Using a multi-functional team composed of people from different departments, most observers would agree, is crucial in speeding up projects for developing new products. A research project by Pilar Carbonell of the business school of York University and Ana Isabel Rodríguez Escudero of the University of Valladolid, published recently in the Universia-Business Review, addresses this topic.


Cutting development time for new products enables companies to maintain their competitive advantage or, at the very least, assures their survival. Nevertheless, there are many characteristics of these high-level team decisions that managers need to understand more fully, the researchers note. Some key questions: How does the experience of working as a team effect results? Does bringing team members together face-to-face help cut development time? Is it better to keep using the usual team members or to make some changes in the composition of the team? Does full-time devotion to the project help bring the product to market more quickly? Does this process benefit from setting up clear goals and getting support from senior management?


To answer these questions, the authors analyzed the results of a survey of 183 Spanish companies in a broad range of sectors. All of the companies had more than 50 employees. The goal of the research was to identify the impact of technological complexity on the speed of product development and commercialization. The term ‘complex project’ was used to refer to any new technology whose incorporation into the product involved a certain degree of technical difficulty. The authors focused on four characteristics of the team: experience, physical proximity, stability and dedication, as well as two aspects of senior management — the clarity of its goals and the level of its support for the project. All of these variables are traditionally considered beneficial for the speed of innovation, say the authors. But what does the research reveal? How is it possible to shorten the development time for new products?


More Experience Is Not Always Better


Although it seems like an obvious proposition, it is not at all clear that setting up teams with more experience offers a way to speed up new product development, according to Carbonell and Rodriguez. That idea is a half-truth. Their study shows that when team members have more experience, it helps to increase the speed of projects that are technically simple but it does not speed up more complex projects. That’s because developing simple products involves a certain degree of familiarity and knowledge about the technology involved in those products. Teams trust their previous knowledge and they depend on it to identify their needs. But projects that involve complex technologies demand a certain level of experimentation, invention, and trial and error. Those activities involve straying from pre-existing behavioral models. When it comes to radical innovations, the authors argue that “eliminating the team memory and casting aside what they have learned earlier can help the team members accept the level of change that is required. As a result, team members can behave in ways that are more flexible and enthusiastic.”


Physical Proximity: Good or Bad?


According to the study, physical proximity can be very useful for speeding up activities needed to bring to the marketplace. Face-to-face activities make it easier to overcome potential challenges. As a result, when it comes to complex technological problems, close proximity does indeed help to speed up innovation. “Nevertheless, in those projects that are simpler, continuous face-to-face communication is not only less necessary but it can lead to greater complexity and distraction among team members,” explain Carbonell and Rodriguez. In order to increase the speed of technologically simple products, team members may be physically close, but this does not provide any benefits.


In addition, it seems reasonable to assert that when the composition of a team does not change from the day when it is established to the actual product launch, the team can complete its work with greater speed. In such a case, there is no risk that knowledge or information will be lost as various team members leave. Nevertheless, everything depends on the degree of technological complexity in the project, say the authors.


When it comes to more complex projects, bringing a new member onto the team can lead to new ways of thinking that are needed for broadening the perspectives of the team. “The longer someone has been a member of the team, the more they have entrenched assumptions, and the less probability there is that their assumptions are questioned within the team.” In addition, the high degree of uncertainty in any highly complex project limits the ability of the organization to plan ahead, and to hire the right people from the very start of the project.  Depending on the circumstances, it could be beneficial to change at least one member of the team, say the authors.


In projects involving simple technologies, “stability speeds up the project, unlike the case when the projects involve complex technologies,” they assert.


Dedication without Bells and Whistles


When teams devote themselves full-time to a complex project, it is easier to achieve the high level of concentration and motivation needed for carrying it out rapidly. When it comes to projects that are technologically simple, the authors had anticipated that full-time devotion to a project would have less impact on its speed of completion than in the case of complex projects. To their surprise, the authors discovered that this was not the case. Their explanation: When people devote themselves full-time to a project that has little or no complexity, they rarely feel that these projects are making a significant contribution to their work. As a result, they tend to endow the technologically simple product with attributes that are not essential [i.e., extraneous features.] This ‘superfluous’ effort, the authors write, “adds time to the delivery” of the product. In contrast, “When people devote themselves part-time to a project that has a simpler technology, there is a tendency to focus on what is essential; to apply proven solutions and forget about unnecessary bells and whistles.”


No matter what the level of technological complexity, the authors suggest that teams need to have a well-defined vision of what needs to be done. You need to provide a focal point for your efforts, “as well as help by creating borders that restrict such efforts to the realm of activities that have previously been established.” This approach tends to speed up development because it speeds up the learning process.


Senior Management Can Be a Burden


Senior management determines the speed of product development, say Carbonell and Rodriguez, particularly when a project is technologically complex. Senior managers have an especially big impact on speed when the nature of the tasks involved is less clear and less familiar. But once a development team has been established, getting senior management to participate in a project that involves simple technology can wind up being a hindrance to the speed of completion because participation by senior management “can consume extra time and lead to an interruption of activities,” they explain.


In markets that are changing very rapidly, support from management can play an essential role that prevents the team from getting lost in the complexity of its activities. Previous research has proven that assertion, which the authors now stress. However, their new study does not confirm the proposition that senior management plays an essential role when conditions are highly uncertain. On the contrary, there may not be a direct association between speed and the level of support from senior management in such situations. “It also depends on the way the team is designed to operate,” they say.


The authors conclude their research by offering several recommendations. First of all, “In order to speed up projects that involve complex technology, team members need to work together full-time. When members are close to one another and are highly dedicated, we call that an ‘integrated team.’” Second, “To speed up projects that involve simple technologies, the best thing is to use an experienced team whose membership does not change throughout the project, but which works on it part-time. In those kinds of projects, working face-to-face does not help to speed up things.” Finally, the authors stress the importance of establishing formal goals that are clear and do not change. “They are what you need whenever you want to carry out a project quickly. That goes for any kind of project, no matter what its level of technological complexity,” they conclude.