The Simple Tool Procter & Gamble™ Used to Fast-Track Research and Development

Anyone can use this approach to get their team on the same page, fast

December 28th, 1993

When Joseph D. Novak accepted an invitation to meet with Procter & Gamble nearly 30 years ago, the corporation was in the midst of a shakeup.

The beginning of the dot-com bubble was on the horizon. Automation and computer software were revolutionizing entire industries, heightening competition in the marketplace and portending globalization. Behind the scenes, P&G was having shareholder meetings about impending worker layoffs and plant closings.

The company was looking for ways to evolve, and quickly.

Novak didn’t realize at the time that he was the last of at least a dozen consultants whose help the corporation had sought in largely unsuccessful attempts to streamline their R&D. As he stood before them, the research team seemed visibly bored and skeptical that he’d have anything of much use to offer.

They were wrong.

Within hours Novak had led the team in collaboratively identifying next steps for solving a problem they had been working over two years to solve.

Within two months after that, they had produced a prototype that was ready for consumer testing.

The revolutionary tool that helped them make such extraordinary leaps in productivity?

Concept maps.

A brief history of concept mapping

Novak had invented Concept Mapping in the late 1960’s to model young students’ understanding of science concepts. With expertise in both biology and education, he adopted an interdisciplinary approach to instructional innovation, leveraging scientific theory to guide his understanding of how to most effectively teach and assess learning.

Thus was born Concept Maps, mostly hierarchical diagrams of concepts, associated to each other with relational phrases to form propositional statements. As opposed to mind mapping — the brainstorming method in which concepts are arranged radially and joined only by unlabeled lines — Concept Mapping required students to explicitly define how, specifically, concepts were related, contextualizing information to reveal its grander significance.

What made Concept Maps especially valuable is that they could be used to both gauge and guide learning. They could illustrate what learners were thinking, and through the process of making their thoughts visible, students were able to better assimilate new knowledge, solve problems, and identify misconceptions and gaps for further learning.

After pioneering the use of Concept Mapping in education, Novak began to explore its relevance in other domains. In 1990, he and his faculty colleague at Cornell University, Alan McAdams, worked with their students at Johnson Business School to demonstrate applications for Concept Mapping in the corporate world.

The P&G Process

By the time Novak started working with the R&D team at Procter & Gamble, he had already used Concept Maps to help Kodak improve their management approach. With that and other successes under his belt, he embarked on a five-year partnership with P&G that further refined his Concept Mapping procedures for the workforce.

The process he and his colleagues developed looked like this:

Step 1: Team leader consultation
Novak would meet with a project manager first to discuss the team’s problem and derive one or two good focus questions from it. For example, “What are the consumer pain points regarding disinfection, and how can they be mitigated?”

These questions would be used to guide the strategic organization of five or six key concepts related to the problem.

Step 2: Collectively create a preliminary “global” Concept Map

Armed with the question and concepts from Step 1, Novak would gather the entire team to create a preliminary Concept Map skeleton.

They would do this by hierarchically placing sticky notes with concepts written on them onto butcher paper (this was the early 90s, remember). Then they would connect each concept with linking, labeled lines to show explicitly how they were related.

Step 3: Separate and drill down into concepts

Once they had a global map drafted, team members would break into subgroups for a couple of hours according to their area of expertise to more precisely expand upon primary concepts.

Step 4: Reconvene and refine the “global” Concept Map

Collectively, the team would figure out how to best combine each subgroup’s work into the larger Concept Map, making revisions if necessary.

The whole process, which also included an orientation on Concept Mapping, would take place over the course of a day.

Concept mapping proved to be such a highly-efficient and valuable use of staff time that P&G expanded its use to advance other company interests as well. These included writing better applications for FDA approval and streamlining communications between R&D and marketing.

Advancing applications

Since its early days, Concept Mapping has become a prominent tool in domains that involve a high degree of research, expertise, and financial investment, like product development, aerospace engineering, and healthcare. Software tools and process refinements have introduced efficiencies and expanded the applications. Decision-makers across functions and levels have used Concept Maps to their advantage in a variety of ways, including:

· NASA has used Concept Maps to illustrate the value of space exploration to the public,

· Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the New York Power Authority have benefited from using Concept Maps to capture expertise before it leaves the organization,

· Software teams have used Concept Maps to ensure that system designs and coding plans align.

Such applications have inspired even more uses and enablers. Even the U.S. Department of Defense has funded development efforts aimed at more efficiently introducing Concept Mapping as a learning assessment tool and to guide team-building.

With social, political, ecological, and technological factors introducing even greater market uncertainty today, efficient and unambiguous communication, coordination, and collaboration are not just aspirational ideas — they are essential for survival.

Concept Maps one simple but powerful tool to help teams adapt from the same page.

Further Reading

Applied Concept Mapping: Capturing, Analyzing, and Organizing Knowledge by Brian M. Moon, Robert R. Hoffman, Joseph D. Novak, and Alberto J. Cañas