Using Conversation to Accelerate New Product Development

Blog Topic: 
Knowledge Jam

Conversation may be the next source of competitive advantage in getting new ideas from the inspiration to the grocery shelf.  But this requires making conversation a priority and putting it directly into the new product development process.  By Katrina Pugh 4/21/11 (Submitted to Forbes Leadership Blog.)

We all dream of coming up with the next Groupon, ZipCar, or new low-carbon biofuel. If we’re talking with customers and partners, running facilities, and managing our brands, we should be swimming in product ideas – for example, about serving an emerging segment, shortening production times, or increasing loyalty. But we struggle to pinpoint those ideas, make them visible, and effectively translate them into viable products. We fail to connect insights dispersed around our departments and divisions, or we lose time as they get caught in bureaucratic layers. 

In my experience at IBM, Intel and JPMorgan I saw these types of things routinely. I found that these obstacles:  First we missed product or process ideas (or failed to connect fragments of ideas percolating around).  Next we failed to get usable product or process ideas from one division to the next, or from one geography to the next. Third, good ideas we’re often lost in the infoglut.

That was then. Intranet searches, tweets and blogs cross geographies and divisions solve these problems now, right?  Not exactly.  The problem is that the right Product or Sales employees may not even be contributing to, or seeing, these gems.  Or, those employees find documents that are jargony or difficult to interpret.

We need a process that spans boundaries efficiently, gets out usable ideas and helps us re-mix them into marketable products quickly.  One approach to this is a new knowledge transfer process called the Knowledge Jam. Knowledge Jam is five-step process gets out innovative ideas with conversation.  Idea-generators (or product veterans) are matched up with those who will apply new ideas.  In facilitated, 90-minute conversations, Knowledge Jams bring people together, and invite them to ask questions and draw out nuances – the  type of insights you can only get in the back and forth of real-time human interaction. 

We used Knowledge Jam at Intel when the mobility solutions organization.  The engineers piloting Wifi on high-speed trains in California talked about unexpected snags in electrical supply, signal interference, and pole construction – ideas hardly captured in the project plans and promotional material, but essential to defining Intel’s future mobility offering. The solutions managers in the (virtual) room, eager to evaluate the Wiki pilot with new markets in mind, they drew out stories with direct questions. It saved time relative to whitepapers and lessons-learned reports, and built new relationships.

A well-planned conversation pays big dividends when it inspires things like the wifi on a train. But this takes some careful facilitation. Facilitators convene, nudge and capture the conversation. They shift the tone if tensions rise and help focus. Then, they hold people to their new inspirations and track progress.

Knowledge Jam is as much a culture as it is a process. It’s is about intentional connection and discovery, similar to the idea of “listening posts.” Involving those who will be putting the ideas to test uses the power of curiosity to shorten the time from insight to prototype, and from prototype to market. Most of all, conversation opens us to the possibility of learning serendipitously – even the notion that today’s scrap piles could be tomorrow’s new products. (Potato skins, anyone?) 


Katrina Pughis author of Sharing Hidden Know-How(Jossey-Bass, Wiley, 2011), and is president of AlignConsulting, a firm that helps organizations plan business and technology change by channeling insight into action. She formerly was VP of Knowledge Management for Fidelity, Senior Technical Program manager for Intel Solution Services, and held leadership roles at JPMorganChase and PwC Consulting/IBM. Connect with Katrina Pugh on Twitterand LinkedIn.

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