Repetition Leads To Innovation

The role of recursive conversation in product development

2001 Volume 4 Issue 1

War stories and project meetings create a context in which teams can move from the old to the new.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to work in the Paper Product Category at Procter & Gamble to better understand the nature of their product development process. They make both Pampers and Luvs, two of the top brands of disposable diapers in the world, and it was fascinating to observe P&G product development teams as they worked to add value to these lines. I noticed that one form of communication among team members, recursive communication, plays a critical role in new product development. Recursive conversation involves questions, answers, and statements that are repeated again and again. Based on my experience at P&G, it seems that we sometimes do not value recursive communication enough or know what to do with it.

Let’s start by distinguishing recursive communication from discursive communication – a concept that is more familiar to most people. Discursive communication is content-oriented. It delivers information or asks questions. It is intended to send a message or arrive at an answer. Discursive communication leads in a distinct direction, and we get anxious should we cover old ground or end up where we started.

Recursive communication, on the other hand, is iterative and can cover the same ground repeatedly. Recursive conversation can sound like the same old questions or answers. But repetition brings new levels of understanding. Recursive communication is not content-oriented but, instead, seeks to maintain continuity of context and purpose in a process such as new product development. It seeks to align product development activity with environmental considerations such as corporate strategy, values, and culture.

One example of discursive and recursive conversations at P&G is the highly successful rollout of gender-specific disposable diapers. Pink and blue coloring is only part of the success formula here – the absorbent material is also concentrated upward for boys and downward for girls. This product was clearly ‘new and improved.’

Discursive conversation guided the development of disposable diapers on a linear path from conceptualization through process development. But it was recursive conversation, as engineers worked to increase the compression of the absorbent material, which led to the new designs that made the product novel. Success came, as it often does, in an unexpected and non-linear way.

Recursive Conversations in the New Product Development Process

Early in the product development process, P&G dedicates a great deal of time to facilitating communication among its many organizational stakeholders. There are constant meetings involving product design, manufacturing, and marketing. The company has learned that involving stakeholders (no matter how remotely connected) in product development conversations saves time and effort. They are experts at making issue lists, cultivating managerial ownership, and gaining organizational buy-in.

However, this planning effort is sometimes still not enough to ensure a successful product launch. I was sitting in a project scheduler’s office one day when he said, “All I have to show for four months of planning is on this single sheet of paper. The minute we finished our planning, something happened that changed our fundamental assumptions regarding funding, the competition, or some aspect of our technology. What we are left with is not a plan that we can use as a roadmap for the project, but perhaps a process in which the right people talk about the right things at the right time.”

Amazingly, this project scheduler did not appear too discouraged but, rather, seemed to recognize the process as a recursive conversation in which the real value of the planning activity is that it generates a process through which a successful product can eventually emerge. The only immediate result of a recursive conversation may simply be a decision to, “…do this again.”

The bias in project development is often toward discussion of what is new and different (discursive communication) since this is seen as movement toward a successful outcome. We often consider recursive activity as mechanical repetition. We like to think that we generate our projects out of the blue in acts of sheer genius when, in fact, projects rarely start this way. They emerge from the middle of activity, or from around the edges, often as an outcome of project review meetings.

At P&G, I noticed particular difficulty with the beginning and ending of projects. The fact is that projects don’t actually end as much as they merge, split, or transform into something new. Budgeting may be the only sense in which projects have a clear beginning and end. Instead, what I found in the organization was an ongoing flow of projects, a continuous process that I call the project cycle, recognizing the iterative nature of projects.

These projects are reconsidered from time to time, and reoriented with the organization’s internal and external environments. The reorientation of project work can be immensely helpful and is a key aspect of managing non-routine work. Otherwise, we can become caught up in the newness of non-routine work, such as projects, and reject their recursive aspects.

At P&G, I observed the frustration that can occur when recursive conversations are mistaken for discursive ones. Since recursive communications are not goal-directed or focused on arriving at a specific answer, they may not seem to be a productive use of time. However, as in craft processes like pottery, each creative project brings unique emergent qualities. Recursive conversations help to maintain a fundamental relationship between these qualities and our context (who we are and how we operate.) Recursive communication allows us to re-evaluate our goals and values, and keep the creative process focused on activities that will likely make the greatest difference.

The purpose of planning in turbulent systems may be more to initiate a process than to create a road map for the future. The real objective of P&G product development meetings was not so much to arrive at an answer as to maintain communication among team members. Meetings serve to align the activities of the team within the overall context of the project, and to monitor the progress of the project.

War Stories Convey Tacit Knowledge

I noticed two distinct types of recursive communication in the P&G product development process – war stories and project review meetings. The first type of communication became apparent in meetings conducted by directors of product engineering, process engineering, and manufacturing. In these meetings, engineers often delivered monologues about their experiences with past projects. These war stories typically described things an individual had previously discovered or ways in which he or she had addressed problems.

I had expected that these meetings would involve dialogue and discussion, and my initial reaction was that they were doing it wrong. It became apparent, however, that the stories were a way in which team members exchanged tacit knowledge relating to the project and created a sense of continuity with the organization’s past. At P&G, war stories were one of the primary ways in which experience and wisdom were shared.

Many members of P&G project teams carried memories of previous product launches that had been homeruns in the marketplace. Many were also haunted by memories of other projects that had failed during development or product tests. Some war stories were told repeatedly. As recursive communication, war stories were used to maintain a historical and cultural context in which team members could view their current work. They helped the team manage memories of past events as a frame of reference for the future.

Project Review Meetings Pattern the Future Internal Dialogue

Project review meetings were equally fascinating. There was a long tradition at P&G for project teams to meet with top executives of the organization every six to 12 months for a high-level review of projects. A particularly interesting part of these meetings was the number of translations that took place between those in different levels in the organization. During my time at P&G, employees were given a lexicon of 650 unique terms and acronyms, and directors often had to serve as interpreters between project engineers and the vice presidents, or general managers. As a result, these conversations tended to become ambiguous, and simple allusions voiced by senior executives sometimes turned into major new initiatives.

These meetings were recursive since senior executives repeatedly asked, “…More, better, faster…” sorts of questions. At the same time, these executives also wanted to learn about projects in a conceptual or tacit way rather than through the technical descriptions provided by the engineers. They wanted to gain a feel for what was going on, which often prompted the presentation of prototypes and machinery. The executives wanted information that would indicate whether projects were sufficiently aligned with organizational strategies, resources, and values. This was the setting in which senior executives applied their knowledge of the organization and its environment in order to renew, revise, or cancel projects. From this interaction the project managers and engineers learned what was important to remember while in the midst of the project.

New product development at P&G was self-organizing to the extent that senior executives could not easily direct the content or outcome of the process. This enabled project teams to change course as products evolved and to react quickly to changes in the global marketplace. Teams were primarily directed by organizing principles embedded in the P&G culture and communicated through recursive communication throughout the firm.

Putting Recursive Communication to Work

I would like to highlight five implications of this model for organizational conversations. First, war stories may not initially appear to be meaningful types of conversations, however, they are a very important source of learning particularly about creating and interpreting contexts and fundamental relationships. Their lessons often transcend what we consider novel, but can point to aspects of projects that don’t change. They contain tacit knowledge that may not be reducible to a bullet point or sound byte. They provide the ground for viewing our present and future work. I would urge greater attention to the stories that surround our work.

Second, war stories often set the stage for the dialogue that takes place between executives and engineers in project reviews. They surface tacit knowledge or experience that needs to be heard in its entirety. Because they are monologues, distinct perspectives become visible. More than one story may need to be told so that the basis of dialogue includes a variety of voices. These monologues can occur in a variety of forums, particularly in the evaluation sessions that take place during a project. Pay attention to the mix and balance of these stories. Whose story is under or over represented? How is the stage is being set?

Third, project reviews and other recursive conversations provide the opportunity to fundamentally reassess our project and not simply refine their details. Use project meetings to assess how a project fits within the organizational context and question fundamental assumptions. They provide an opportunity for a project team to redirect and prioritize its efforts. Often, the true value of a project is discovered after the project is well underway or near its end.

Fourth, if conducted periodically, project reviews can smooth out the gaps between projects and serve to create a flow of projects without abrupt beginnings or ends. Use product meetings to enhance project continuity. Projects may then be merged, split, or transformed without the loss of momentum or engagement that can result from project termination. Discursive conversation is typically needed to facilitate change, but recursive conversation maintains awareness of strategy, values, and culture while team members transfer to other projects.

Finally, we must manage the paradox that in every activity there is something old and something new. The new can be disorienting without a connection to our environment. While it may not be possible to fully anticipate the future, we can remain connected to the environment and prepare to respond efficaciously to change. A fascinating paradox for product developers is that each ‘new and improved’ idea originates within the ‘tried and true.’ Ninety-five percent of product improvements are not even observable to the consumer. Fortunately, recursive conversation has been shown to lead us, though sometimes imperceptibly, from the known to the novel.

About the Author(s)

Bruce Hanson, PhD

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