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I’m Not Saying Executives Can Be Stubborn, But...

| On 29, Sep 2007

Cass PursellHere’s an anecdote I came across recently that reminded me of why many businesses I’ve been involved with have trouble successfully implementing their innovation intentions. On Thursday, September 4, 1862, Lee’s army was headed north, crossing the Potomac. A bottleneck developed in midstream when a wagon train became entangled. Stonewall Jackson’s quartermaster, Major John Harman, got the train moving again with a spectacular exhibition of profanity. The pious Jackson reprimanded Harman for his profanity, then smiled and accepted his explanation : “There’s only one language that will make a mule understand on a hot day that they must get out of the water.”

Many executives would like to speed up their innovation programs, but trying to convince them that in order to speed up, they must slow down the flow of projects that they allow to pour into their innovation process pipelines can be like talking a mule out of the water on a hot day. I can’t say that I’ve tried Harman’s method – profanity-laced tirades tend to be frowned upon in most professional settings – but I have tried math, and that seems to work fairly well.

The logic and empirical evidence supporting the use of the Law of Lead Time is difficult for anyone who respects data-based argument to resist. The fact is, there is a simple linear relationship between the number of active development projects and how long it takes to get any given project done. In other words, the more projects you have in the innovation process pipeline, the longer ALL projects will take. The converse is demonstrably true as well – the fewer active projects you have, the faster the innovation process can flow.

By using the Law of Lead Time, decision-makers can use data to drive the prioritization of proposed projects and speed up the innovation process flow. The idea is to get the organization thinking in terms of which projects to launch and which projects to remove from the pipeline in order to attain the given innovation process lead time required for market success. If you can do that, you can avoid bottle-necking your innovation process and begin to build a competitive advantage around speed to market.