Thoughts about product development

Here are some thoughts about product development and how to create a pleasant work environment. Over the years people have tried different models, but it seams we are stuck in the old organisation models. Regardless of whether your company works hierarchically or offers a lot of freedom, similar problems occur in people's working life.

Collaboration between groups

A common problem in technology companies is specialisation and that different groups in an organisation don't act together. For example take software companies which often suffer from management trying to control instead of aiding the creative design processes. The lack of collaboration between groups often means that problems and product shortcomings are unknown or denied. The lack of purpose often means that groups don't know the context of their work or put effort into things that are not really needed.

Some tips: Collaboration in companies works best when different groups see themselves as partners, when they define their work as an assistance for others. Product development is not a deterministic engineering discipline, but a creative design discipline. Designers and developers spend more time on exploring alternatives than on building the same thing again and again. Instead of following a predictable plan with strict requirements, expect a product understanding to change over time. Team work needs support more than it needs control.

Communication between people

A bigger problem than technical difficulties are usually people and the lack of communication between them. For example let five people work together in a group, watch how misunderstandings grow and opinions collide in a non productive way. Let's face it, we all have to deal with incompetence, insensitivity, intimidation, arrogance and other problems. Hopefully not every day, but we need to develop strategies to deal with communication problems and also how to integrate different kinds of people, different kinds of groups, into our work.

Some tips: Allow people to create a personal relationship to you. Explore problems in a personal dialogue. Not in front of others. A lack of safety causes humans to be unhappy, a lack of purpose causes humans to disconnect from a project. On the other hand responsibility and challenge is related to more involvement. Showing respect for people creates a pleasant workplace.

Distribution of information

A company that doesn't distribute information can find themselves in a situation, where the people who make the decisions are not the people who have the knowledge. Structures are better built on processes than the other way around. The reason is that when you build processes on existing structures you have already made design decisions that weaken structural self organisation and limit information flow. In a similar way are people better defined by their responsibilities and strengths than by their position. It's not important that you have processes, but that you can change them.

Some tips: There is a sneaking danger that people define themselves by their title and less by the purpose they should fulfil. There's also the temptation that people put their personal interests over the collective interests and the goals of the whole system. Be aware that hierarchical structures don't necessarily reflect the reality of interactions, they can be used to hide information in a system and they adapt slowly to changing circumstances. Focus on building collaboration processes not power structures.

Health of the entire workplace

Problems don't always show up where they have been caused. Ideally there should be processes to monitor the overall condition of the workplace. One word to describe this is "Arbeitsfreude", a German word which translates to joy at work. It describes the feeling-well-state of the workplace. Another word is "Kundenzufriendenheit", which translates to customer satisfaction. These are empathic expressions that underline the importance of the human side of work. For example take a group that produces great output but is unhappy, it will sooner or later collapse and needs time to raise to the next level. On the other hand take a motivated but inefficient group, it will produce no satisfying output and needs time to raise productivity and quality.

Some tips: We shouldn't forget to look at both sides, good results and joy at work. There is generally little you can do against bad politics, other than to make it very visible and to de-power harmful people. Remember to focus on building collaboration processes not power structures. We accomplish more when we are working together, including customers, employees and supporters. Create an environment where people enjoy working together. Get support.