Innovative cross-functional teams in technology companies often depend on individuals with highly technical, specialized skills. They’re on the edge, extending their disciplines where they haven’t been before. Teams like this require upper management support that enables their success. It does not need micromanagement – or its opposite, chaotic management that is no better than neglect.
What innovative product teams need is an appropriate, lightweight approach to project management, where the team and management collaborate to define the project’s parameters at the beginning of the process. These parameters – we call them boundary conditions – often include the budget, a timeline, a set of desired features, or product cost. With clear boundary conditions, defined by quantitative metrics, the team goes forth to invent, with the understanding that it will stay within these parameters.
If it looks as though it will stay within them, then management does nothing except perhaps clear any potential roadblocks out of the team’s way and make sure it has any additional resources it needs, within the defined boundary conditions. If it looks as though the team will not stay within its boundaries, then a review process kicks in. The team and management redefine the parameter(s) in question and the team continues.
We’ve created and implemented with teams an out of bounds process. It helps define the initial parameters for the project and has a fast escalation process that quickly re-aligns the team when it goes out of bounds. During the product life cycle, this process has only three scheduled team/management checkpoints. The diagram below shows the points in the process where the team interacts with management. The boundary conditions are defined first at a Concept Check-in and then refined and agreed upon at a Product Check-in. After the project is approved and enters the pipeline, there are no more check-ins before a pre-release check-in to make sure the product will deliver as promised. This last check-in forms the basis for a launch decision.
Concept Check-in: For management, this concept approval stage is strategic. Management considers where the proposed project fits within its priorities and formulates its most important objectives. The number of boundary conditions (usually three to five) are determined and some rough numbers put beside them.
Product Check-in: The team and management finalize the definition, create a schedule, and the team shows the product’s feasibility. Here, the team’s boundary conditions are firmed up.
Release Check-in: Management assesses product launch capability in terms of quality and performance and prepares the product for release.
There is a fourth Check-in that is the key to the process. This is the Out-of-Bounds Check which comes into play when the team foresees that it will breach the boundary conditions. When a project anticipates a boundary break, the program manager sends a communication to management stating, which boundary is at stake, the likely cause of the boundary break, a few alternative solutions, and the team’s recommended solution.
Management must then respond quickly by approving or modifying the team’s recommended course or offering a solution of its own. The team and management agree on a new boundary condition in place of the former one. And then the project continues, without lengthy periods of indecision or recrimination. The Out-of-Bounds Check process is evidence-based and quantitative, as far as possible. And, most importantly, this process errs on the side of trust and team empowerment, which are essential for high performance teamwork, especially when teams are on the edge of innovation.
Think of boundary conditions as a contract between the team and management. As long as the team meets the terms of the contract, it is empowered to create, to invent, to define the future. If it looks as though the contract will be broken, then the team is motivated and empowered to come clean immediately, and engage in a fact-based exercise to get the team aligned and working at its best. Creative people need the room to be creative without intrusions. A simple process, based on boundary conditions, can improve product definition, accelerate innovation, and improve team motivation.
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John Carter has been a widely respected adviser to technology firms over his career. John is the author of Innovate Products Faster: Graphical Tools for Accelerating Product Development. As Founder and Principal of TCGen Inc., he has advised some of the most revered technology firms in the world.