Embrace a Little Chaos When Innovating Under Pressure
The Covid-19 crisis has put many product development teams in a tough bind: they’re being asked to rapidly accelerate their processes, but research shows that extreme time pressure often stifles creative work. Best practices for innovation emphasize upfront coordination and synchronization, all of which take time and can’t be rushed. Is it really possible for organizations to push creative teams to work faster without sacrificing quality?
Our recent research suggests a simple yet counterintuitive strategy to do just that: Teams tasked with rapid innovation should forego time-consuming upfront processes and embrace a mindset of minimal and adaptive coordination.
To better understand what strategies are more or less effective for fast-paced innovation, we tracked the development of 13 health-tech projects across two hackathons. Ad-hoc teams were given just 72 hours to develop assistive technologies, such as remotely-operated respiratory devices and seizure alert devices, completely from scratch. Despite the significant challenges these teams faced, we were inspired to see that six of the 13 teams were able to successfully accelerate the product development process — a process that normally takes weeks or months — into just 72 hours.
Why were these six teams successful while the remainder failed? We examined everything from differences in participants’ areas of expertise to variation across their educational and professional backgrounds, but these factors did not explain the results. The teams all had similar levels of expertise, were tackling equally challenging health-tech problems, and had equal access to resources, materials, and technologies. The only common denominator we found was the teams’ work processes. Specifically, our analysis determined that the failed attempts all shared two common pitfalls:
Pitfall 1: Compressing established processes into a tight time frame.
Less successful teams imported standard innovation best practices and compressed them to fit the shorter time frame. For example, one participant said, “I think that Agile and Scrum methods are really good frameworks for a team…So, like, speed that up in the hackathon. The once-a-day stand up meeting, maybe we do it every two hours.”
It’s natural to cling to familiar processes when faced with uncertainty. However, many of these standard processes simply don’t work when compressed into such a short period of time, leading only to frustration and failure.
Pitfall 2: Attempting to fully coordinate upfront.
In general, investing time and effort upfront to coordinate and build shared understanding of work processes makes teams more efficient. And under time pressure, coordination is often even more important, as it reduces costly miscommunications. However, when it comes to innovation, this approach can backfire.
Upfront coordination and agreement on design direction impedes the flexibility that is needed to innovate under extreme time pressure. In the hackathons, teams that adopted the full coordination approach would continue to work towards their agreed-upon designs even in the face of unexpected technological challenges. As one participant shared in a retrospective interview, “At some point we thought of trying a different approach, but we thought our [original] approach would be more robust.” This unwillingness to waver from the plan precluded them from testing new, potentially better and faster options.
So, what can you and your team do to avoid these pitfalls? The teams that successfully designed fully functioning health-tech devices from scratch in just three days consistently employed the following two strategies:
Strategy 1: Abandon traditional processes.
New conditions require new processes. Instead of attempting to compress existing, known innovation processes to fit the extremely limited time frame, the successful teams realized that a new process — and importantly, a new mindset — was necessary. These teams embraced the ambiguity and uncertainty of the situation, and recognized that their regular methods for organizational innovation didn’t apply. “At work, we’ll have a meeting and discuss different concepts and usually then we pick a path, but here we didn’t really have that luxury,” one participant explained.
The six successful teams realized that clearly defining the potential design upfront was likely not even possible. So instead of attempting to follow a standard product development playbook, these teams’ designs emerged through rapid, iterative experimentation.
Strategy 2: Minimize upfront coordination.
The successful teams spent less than an hour discussing their plans before splitting into one- or two-person groups to rapidly experiment with different solutions. As one participant told their team: “We need to solve this problem, but how we get from here to there is pretty open.”
At the time, as we observed these teams, it was hard to believe that this could be a winning strategy. Minimal coordination is extremely messy, and it doesn’t come without a cost. These teams experienced many difficult moments, such as redundant or misdirected work efforts, that cost them valuable time and resources. But they also gained incredible flexibility, repeatedly adapting and pivoting their product direction in response to each other’s experiments.
For example, in one of these teams, one person assumed a component required three control buttons, while two of their teammates, who were working on related components, assumed there would only be two buttons. It took them a few hours to discover the miscommunication — but when they did, they quickly adapted, deciding to leverage the opportunity to test both options.
The team had fully embraced uncertainty. When we asked one of the team members which iteration of the component she thought would work, she shrugged her shoulders, surprised by the question, and responded, “I have no idea. We’re going to try both.” Minimal and adaptive coordination enabled the team to iterate collaboratively, ultimately leading to better, faster results — despite (or often, because of) the hiccups along the way.
Though it may be counterintuitive, our research shows that ad-hoc teams tasked with innovating under extreme time pressure will be more effective if they minimize upfront coordination and avoid attempting to compress established work processes to fit an accelerated time frame. It’s completely natural to seek order and stick to the familiar when things get chaotic. But sometimes, the only way to be successful is to embrace the chaos.