Spiral: an organizing force in nature and innovation

The festive season is with us once again, and if you’ve never spent much time looking at pine cones, perhaps now is the time to take a close look at those marvels of nature. Or any other vine, tree branch or a sunflower. The article “Mathematical lives of plants: why plants grow in geometrically curious patterns” describes how these natural structures also show some surprising mathematical properties.

“As a plant puts out leaves or seeds around some central structure, each seed or leaf spaced from the last by about the golden angle, interlocking spiral arms form in clockwise and counterclockwise directions.”

The spiral is also an excellent project management methodology, especially for innovative products. Since most of us work in the highly uncertain market environments we need nimble product development approaches to match the business uncertainty. In other words, one can’t expect to turn out new products like a Six Sigma factory produces standard widgets. Classic product development methodologies, like Stage-Gate® have been excellent in optimizing new product development. However, they don’t work that well for creating brand new things for the simple reason that the Stage-Gate® methodology seeks to eliminate uncertainty… But without uncertainty, there is no innovation.

All projects can be managed better when segmented into a hierarchy of chunks or a waterfall of sequential steps. This is a well-established practice in project management, especially when applied to software development (see a simple and useful set of instructions here: Principle Based Project Management)

The ultimate evolution from the waterfall is a spiral. This process is a lot more flexible, allowing changes to occur later in the process without too much disruption.

The Spiral Development Model takes advantage of the fact that development projects work best when they are both incremental and iterative, where the team is able to start small and benefit from enlightened trial and error along the way.

If you get that first product development right, it just might propel your product concept onto the next step of the innovation spiral, where successful innovations beget others.