A bakeoff of product innovation methods

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bakeoff is now online, in which the food R&D firm Mattson tries to create the perfect cookie. Project Delta created three teams: one traditional in-house team, an “XP” (extreme programming) team of two people, and an “open source” dream team of the industry’s best working remotely. For anyone thinking about how to arrange people to create innovative products I’d say it’s a must read primer. With a couple caveats:

  1. The “open source” and XP methods are for building products, not for inventing new ones. The article illustrates why they don’t work well for inventing new things. We need some vocabulary to distinguish between innovation teams and building teams.
  2. Either the implementation of the methods or the description of them lacked key elements of what make them work. Open source is not simply an unstructured group of people contributing independent pieces. In Linux, for example, code is tested and reviewed by a central committee. And XP uses structured roles for programming vs. reviewing.

The explanation of getting team size right alone is worth reading the article for. Some expertise on the team is good, but too many people create friction in the process and impedes progress. Also see What Makes Teams Work?

1 comment

  1. Hi Victor, thanks for posting about this interesting topic! I find this highly relevant in the course of ‘design thinking’ and how companies might benefit from this concept on a practical level (as you’ve recently discussed this as well). While superior design solutions are in many cases the result of a interdisciplinary team effort there are exceptions to the rule as well. This reminded me on a book from my psychology class at university some years ago by J.E. Mc Grath: ‘Groups: Interaction and Performance’. He conducted intensive research on the question in which particular task settings groups are delivering superior or inferior results. I’ve assembled the two main illustrations in this PDF:

    Cheers, Ralf.

  2. Thanks Ralf, very interesting. I’ve also heard Wisdom of Teams ( http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0060522003/ ) is a very good non-academic option.

    If anyone knows where to find it, I’d love to see a systematic study of different variables for a given activity, such as
    – number of people on a team
    – combining people with different skill sets (e.g. analytical/creative, internal/external to the organization)

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