Strategic innovation

The Speed Dilemma

Achieve faster development speed without adding extra resources

Imagine yourself being in charge of a company that delivers the best quality product to the market. You deliver faster than the competitors. You use less resources than the others. Employee satisfaction is skyrocketing. And best of all, you can spend the majority of your time developing your people and setting the strategic direction for your company.

The Speed Dilemma

Then, imagine yourself being in charge of a company that struggles with limited resources. People are pressed to their limits and work inhumane hours on numerous projects to keep up with competition. Planning and strategic innovation are often compromised by nonfocused execution and fire fighting, since you cannot afford to be late on the market. As a consequence, you feel a need to be deeply involved in the development projects to avoid wrong decisions by unskilled developers with lack of focus.

Most CEOs stride towards the first scenario but often find themselves deeply embedded in scenario number two. This article offers some perspectives on how to achieve faster development speed without compromising quality.

It is all about the environment

Can we establish a way of working that encompasses both effectiveness, speed and discipline and yet at the same time fosters creativity and energy? Many people have come up with various suggestions on what fosters creativity and effectiveness at the same time. Not only in business modelling but also within other fields of excellence. What seems to be the recognised view is that if you give the right people infinite freedom without any boundaries, creativity will blossom. This may be the case for a few individuals, but most of us need guidance and direction.

We must acknowledge that without any kind of freedom to manoeuvre, the entrepreneurial spirit will at some point fade out.

Within music, creativity is a prerequisite for uniqueness and hence stardom. Jack White, the notorious guitarist and vocalist of the American garage rock band The White Stripes, has proclaimed that to foster creativity he must work under extreme deadlines and pressure with no time for freedom. Only then he can push forward his unique talent and is able to create great albums in a time box of only 4-5 days. Working successfully this way requires a conducive environment for creativity.

Metallica, presumably the world’s largest heavy metal band, tried the opposite prior to their recording of St. Anger in 2003. They went into the studio without any produced material, no rules for how to innovate and infinite time to finish.

The idea was simple: Let creativity flow naturally without any restrictions. The outcome was fatal. The band imploded and could not work together for several months afterwards. In this case, Metallica did not succeed in creating an environment for innovation.

One of the most successful innovative companies within animation feature film is Pixar Animation Studio. A reference list of huge blockbusters such as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Brave has made Pixar the pioneer and frontrunner in a highly competitive market. To bring these feature films into life, Pixar has applied some of the same principles exerted by Jack White.

Woody from the animated movie Toy Story:

Fix the scope and stick to the plan

Pixar has established a culture and a way of working that enables their employees to do their outmost to develop the best feature films on the market. One of their key principles are constant feedback loops. Every morning the employees are encouraged, and often forced, to display their unfinished work to the rest of the team. This enables them to receive immediate feedback and ensures that the end product is based on latest knowledge.

Ed Catmull, the co-founder and president of Pixar, describes it this way:

They know it’s far better to learn about problems from colleagues when there’s still time to fix them than from the audience after it’s too late.

Ed Catmull

Furthermore, Pixar lock their scope and resources during development processes. Even when they knew that the development process of Toy Story 2 was in shambles and desperately needed assistance from key personal who were occupied with creating A Bug’s Life, they did not swift the creative resources between the productions. Only when A Bug’s Life was fully completed, the masterminds could assist, and even take over, the process of Toy Story 2. Both films turned out to be major blockbusters.

Can Pixar’s way of working and Jack White’s approach be replicated into a generic concept for fast development speed with high quality?

Henrik Sonnenberg
Henrik Sonnenberg
+45 2338 0031
David Barnekow Erichsen
David Barnekow Erichsen
+45 3085 8014

A development method to enforce speed, energy and quality

Inspiration from the frontrunners of innovation combined with our experience working with pioneering global corporations for more than 15 years around innovation strategies, portfolio management and project execution has led us to develop a concrete and non-negotiable way of executing development projects.

We often encounter CEOs proclaiming:

We do not have time to innovate and we suffer from limited resources. We must execute now, otherwise we will not be able to follow the competitors in the market

We believe that innovation and development speed can be significantly increased by adding clear rules and structure on how to work supplemented by increasing the individual’s manoeuvre for independence. We should stride towards doing the impossible: Increase restriction and increase freedom at the same time.

Do the impossible – increase restriction and freedom

We must acknowledge that without any kind of freedom to manoeuvre, the entrepreneurial spirit will at some point fade out. Therefore, if we want to establish a way of working that will foster brilliant ideas and the solutions of tomorrow, we must build a working concept that allows teams and individuals to solve tasks the best way they see fit.

Establish non-negotiable rules regarding the working framework in order to foster creativity and reduce waste and uncertainty.

In other words, how they decide to work together and which methods for design and innovation are used is not pre-decided. Even the end product should be up to the individual and team to design. However, in order to engage these great people to move in an even faster and more effective way with a higher quality as an outcome, a clear and motivating overall framework from which development processes will be executed must be established.

Without clear rules and roles, you face the challenges of people not performing because the framework is to diffuse. The Metallica case illustrates how too loose a working framework can end up badly, even for people who have created many great things together and know each other very well.

We suggest to establish some non-negotiable rules regarding the working framework in order to foster creativity and reduce waste and uncertainty.

Let us take scope changes and resource utilisation as examples. Scope changes are very common and tend to happen all the time in projects. However, if the scope changes constantly, people tend to lose motivation, get frustrated and ultimately reduce efficiency. Therefore, it will foster efficiency if a non-negotiable rule is set that scope for a given task is locked for a certain period.

This would enable people to effectively focus on the essentials: Creativity and execution of the task. Also, the roles of each individual must be clearly defined. If people know exactly what mandate they have and within which area they are expected to contribute, they will not waste time and focus by changing roles and shifting between projects all the time.

Pixar insisting on completing the production of A Bug’s Life with all the resources that were allocated is a successful example of execution with locked scope and resources. This approach has also been implemented in other industries. 

Syncronised rhythm across portfolio

A large engineering company we have been engaged with has decided to execute all of their development projects according to these principles. They have implemented locked periods, called sprints, in time boxes that contain a very structured way of working and building knowledge. The structure contains daily standups (similar to Pixar’s daily feedback setup), weekly feedback meetings and monthly reviews. These constant feedback loops ensure that development is based on latest knowledge. Throughout these sprints, lasting for one month, the scope and resources are locked.

A structure with daily stand-ups, weekly feedback meetings and monthly reviews:

The effect of this stringent rhythm (called takt) in the project execution has been significant. Higher energy, higher efficiency, better quality and ultimately faster development speed have been the main results. And people engaged in these sprints have experienced a vastly higher degree of creativity due to the fact that the framework for working was very clear. In this case, the restrictions have clearly enhanced the freedom and hence creativity.

Development speed can be increased – just by doing the impossible

We see a great opportunity for increasing development speed and execution power significantly in larger organisation. We experience too much waste and too many resources spent due to ineffective execution models. By implementing the core principles demonstrated in this article and establishing a synchronised takt across all projects in the portfolio, corporations can reap huge benefits from faster development speed without adding more resources.

Rhythm and takt in the project execution:

The above simple, but effective, principles might be a way towards success. According to Ed Catmull, the recipe for success is somewhat similar:

You get great creative people, you bet big on them, you give them enormous leeway and support, and you provide them with an environment in which they can get honest feedback from everyone.

Ed Catmull

Imagine if a highly effective development method of how to execute innovation processes was added? That might just be the way forward. We call it: Speed in a Box.