It never hurts to get some inspiration from a totally different perspective. Although product development and motorcycling seem to be from two different worlds, they surprisingly have a lot of similarities and in the end ask for a similar mindset in order to be successful. More directly:
The Risk That Is Not Worth It
Life in both product development and motorcycling is all about risk management; one must adapt the anticipated risk level to what the actual situation at hand requires. Motorcyclists are continuously making decisions to keep the risk level acceptable: in wet conditions you are more gently on the throttle, on a road you don’t know you take into account some more safety margin by entering the corners, you anticipate unpredictable behavior of other motorists, and of course you make sure you always wear your protective clothing and so on. And especially since you only have two contact points with the tarmac, there is a lot to take into account when you want to ride at a reasonable pace and don’t want to get hurt. The translation of this back to product development is easy to make: developers are continuously balancing the risks. Developers order an extra model to get more insights and certainty, developers know it is better to accept a full project loop to make sure no steps are forgotten, and developers specialize in structuring projects such that every phase validates the next thereby lowering overall risk potential. In product development, there’s always the attractive option of taking a short-cut in a project hopefully resulting in lower development costs and a shorter lead time at the risk of insufficient quality. Unlike product development, risky motorcycling is invariably a great adrenaline boost. However in both cases, a failure in that ever-so-attractive shortcut is ultimately painful.
When you have mastered how to get your knee down in the corners in order to get a better feeling of your lean angle and add a very welcome third contact point to the tarmac, you have simply become a better motorcyclist with more control. But to come to that point you need to practice and you need to take risks to get there. There is no shortcut to proper technique; learning is simply a series of increasingly calculated risks. For motorcycling this means that you only practice with warm tires in a well-known low or medium-speed corner where there is room for error, and in case it comes to a crash no obstacles are present on the outside. The learning process in product development is similar. Like in motorcycling, it is critical to take measures as early in the development process as possible to reduce the risks (using general techniques like testing and prototyping), before larger investments are made for the success of the project. But also here, without taking on acceptable risks you end up nowhere, you learn nothing, and probably wind up with a lot less money and time. To come to a next level you NEED to take calculated risks.
Adapt And Stay On Top
Followers of motorsports know that every season new rules and innovations can easily make the difference between winning and losing. In the past, the top-class MotoGP consisted of 500cc two-stroke motorcycles. Starting in the 2001 season, MotoGP series organizers decided that 990cc four-stroke engines were also allowed, resulting in a totally new playing field for everyone. The state of art technology of the recent past was suddenly not viable anymore. Riding styles changed dramatically, the change boosted the potential for new improvements and innovations, and even the tires used in MotoGP were changed to suit. Broadly, the entire series was re-invented instantly. Six years later another shift was again made by series organizers when the maximum allowed four-stroke engine size was decreased from 990cc to 800cc. Soon thereafter electronic riding aids were allowed in the series for the first time bringing anti-lock brake systems and traction control to the series which, yet again, necessitated a dramatic shift in riding styles and tactics. Teams that continue to win are those that can adapt fast and used the changes in their benefit. They are always anticipating on what will come next to be one step ahead. Valentino Rossi, world champion nine times over the last two decades, is the most distinct example of this methodology. Before working for MMID, I led the innovation department within a relatively conservative organization. This organization had every right to be conservative as it was a market leader being very successful. Despite that fact, we asked external experts from various disciplines to come up with ideas to disrupt our current business. This process gave us very valuable insights in the threats that were out there and how those threats could potentially make us less successful in the future. It also told us which opportunities we could leverage to win the next race…
My recommendation for all developers on which mindset to have and which process to follow is clear: be like motorcyclists.
Written by Tom Delfos, for 20 years active in both product development and motorcycling.