Petersen Sets Actionable Course for Product Development Workshop

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"During my workshop," Elizabeth Petersen, executive vice president, health care for BLR, said, "I'll be sharing our process and the forms that we use to ensure all departments are involved from the start."

Petersen was referring to the Pre-Conference workshop she will co-present—in exactly four weeks—at SIPA 2016 on Innovative Product Development, with Arno Langbehn, CEO, B. Behr's Verlag GmbH & Co. KG. Getting all departments—and relevant people—involved from the project beginning is one of Petersen's main themes, along with customer input, using benchmarks and not using a one-size-fits-all approach with staff. 

Here's our conversation:

SIPA: I read this today: Successful multiplatform publishing requires teams to work across disciplines. How do you foster collaboration between departments at BLR?
Elizabeth Petersen: Innovation without collaboration doesn't work, especially in the publishing world. To ensure cross-departmental engagement, each group needs to be involved as early on in the new product development process as possible. And while collaboration can be seen as a "soft" skill, there are ways to structure better communication. 

SIPA: Do you believe in the "fail fast" mentality, or if you do the proper research and planning, you shouldn't fail?
Petersen: "Fail fast" as a business strategy feels a little chaotic to me. Expecting immediate results—and cutting ties too soon—is dangerous in new product development. That being said, one of the biggest barriers to innovation is fear of failure. The information industry is changing so rapidly and there are so many unknowns. Even the most thoroughly researched product may not gain market traction. The key to developing a humming new product development engine is to be comfortable with risk and to set measurable (and transparent) benchmarks for product success. 

SIPA: Where do you fall in the brainstorming/groupthink camps? Or more simply, how do you get the best ideas from employees?
Petersen: I love brainstorming sessions. But I've learned that HOW people brainstorm varies. Personally, I prefer free-form, organic discussions. But there are people who are more likely to engage in conversations when a meeting has a detailed agenda that is circulated ahead of time. During our "think tanks," we also look to ensure diverse participation by assigning agenda items to different employees. Finally, it's critical to involve the customer voice in every brainstorming session. Consider holding mini-focus groups during one portion of the meeting or sharing the results of customer surveys. 

SIPA: How do you get employees to take more ownership of what they do and be accountable?  Is it not standing over their shoulder, offering more rewards, showing more trust...?
Petersen: Accountability starts with early involvement in product development, and budget transparency. We share and discuss our divisional financials at least on a quarterly basis and give employees access to detailed P&Ls so that they can monitor individual products' performance. We also engage our staff—no matter what level—in revenue and cost projections at the start of the new product process. During my session, I'll be sharing the simple, intuitive forms we use to create product-level P&Ls. 

SIPA: Communication is a big word. What works best for you? Meetings, emails, one-on-ones, retreats? It's hard to get everyone on the same page. 
Petersen: The only thing I'm certain of when it comes to communication is that there's no single "best" way to communicate. There are so many different communication preferences and learning styles, and we do our employees a disservice to assume a one-size-fits-all approach to corporate communication. At BLR, we use the Predictive Index to learn more about how our employees communicate and socially interact. That tool has helped me understand the best methods to share information and set expectations with my team.


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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…