Breakthrough Insights

Collaborative Engineering: The Roots of Successful Innovation

Product development for a medical device, vehicle or a cell phone is similar in some ways to writing a hit song. Competition is high, you need to innovate to stay on top of the charts, and there’s a pressure to focus on faster execution and speed to market.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney are considered one of the top songwriting teams in music history.  How did two young men from Liverpool England rise to change the entire musical landscape? They were the epitome of collaborative engineering.

Collaborative engineering is about connecting cross-functional roles across the Enterprise to creatively and easily collaborate for the purpose of faster innovation.  It’s about breaking down barriers, adding agility, virtualizing reviews, and self-organizing the right people for fast decision loops.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney excelled at songwriting, production, and performance. If we observe these musical “engineers”, first, we witness the power and necessity of collaborative engineering which permeated their process yielding hundreds of hit songs which generated millions of dollars.

John and Paul would work for hours on a song in close proximity which fostered the creative process and leveraged each other’s strengths.  Some say that Paul brought a left brain (creative, free flowing, muse oriented) influence to the team while John brought the right brain (discipline, form, execution). Two brains worked through the requirements of the song (e.g. Eleanor Rigby will be a story song about two people living separate, difficult lives, who do not know each other).

In today’s engineering world this means providing the most simple, intuitive, and flexible means for all of the right people to creatively contribute to requirements definition and change throughout the product development process. It’s about efficient reviews and fast decisions in the midst of inevitable changes.

Sometimes key decisions came from outside the core song-writing team. Here we see cross-collaboration without limits (leveraging the Enterprise). It’s been said that at the end of an Eleanor Rigby songwriting session, John and Paul were calling it quits and as they got to the door to leave, George suggested the “Ahhh look at all the lonely people” line as a contribution. A band member outside of the song-writing team ultimately made Eleanor Rigby come to life and in fact is the first line and overall theme which defined the song.

The Beatles applied a collaborative engineering style to innovate around the requirements and design of their songs. Their collaborative also enabled efficient and quality construction with an intended purpose/outcome. In song writing, construction means the most efficient and appropriate application of song form and structure (e.g. the coding of the song).

“When you think about it, when you’re writing a song, you’re always trying to write something that you love and the people will love.”

“The entire song consists of two chords. E minor and C major. There are some resultant harmonies that emerge from the descending notes in “Ah look at all the lonely people,” but the fundamental harmony remains the same.”

In today’s engineering world, construction means the software coding or the hardware design. The brilliance of Eleanor Rigby is partly in its simple construction (the song consists of two chords). Today, structured collaboration can make the downstream software development and hardware design much more simple which results in huge efficiency and maintainability.

What is your plan for successful innovation in 2017? Are you looking to Agile Transformation and/or a DevOps plan to get speed and innovation?  Be careful you don’t simply target the construction and delivery stages for speed (DevOps/Agile). While there is some speed there, if you really want significant speed, lower defects, and a successful product, add collaborative engineering to your lifecycle: Connect the cross-functional roles in your product development process; provide a simple, intuitive, connected solution which supports effective collaboration; and be inclusive drawing in all of the roles (business stakeholders, product owners, project managers, hardware, software, operations etc.).