Jeffrey Pheffer, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, recently wrote a short column in Business 2.0 magazine on the usefulness of deadlines. He gives a couple examples of their usefulness demonstrating how they can be effective at forcing decisions, actions, and agreements.
Pheffer notes that when Steve Jobs set a June release date for the iPhone back in January, he gave a useful deadline to the iPhone development team in finishing the product that forced them to finalize the product—but of course, anyone who works in development knows that product launch deadlines have this effect, Pheffer doesn’t need to summon an iExample to make this case.
An interesting question for this blog, of course, is whether deadlines can apply to innovation. Well…yes and no.
A process and therefore a deadline can be applied to innovation, as has been frequently mentioned with respect to design innovation. A practical example to shed light on this is the application of deadlines to research, to the extent that research represents innovation (a topic for a future post).
Deadlines can and should be applied to research projects. People with no experience with research think that researchers must work in a timeless vacuum, a limbo of thinking and investigating until the researchers discover something brilliant. The reality is that professional researchers—in academia and in industry—base their work around the investigation of hypotheses. Researchers usually have considerable expertise in the area that they are investigating and have a very good idea of the process that they are going to conduct to test their hypotheses. In fact, research grants that fund the majority of university research require a timeline for the research project, with anticipated milestones and deliverables explicitly stated. Any responsible company conducting research will require the same.
There is a difference between research project plans/deadlines and ones for product development, however, and that is that research plans are organic. Due to the nature of research, new information is often discovered that leads to further investigation. This unanticipated addition to the project plan is consistent with the stated goals at the outset of the project and is therefore both valid and valuable to execute, but it is a significant change to the plan that is usually not experienced in product development. Predicting task durations and milestone dates with research is more difficult when the outcomes of the tasks are unknown (the nature of research), but experienced researchers can still estimate them with reasonable accuracy because they have confidence that they know how to get answers to their hypotheses.
So, deadlines can be applied to research and, by association, to innovation.
There are aspects of innovation, however, that cannot given deadlines. The act of creativity cannot be given a deadline to those who are not creative. One cannot be told to have an innovative idea by Friday. Finding connections between seemingly incongruous technologies and concepts, one specific embodiment of innovation, is something that creative people live with and think about on a constant basis—they do not schedule flashes of genius.
Innovation has many embodiments: process oriented ones that make up the majority of innovative breakthrough, but also those “aha” moments where an opportunity is simply discovered. The former represents the majority of corporate innovation and should be executed by every company interested in creative product development, with schedules and deadlines in place. The latter represents key innovations that are not scheduled but result from creating of supporting culture thinking and having the type of employees to who are able to produce such creative acts.