Reusable Visual Models -- Are Your Product Development Teams Using Them?

In September, Penny Cloft, Michael Kennedy, and Brian Kennedy published a book entitled Success Is Assured: Satisfy Your Customers On Time and On Budget by Optimizing Decisions Collaboratively Using Reusable Visual Models. This book teaches new thinking and methodologies to convert the chaotic front end of product development into a convergent process of set-based learning and continuous innovation – a game changer for companies that depend upon a steady flow of innovative products.

I recently spoke with Brian Kennedy about the book and asked him: “What are reusable visual models and why do they make a difference?” Here is his complete answer:

Each of those three words “reusable visual models" pack a fair bit of meaning. As “models," they are representing knowledge about the real world. They are capturing what we know how to do, what we know is possible, what physics allows. In addition, they are capturing what we are trying to achieve or what value we are trying to deliver. And then they are capturing the cause-and-effect relationships between what we know and what we want.

In complex situations where we must engage people with expertise in different areas to make decisions, having models is helpful, but only if all the stakeholders can understand those models. That’s where the “visual” comes in. We need those models to be visually understandable to people without needing to know specialized notations or languages that are only understood by people in certain fields. It is not good enough to just explain what you put in your model… you need those experts in different areas to really understand the model such that they can critique it and find the holes in it or the bad assumptions in it based on their own area of expertise. Finally, to maximize the benefits of such models, it is obviously best if they are “reusable” in similar situations in the future. For many that means capturing them in a known place that can be searched. Most companies, however, have “lessons learned," “best practices," and other such databases… but they experience very little actual “reuse.”

The first key requirement for “reusability” is that it was useful in the first place -- that your team of collaborating experts was able to use it to make the decisions they needed to make. If the knowledge you capture does not change the decisions you make in the future, then it has no value. So, when you make similar decisions in the future, you should be able to use those models to better make those decisions. That’s where the “set-based” aspect of those models becomes important: the models must be designed to capture the design space not a particular design (a particular point in that design space). It is hard to reuse a design to make the right decisions on a different design trying to satisfy different requirements. But knowledge about the design space -- knowledge about how what you know impacts what you want to achieve that is easily reused when making different decisions about different designs trying to satisfy different requirements -- is what we mean by “reusable." And just to stress that point, note that building “reusable" visual models is not just of value to future projects… it is hugely valuable on THIS project. Because invariably we will learn things over the course of the project -- and requirements and conditions may change -- and thus the decisions may need to change or be re-made. When you re-make those decisions, you want to make them considering all the knowledge you used before PLUS the new knowledge (the changes). That is done most effectively and efficiently with “reusable visual models.”

What do you think of Brian's explanation of these models and how they should be used? Are reusable visual models part of your product development team's process? More information about this technique and the book can be found here: SuccessIsAssured.com