April 19, 2011      

Whenever a company sets out to develop a new product, the process can often begin with an engineering team huddled in seclusion, working out the design details. Once they’re done, it’s up to the marketing department to position the product and add sufficient sizzle so end users want to buy it.

Management consultant and author Harrison Owen came up with a radically different approach some years ago, one which he explains in his perennially well-read book: Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide. Owen’s Open Space method promises to greatly speed up product development cycles and also create products or applications that work well the first time. In the robotics industry, those products could scale from an advanced sensor to an integrated factory automation system with interchangeable modules.

As Owen explains it, the method couldn’t be more simple-and sensible. Corral all the stakeholders involved with a product’s development-from engineers to client-side end users. The resulting conclave could be virtual or occur in a real place. Owen likes to use a company’s own manufacturing space for his gatherings. Thus, when tasked some years back to assist Boeing engineers in designing new doors for passenger jets, Owen had everyone meet in a company production hanger.

Step two in Open Space is to spell out what has to get done. Specifically, a moderator helps define the challenge and next details the steps needed to accomplish the work. Picture a meeting held by an industrial robotics systems integrator, and you might see steps defined as sourcing components, identifying software integration issues, creating a schematic of the factory’s layout, and ensuring compliance with safety regulations while also ensuring efficiency. Having customers present at the meeting makes certain the product is tailored to their needs.

Each of these subtasks is assigned to a group or subset of those attending the meeting. The groups break away and plan, perhaps during an intensive two- or three-day process. When everyone reconvenes, the third step involves pulling together all of the individual groups’ plans.

If it sounds simple, it is. Owen’s book goes into further detail. Besides working for Boeing, he helped AT&T relocate its call center at the Utah Olympics when the company was told its previously chosen spot for the facility was no longer available.

Owen’s Open Space idea has today become a movement. Adherents gather on Web sites such as Open Space World. The movement is loosely aligned with the growing number of so-called democamps, popular among hardcore software developers in the Bay Area and Europe. And while Open Space events have mainly been used within the software industry, a city planning a new transportation system and one company looking to create new markets for its shoes have also given the method a try. As an alternative to the 19th century Edison Labs method of product development, roboticists should consider it as well.