Mining the seams

This was the phrase that actually caught my attention in an informative article, “Decision making Marketing” in the HBR July-Aug ‘14 issue.

The main problem in decision making referred to in the article is the communication falling through across the different silos in an organization thus impeding effective decision making. Challenges include divergent assumptions, lack of alignment and shared commitment across the organization structures - amongst others. Reorganizing the structure/reporting doesn’t often address this completely. Sometimes it just creates more or different silos and the challenge remains unaddressed. Mining the seams helps address this by working closely across functions, avoiding organization bottlenecks and getting work done quicker and more efficiently than in the past. While the article mainly talks about the challenges involved in decision making for marketers when they need to communicate across domains of product development, sales, finance etc., the same is true for any other function too.

Here are my thoughts mapping this to the various spaces I worked in …Am keeping mining the seams as central (rather than decision making) and I may be taking another interpretation and possibly an extension of the main theme from the article.

An IC development program requires close interaction between various functions – Marketing, Design, Manufacture, Planning, Packaging, Testing, IP, Finance, Legal etc. Islands of expertise in each can be found aplenty. However what are rare and very much needed are people who can effectively communicate across these seams for decisions made in various phases of the chip development affect others. A design decision taken in isolation from say packaging can result in a major chip gaffe.

Another example is the R&D functions in an organization. Going by Donald Stoke’s model, one can lean towards pure research (Bohr) or gravitate more towards the applications part (Edison) or find a central niche (Pasteur). For those in the latter two especially, we see a major need to mine the seams. R&D professionals need to align their research to the market requirements and move towards what can be termed – Technology substitution to Technology Epiphany. These means getting out of their labs and well……..mine the seams. Aligning market research to your innovation requirements, mapping the customer needs (explicit or implicit, existing or potential) to your R&D or technology road map needs effective communication across functions…mine the seams.

I regularly conduct training workshops for facilitating R&D folks to be market savvy – not to turn them into marketers but to facilitate in aligning R&D investments with market needs and achieve R&D efficiency. Absence of communication to communication falling through the seams is issues frequently observed.

The first step is to recognize the issue exists – it is surprising how many of us are in a state of denial. Strategies and tools are available to address the challenge.

One of the initiatives taken is to have cross functional teams to facilitate the communication flow. However in most places, these work on “passing the baton” theme rather than “playing the new new product development game” a concept proposed by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikurjiro Nonaka – “Stop running the relay race and take up rugby” – the ball gets passed back and forth within the team as it moves as a unit up the field.
Temporary teams set up for a project and disbanded on project completion is another way. The teams here owe their commitment to the project rather than solely to the departments they belong to. Requires tweaking the KPI and other performance markers but such dynamic structures have shown good results.

It pays to mine the seams!

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