough to actually enable them to be successful. 

Unfortunately, this person doesn’t understand how products get to market in their company or their industry. They seek to engineer their way to success. They generally confuse not being told to stop with support to continue. The Bulldozer sees themself as the hero in the story and often wind up leaving a trail of destruction as they wander through their organization “getting it done”.

The Smooth Operator

The Smooth Operator has learned to “play the game” inside their organization. They navigate the wheeling and dealing of corporate politics well and have been successful in bringing sustaining products to market. They often have a broad personal network inside their organization.

This experience has blinded them to the fact that disruptive innovation requires very different processes and support. As a result they move confidently, but don’t take the time to think about whether or not they are making the right moves. As a result this person can find themselves blindsided late in the product development process as they find that the organization wasn’t as supportive as they had assumed around a product that doesn’t meet the mental map of the organization.

S/He of Little Faith

This person tends to be a product manager that has gotten fed up with their ability to get support for their initiatives internally, or their belief that their organization simply can’t execute on their vision. Typically armed with a budget (sometimes obtained with a questionable business case), they are looking to buy their support from an outside vendor. 

The result is that they wind up with a product, but find themselves doing catch up work to get it launched. Necessary support functions such as finance and IT wind up frustrated and unsupportive of the initiative as it is “dropped into their lap”, sometimes with budget requirements that they were unaware of and had not planned for. The result is a completed product with no clear landing pad for ongoing support and no clear roles and responsibilities for launch. 

The Problem

While each of these individuals goes about trying to get the job done in very different ways, they all share at their core a fundamental error. They each ignore one of the other fundamental pillars of our Zero Waste Engineering process. They don’t build a coalition.

Build a Coalition

Change is hard. New, disruptive digital innovation isn’t just the next version of your product or a bolt-on thing for your market. It is a fundamental shift. This requires a committed group working in concert to support and shepherd the initiative.

This group should consist of members of all stakeholder groups within the company. Each of these members must have a commitment to the vision and value they seek to achieve. At a minimum this group includes product management, engineering, sales, IT, and finance. 

Based on the specifics of your project and organization there may be other groups, or subsets of these groups that you need involved. For instance, you may need support from both the controls group and cloud group in your engineering organization. Or you may need buy-in from both operations and security within your IT group. Each circumstance is unique, and the coalition you need will be too.

At this point you are probably thinking to yourself. This seems obvious, but there is no way it would work in my organization. You are right, it is a simple concept – and also a very difficult one to put into practice. The fact this is difficult is one of the reason that our Bulldozer and S/he of Little Faith choose to interact with their organization the way that they do.

So, let me give you some practical tips on how to bring together a coalition that can overcome organizational inertia and and help shepherd your initiative.

Understand your Affinity Groups

Your organization likely has many pre-existing informal affinity groups. These may be based around practices (e.g. agile software development), technologies (e.g. React or Rust), or market shifts (e.g. data or digital). If one of these groups happens to intersect with your initiative you have a ready made source of potential support. Just be careful not to confuse the people you can get on your coalition with the people you need on your coalition. 

If your organization doesn’t have a digital affinity group, start one. You might be surprised at the latent interest in your organization and the ability of an informal structure to generate a sense of momentum around an initiative.

Create a Map

We recommend mapping out the anticipated lifecycle of your initiative and noting where it intersects with your organization. You need to do discovery at each of those intersections. Who are the critical stakeholders? What are their concerns? What other initiatives do they have? What pre-existing rules and guidelines do they have in place?

Lay all these out into a visual diagram so you can see the needs of the different components of the organization. You would be surprised at how often a seemingly small and knowable constraint will rear its ugly head late in the development process. For instance, finance needs to capitalize this software expense and the SOW isn’t written to support that. Or, IT can’t approve that open source software for security concerns.

These intersections form the core of your coalition. For each of them you need to identify the critical member for you to recruit to your cause. Seek to understand as much as you can in order to align your interests with theirs and seek a win-win scenario in exchange for their support.

Just as important to include in this diagram, who might feel threatened by your initiative? Change is difficult, and disruptive innovation can be seen as threatening to entrenched interests in an organization. Understanding where these pitfalls are will allow you and your coalition to prepare for challenges before they occur.

Ask

I am often amazed at the power of simply asking someone for support, and the clarity that doing so can generate. Once you have identified the individuals whose support you must gain, there will come a time where you will need to explain the initiative, allow them to ask questions and address their concerns. One thing many people fail to do however, is to ask the simple and powerful question “will you support this initiative?”. 

Several times I have asked a project lead at a client or potential client if a certain executive supports their initiative and find it quickly obvious that despite several conversations they really don’t have a clear understanding of how much support they have. What is worse, these individuals are generally resting several critical assumptions on that support. 

Directly asking is certainly scary as it opens us up for rejection, However, it also generates clarity. If someone isn’t really in support it’s better to know quickly, and figure out why and how to potentially win them to your cause. 

Find a Champion

A powerful executive sponsor can open up a lot of doors and bring along support with them. In many organizations nothing gets done without a Champion being willing to place their support behind an initiative. Find a champion, seek and follow their advice, and maintain an open line of communication. Even though they may not be involved in the day to day, they are still critical to your success.

Don’t forget your Customers!

Your customers are a vital part of your coalition. Your coalition will not just help you drive the product development process forward. They will help you navigate organizational resistance to working closely with them to discover value. 

Customers are the backdrop to why this coalition even exists. Without them there would be no reason or target for seeking to drive value. Everyone in your coalition should be excited to work closely with them, to understand and ultimately to serve their needs. 

Conspiring with your customers and building a coalition may be simple concepts, but they aren’t easy to execute. That is why we’ve developed our Zero Waste Engineering consulting practice to help organizations navigate the disruptive innovation that is being brought about through digital transformation. If we can help you discover how to drive value to your customers, we’d love to have you give us a call.

About Bright Wolf

Bright Wolf helps industrial enterprises increase business value by transforming operations and organizations with digital strategy, technology, solution delivery, and team enablement.

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