Teams are pervasive in product innovation and the academic literature is vast. However, NC State researchers Stephen K. Markham and Hyunjung Lee conclude that the typical team is not the best way to organize people to carry out highly complex projects. They prefer adopting a concept from Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) called “we-ness.” Here’s their explanation:
Complex innovation projects need a structure that supports and protects individuals and subgroups in their work. A “team” expects the individual to sacrifice for the good of the group. For example, team members can be pressured to finish on time or even to stifle discussion of problems for the sake of being “a team player.” In contrast, while individuals sacrifice for the team, a family sacrifices for the individual.
We believe that applying the concept of “we-ness” will create environments that are more conducive to complex project work. We-ness is that shared sense of togetherness that a family feels toward its members. Central to we-ness is a deep sharing of knowledge and understanding. Under conditions of high we-ness there is more trust and more sharing of in-depth information because the individual is supported even when he or she delivers bad news.
We base this assertion on our CIMS- sponsored analysis of the 2005 PDMA Comparative Practices Survey from 417 key company respondents. This study reveals that the higher the levels of we-ness in teams, inter-teams and even inter-organizations, the more knowledge is shared.
Our results also show a strong relationship between knowledge sharing and product performance in the marketplace. Knowledge sharing leverages partners’ knowledge and expertise, and also enables processes to move into profitable niche markets and increase performance.
How a Family Differs from a Team
Teams and families are similar in that they both work for the good of the whole, but the difference is as fundamental as it is profound. Team members are supposed to sacrifice for the betterment of the team; the family sacrifices for its individual members. Teams have defined positions and performance expectations. Families enjoy more flexible relationships between people and understand that different people will perform complex tasks differently.
Family relationships are characterized by “understanding,” “accepting” and “helping” in an unpretentious and unceremonious manner. Teams, on the other hand, typically want to move forward, speed up and win at any cost. Families nurture people to increase their capabilities as well as to excel. Team pressure to win can inhibit sharing critical information that might otherwise slow the team down.
Why We-ness Matters for NPD
Teams are most productive when focusing on achieving predetermined goals.
In early-stage NPD, however, where tasks may be undefined, the team can be counterproductive. A single member may be given a difficult task that cannot be done as fast as the other team members, even as every team member feels he must finish on time and within specification or else he will fail and let the rest of the team down.
An individual who has a difficult task must be protected and assisted. But teams push and evaluate members because teams foster competition and may rush new products or services to market prematurely. We-ness encourages the sharing of critical information that can solve the problem. In MFT, we-ness is a core concept to capture the dimensions of family closeness. It suggests that everyone is involved with and supportive of everyone else’s work.
The complexity of product development clearly requires sharing knowledge. We-ness helps to share deep understanding and knowledge, and to react more effectively to complex and unforeseen circumstances. The effect of we-ness suggests that we-ness increases knowledge-sharing activities, which in turn increases product perfor- mance.
Increasing We-ness in Relationships
Data from our PDMA study indicate that NPD performance increases when firms use a wider set of tools to promote we-ness than most companies currently use.
Our results reveal the following items predict in-group, between-group and between-organization we-ness. The higher the level of we-ness, in turn, the higher the level of knowledge sharing and subsequent product performance.
Each of these items represents an opportunity to increase we-ness. For example, if your company does not use quick start-up procedures to ensure NPD groups get off to a good start, instituting group start-up activities can increase we-ness in the group. The same is true for the rest of the items.
Higher levels of in-group we-ness are related to:
-The extent to which quick start-up group formation occurs;
-The degree to which goals and objectives are clear;
-The frequency with which relationship-building exercises are used;
-Co-location of the group members;
-How much cross-functional training occurs.
Higher levels of between-group we-ness are related to:
-How well group members understand and deal with the concerns of other teams;
-The extent to which group goals and objectives relate to the business-unit strategy;
-How often groups are interlocked;
-How well managers support innovation by ensuring their people participate.
-Higher levels of between-organization we- ness are related to:
-The extent to which organizations share integrated project portfolios;
-How often concurrent development processes are inter locked between organizations;
-How much joint relationship-building and training occurs between organizations;
-How often inter-organizational groups are co-located;
-The frequency of joint project management between organizations;
-The degree to which partners share risk/ reward/ performance contract structures.
We-ness and NPD Performance
We-ness in the group, between groups and between organizations all significantly increase knowledge sharing, which in turn: 1) increases the degree to which the NPD program is a success; 2) decreases development time; 3) increases the degree to which the NPD program meets its objectives; 4) predicts the percentage of successful new products introduced into the market during the last five years; and 5) predicts higher profitability.
Higher levels of we-ness also predict the business units’ overall new product success compared with primary competitors over five years. All of these relations are statistically significant. Clearly, we- ness has a big impact on new-product performance.
We-ness and Your Organization
Product development managers face the challenge of addressing the many complex variables leading to higher NPD performance. We-ness provides NPD organizations with direction on how to create more family-like and productive environments. As the members’ we-ness increases, they will share more of their innermost thoughts, knowledge, fears, hopes, and ideas.
We-ness will help your company identify what it needs to do to foster more productive relationships. We are confident that devoting effort to building we-ness will help people listen, support, correct, and develop ideas and other people rather than inhibit knowledge sharing and force premature decisions. For individuals and groups in conflict with one another, or where there is conflict between groups or even organizations, we-ness can be used to assess and direct measures to reduce conflict, share more knowledge, and increase performance in NPD.
How Does Your Organization Compare?
Assessing we-ness in your groups and company will help you to take concrete actions to build NPD capabilities for complex projects and increase product performance. Comparing your company’s level of we-ness to other companies, especially the highest- performing companies, will help focus your efforts even more.
Companies are invited to compare their results with other companies and to participate in the next best practices study. The PDMA, in partnership with CIMS, is making results of the study available to CIMS members. To receive an email with instructions for taking the survey, contact stephen_markham@ ncsu.edu.
Stephen K Markham
North Carolina State University
North Carolina State University