According to world-renowned leadership expert Ron Heifetz, the chief obstacle to successful innovation is companies’ lack of clarity about the difference between technical and adaptive challenges. And when developing a new product, he says, knowing the difference from the earliest point in the process is essential.  

At Pivot International, we are a one-source global leader in helping companies design, develop, manufacture, and distribute innovative, award-winning products. We bring a half-century of experience in solving complex adaptive challenges with expertise across fourteen industries and six markets. Through advanced supply chain solutions, in-house DFM, innovative engineering hacks, extensive domestic and global manufacturing options, or the application of the latest digital technologies, we are a premier partner to companies worldwide.  

Why is it so important to work with a partner experienced in differentiating technical from adaptive challenges? Because the latter can never be successfully solved with the former. When adaptive challenges are mistaken for technical ones, failure is the inevitable result.     

Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges

When companies set out to solve a problem that can be easily defined, has a clear solution, and can be linearly executed, they’re dealing with a technical challenge. But when they attempt to tackle a problem that is difficult to identify, lacks a concrete solution, and involves complexities of execution, they’re facing an adaptive challenge. 

Technical and adaptive challenges exhibit other key differences: 

  • Are limited to single variables vs. being systemic in nature 
  • Solutions are “plug and play” vs. requiring a series of controlled “fail forwards”
  • Can be solved by an outside authority and implemented by edict vs. requiring stakeholder collaboration and concerted effort between all parties

When working with corporate leaders, Heifetz often uses a medical example to illustrate the difference between these challenges. 

Discovering that you need open-heart surgery, Heifetz explains, is a technical challenge. The problem can be clearly defined, solved by an outside authority (a cardiac surgeon), and executed in a reasonably straightforward, predetermined manner. 

On the other hand, recovering from open-heart surgery is an adaptive challenge. The precise course and timing of your recovery are ultimately uncertain and will require a fundamental change in mindset and experimentation with lifestyle changes. And the burden of making these changes will fall not to an outside authority but to you and those closest to you.

Now that we’ve used these real-life examples as conceptual anchors, let’s look at how they factor into NPD. 

Complex Products = Adaptive Challenges

By definition, the development of simple products falls into the category of a technical challenge. But the development of complex products — especially those intended for medical and industrial markets — represents a mix of technical and adaptive challenges. And to successfully solve them, your partner will need to bring three qualifications. 

A Complex-Systems Approach

Because the adaptive challenges of complex products are systemic, successful NPD requires an approach that looks holistically at the broader process, market landscape, supply chain risks, and more. 

Only a partner with an end-to-end, integrative approach is equipped to successfully tackle this challenge, and DFM plays a critical role in this capacity. Pivot’s DFM expertise takes its seamless one-source model one step further by commencing the design phase with supply chain and manufacturing considerations in mind. This guards against the sunk costs that are all too common with linear approaches and ensures cost-effective, scalable production.  

Iterative Prototyping Expertise 

Adaptive challenges can’t be solved with plug-and-play solutions. Instead, they require processes specifically designed to help stakeholders question assumptions, redefine the problem space, experiment with and test potential solutions, and glean valuable feedback for feed-forward into another round of controlled “fail forwards.” This process is the essence of iterative prototyping, and as any innovation expert will attest, no adaptive challenge can be solved without it. 

At Pivot, iterative prototyping — and a general orientation toward extensive experimentation and discovery — has become a business imperative in the face of escalating supply chain disruption, parts-and-components shortages, and geopolitical strife. For instance, we’ve found that a significant percentage of supply chain shortages can be overcome using this approach.

Often, through a series of experiments, we can reconfigure product design and engineering parameters to accommodate alternative parts and components. This allows NPD to move forward without getting stopped in its tracks with dependency on an item that is currently unavailable or extremely expensive to procure. In times like these, this can make the difference between our customers staying in business or folding under intense market pressures. 

A Commitment to Collaboration

As we explained earlier, technical challenges can be solved by an outside authority. Conversely, adaptive challenges in NPD require stakeholder collaboration and a concerted effort to achieve a successful launch. Moreover, technical changes can be made by edict, whereas adaptive challenges can be implemented only through consensus. 

This is why a commitment to collaboration is central to Pivot’s company ethos. We’ve gone to great lengths to create organizational processes and infrastructure that enable us to work closely and synergistically with our clients throughout the process. This ensures we deeply understand their business objectives, company values, target market, unique challenges, and more.

If you’re gearing up to launch a complex product, you’ll need a partner experienced in successfully solving technical and adaptive challenges alike. If you’d like to learn more about how Pivot can make your product vision a winning reality, contact us today.