Finding Your Identity

The goal is to have prospective clients believe that your company is the only one capable of providing a solution for their problems.

The goal is to have prospective clients believe in their heart of hearts that your company is the only one capable of providing a solution for their problems.

Over the next few months, I intend to go back to the theme that started these columns three years ago: dissecting the process of new product development and problem solving. Some of you may find no new revelations, some may find a nugget or two, but these articles are intended to wrap what I have learned over the past 35 years into a coherent whole; partly for your enlightenment, mostly for mine. Let me tell you how this evolved.

At PCDworks, we have been going through an exercise to figure out who we are and what we want to be as a company. As a business grows and evolves, what it does and how it does it will change. Examining methods is a fundamental pathway to further growth and critical to the development of future leaders. If the founders of a successful company cannot adequately capture the magic of what they do, distill it, and appropriately inculcate it into future generations, then that magic is bound to be lost. This is especially true of a service company like ours; an engineering and scientific service company built on the vision of a psychologist/architect.

In our case, this introspection was carried out under the guise of a branding session. For those of you who have never been through such a process, it is a gut wrenching effort to identify goods and services with an eye toward differentiating oneself from other service providers. The goal is to get your prospective clients to believe in their episodic memory system (or heart of hearts, if you will) that your company is the only one capable of providing a solution for their problems.

The phrase “gut wrenching” was especially appropriate for us at PCDworks, as we don’t produce a product, but rather provide solutions. It is mentally draining, exhausting, and painful to define and understand the “PCDworks Process” and how it shapes our success. In fact, I have been dancing around that definition for a very long time, but have never done the tough mental work of integrating all of the tools of the process into a cohesive, overarching mental model. We have tools and they work very successfully, but until recently I was unable to define how or why they contribute to our success.

What has come out of our personal branding effort is what I’m calling the “Information Processing Approach to New Product Development and Problem Solving”. Many of you may have passed me in the understanding of this concept, but for me the revelation was that everything we do fits under the rubric of information processing. Much like the Toyota Knowledge Management approach — which is used by many of the smart companies that have figured out the flaws of Six Sigma — this concept is a macro approach to knowing. While Toyota’s emphasis on scientific methodology is a formal declaration that knowing is central to success, my take on the “PCDworks Process” is focused on the individual, internal process of understanding and knowing, and less on group methods.

To help define this process, let’s start with some initial premises:

Premise #1: New product development problem solving is aimed at knowing something: Knowing what the customer will buy; what will work reliably and under what conditions; what is feasible; and the hundred other “what’s” that must be answered to ensure the certainty of success.

Premise #2: Problem solving in new product development is directed at a series of decisions, which are based on hypothesis. The best way to know something is through the scientific method, which is a method of controlled hypothesis testing.

Premise #3: Knowing reduces risk. To determine feasibility, one must know something. Every additional bit of information that you know helps reduce risk.

Premise #4: For a new product there are at least six areas that must be known for a successful product launch. 

  • Market Knowing: Not only must one be certain about whether or not customers will buy the product, but they must also know the feature set, the price, the compelling competitive advantage, and whether or not the product is even needed in the marketplace. Also, what is the competition doing, and what will they do in the future? The list goes on.
  • Technical Knowing: Will the product, whether based on new or old technology, work? More importantly, will it work reliably through its lifetime?
  • Manufacturing Knowing: Can the product be made? Can it be made in quantity? Can it be made in quantity at a price that the customer will buy?
  • IP Knowing: Can we protect the product long enough to gain a foothold in the market? Can we protect it from our biggest competitor?
  • Financial Knowing: Do we have the money to see this thing through from concept to market dominance?
  • Distribution Knowing: Do we have a distribution channel through which we can get the product to market?

As I unravel our PCDworks Process, I realize that having a process is to have a kit of tools to apply to the problem. A kit of tools is just that, it is not a checklist; tools are methods to accomplish the goal. Sometimes they are used, sometimes not. Just because a mechanic has an assortment of hammers in his toolbox, doesn’t mean that he will use them on every job.

To borrow a term coined by Robert A. Heinlein in his best-selling 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land, I am working with my team to “grok” this process of knowing; to understand and fully internalize the multi-dimensional mix of tools we bring to the work of problem solving and product development. The goal is a full expression and operation of our problem solving toolbox, and a conversion of our elusive work ethos into a process of predictable behaviors.

To an engineering mind used to dealing with straight forward evolutionary problem solving, new product development may appear to be two-dimensional, but when one begins to understand the internal psychological processes required for the creative problem-solving process of new product development, you can see that it actuality is a three-, four-, or five-dimensional puzzle. If you move off to one side and change your perspective, instead of looking straight down, you may find, as I have, that you can see the third dimension leaping at you.

Mike Rainone is the co-founder of PCDworks, a technology development firm specializing in breakthrough product innovation. Contact him at mrain1@pcdworks.com and visit www.pcdworks.com.

More in Operations