Thursday, May 24, 2007

Balancing Perfection against Innovation

Jeffrey Phillips from Thinking Faster is struggling with finding the balance between the desire to have perfection with products against the desire (sometimes by the same people) to provide innovative products. His post, "Trading off perfection and innovation" shows us a comparison of the two. Here's just part of his thinking on this (read more of his post to get everything):

One one hand, we have the constant demand for perfection. Six Sigma, Lean, eliminating mistakes and errors to create an incredible, consistent, useful product or service. On the other hand, the need to innovate, to create something new and take new risks to dramatically change a product or market. Both approaches are correct, and relatively mutually exclusive. What does a manager do?

When choosing perfection, we make a series of assumptions about the product or service, its competitors and our ability to keep up with the market. Once a product or service is perfected - it it every really is - even a small change to the process or product can cause major disruptions for a customer, so we prolong the life of any product or process and minimize changes to achieve perfection. If you can dominate your market, or if perfection is important to your customer, then this is a great strategy. However, it assumes that there will be little or no disruption in the market, and that the customer demands perfection over innovation and new capabilities.

When you choose innovation, on the other hand, you will not be able to provide a perfect product or service. If your innovations are truly new, you can't determine in advance exactly what "perfection" is - you can only try to provide what you think customers will value and iterate from that point once you discover and uncover real wants and needs. This approach assumes that customers don't demand perfection, but do demand interesting, innovative products and services that solve unspoken or unmet needs. After all, if you can solve a problem that I have even fairly well that has never been solved before, I won't ask for perfection yet.

The real crux of the matter is that if your position is perfection, then you can't afford to make mistakes, and if you do, you need to quickly and completely correct them. On the other hand (aren't you glad we only have two hands) if your position is innovative, you can't afford not to make mistakes, and you want your customers to participate in and help you learn from your mistakes - you can't learn if you don't make mistakes.

In the end, you have to give up some level of perfection if you want something innovative. Because the very definition of innovative is doing something that hasn't been done before (or at least not that often). You also have to be able to take on risks and make mistakes as part of the experimentation that comes with innovation. I have to agree with him. Too many times, I have seen people take the "tried and true" approach to a solution just to ensure they don't cause inefficiencies in hitting dates. Even though they would agree there is a possible better solution, they aren't willing to pay the price to get there. I like Jeffrey's thinking here, your customers need to understand the tradeoffs. The only way for them to do that is to be more part of the process. For companies that can figure out how to do this, those will be the ones who provide innovative products that their customers believe is more than "good enough".

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