Innovation, the “rugby approach”: thoughts for thoughts from 24 years ago

I’ve referred in “Metaphor and belief, 2 frameworks to found creativity”  to the excellent work on innovation performed by Ikujiro Nonaka.

I’ve found another sharp article from the same author published 24 years ago at Harvard Business Review, January-February 1986: nevertheless The new product development game seems to me incredibly topical!

Ikujiro speaks about how companies must adapt to fierce competition and develop speed and flexibility. He thinks there is new game in product development, which means moving from traditional sequential phases to a “rugby approach” involving a team in constant interaction, multidisciplinary, whose members work together from start to finish. The team practices iterative experimentation, and overlap across several phases. This approach is essential to company seeking to develop new products quickly and flexibly.

Moreover, this strategy can act as an agent of change for the larger organization. This meets what we have described in my rapid innovation thesis with the case of the small innovation entity insuffling innovation culture in the core company.

Based on Fuji-Xerox, Canon, Honda, NEC, Epson, Brother, 3M, Xerox, and Hewlett-Packard cases review, Ikujiro derives 6 key success factors to embrace the new product development approach:

  1. Built-in instability
  2. Self-organization project teams
  3. Overlapping development phases
  4. Multilearning
  5. Subtle control
  6. Organization transfer of learning

I see strong communalities with the principles that sustain the rapid innovation model I have developed.

  1. Built-in instability combines wide measure of freedom and also establishes extremely challenging goals: this is what I have named, “creative tension“, providing a framework to creativity to project team as well as ambitious and specific goals. “No freedom without necessity” used to say French philosoph Alain.
  2. Self-organizing team: it shows how the team moves from “a kind of start-up company- it takes initiative and risk and develops an independant agenda” to the point where “it creates its own concept”. I have described this as moving from chaos to order as product finds progressively its identity referring to James Quinn (“Managing innovation, controlled chaos”, HBR 1985 ), also moving from the unknown to the known referring to P Le Masson, B Weil and A Hatchuel (“A new approach of collaborative innovative design: the KCP experiences “; CGS, MINES ParisTech, avril 2009″).
    “A group possesses a self-organizing capability when it exhibits three conditions: autonomy, self-transcendance, and cross-fertilization”. Autonomy means “headquarter’s involvement is limited to providing guidance, money, and moral support at the outset”. It meets the concept of “let the team lead the team” I have developed based on Preston Smith and Donald Reinertsen, (“Developing products in half the time”, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991): let’s foster collective intelligence! Cross-fertilization is linked to diversity culture which is key for innovation: diversity results in creativity, it’s also a source of tension, and one has to define a common language to let the team work harmonously. Tension drives attention.
  3. Overlapping development phase: “each member soon begins to share knowledge about the marketplace and the technical community. The individual’s rythm and the group’s rythm begin to overlap, creating a whole new pulse”. I would add that to create this new entity, team must be composed of T-shaped people, with strong  expertise in their field (vertical bar of the T), and ability to understand and synchronize with other team members issues (horizontal bar of the T).
  4. Multilearning is typically Japanese as knowledge circulation seems native in the way they drive innovation. It’s a “multilevel learning (individual, group, and corporate”), and multifunctional learning”.
  5. Subtle control is all about what I called natural leadership. As Michel Fiol puts it: “Natural and not established, leadership is not power based management but the capacity to develop autonomy of the team members and to create co-leaders.”
  6. Transfer of learning to subsequent new product development projects or to other divisions is the last principle. I have suggested to create blended team, mashing up people from the new company and from the core company. Should the innovation have to find its way from new co to core co, the latest will be the best project amabassadors.

Impressive results can be achieved in speeding up new product development, Ikujiro highlights some of them:

  • With his sashimi approach (quite similar to the rugby approach), a new product at Fuji-Xerox requires one-half of the original total manpower, and the product development cycle has reduced from 4 years to 24 months.
  • A new copier – the 9900 – took Xerox three years to develop, wheras the company spent more than five years developing a comparable earlier model.
  • A portable Brother printer – the EP20 – was developed in less than  two years. It took the company more than four years to develop an earlier model.
  • One of John Sculley’s top priorities, when appointed Apple CEO by Steve Jobs in 1984, was to cut the company’s product development time from 3,5 years down to one year.

Guys you’ve got the approch, the rugby approach: let’s get the ball rolling!


Kujiro Nonaka is a professor, emeritus, of international business strategy at Hitotsubashi University’s Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy, in Tokyo. He is the coauthor, with Hirotaka Takeuchi, of The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation (Oxford University Press, 1995).



  1. Hi Nicolas,

    “The New New Product Development Game” article is also often quoted as one of the seminal contributions to the developement of the Lean / Agile Software Development Methodologies and especially SCRUM, based on the Rugby approach.
    All major Internet players are using SCRUM (Google, Yahoo), many american VCs impose this method to the companies they invest in (it secures frequent releases of their products) and traditional IT companies and their Fortune 500 clients are now joining the band wagon.

    1. Thanks Jérôme, indeed, and thanks to Scrum article on Wikipedia, we can see that following Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka new approach to increase speed and flexibility in commercial new product development, in 1991, DeGrace and Stahl, in “Wicked Problems, Righteous Solutions”, referred to this approach as Scrum.

      In the early 1990s, Ken Schwaber used an approach that led to Scrum at his company, Advanced Development Methods. At the same time, Jeff Sutherland, John Scumniotales, and Jeff McKenna developed a similar approach at Easel Corporation and were the first to call it Scrum. In 1995, Sutherland and Schwaber jointly presented a paper describing Scrum at OOPSLA ’95 in Austin, Texas, its first public appearance.

      Schwaber and Sutherland collaborated during the following years to merge the above writings, their experiences, and industry best practices into what is now known as Scrum. In 2001, Schwaber teamed up with Mike Beedle to describe the method in the book “Agile Software Development with Scrum“.

  2. Hello Nicolas,
    Great to read an article on rugby in an innovation blog!
    The rugby-based metaphors (on its techniques, moves, rules, organization and chaos, its creativity, “flair”…) are becoming more and more common to describe innovation processes, creativity and the ability for a group to design and implement pre-define moves while allowing at the same time a large space to improvisation.
    French sociologist Michel callon also used the rugby metaphor of “‘cadrage-débordement” to describe the firm capabilty to fix a problem then overpass it through innovation (see CALLON M., 1999, «La sociologie peut-elle enrichir l’analyse économique des externalités? Essai sur la notion de cadrage-débordement», in MAIRESSE DFEJ. (ed.), Innovations et performances. Approches interdisciplinaires, Paris, Éditions de l’école des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, p.399 à 431.)
    See you soon!

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