Interpretive Barriers to Successful Product Innovation

Deborah Dougherty, 1989, 89-114

The reasons that marketing, sales, R&D, and manufacturing may not work together effectively in the design and development of new products.

Type of Report
In-depth, qualitative analysis of the experiences of product developers from all departments.

To identify specific organizational and social factors that impede interdepartmental collaboration on new products and to suggest ways of overcoming them.

Interviews with 80 people who worked on new product efforts provide the basis data. These interviews are systematically analyzed and then compared by success or failure, department, and firm to identify barriers to new product success. An empirically grounded theory of interpretive barriers is developed from this analysis.

Practitioners and academics interested in the effective management of new product development within a firm.

The commercial success of new products depends in part on how well a product's design connects emerging technological possibilities with emerging market opportunities. This in turn requires that people from specialized departments within a firm--marketing, sales, R&D, and manufacturing--collaborate to create these linkages. Each has vital insights and expertise to contribute. Such collaboration, however, is hard to foster.

Findings and Implications
This study finds two interpretive barriers to this kind of effective collaboration. First, the departments make sense of the technology-market linkages in a qualitatively different manner. These departmental "thought worlds" have different views of the product's future and what issues are most uncertain, emphasize different facets of the market, and perceive the task itself in fundamentally different ways. The real problem is not conflict as much as a failure to appreciate another department's problems and how their work ultimately interweaves. In addition, each thought world has a "whole" view of the linking problem, even though it is skewed or limited. This sense of wholeness seals the thought worlds off from new information, which cuts off the linking activity.

Second, the firm's routine procedures for product development contain rules for working together, making decisions, and evaluating products. These routines form another interpretive barrier because they tend not to include the intense interactions and creative learning necessary to produce innovation. The routines also impose answers, cut off questions, and reinforce departmental separation. The failed product developers followed their firms' usual routines for product development, while the successful developers created new ones.

Comparing the successful efforts with the less successful ones suggests three techniques for overcoming these interpretive barriers. First, the successful developers generated an outward-oriented appreciation of their colleagues' problems. They did not pretend that their thought worlds did not exist, but rather were able to look beyond them. Doing so, however, requires time and the incentive to invest the extra energy such appreciation requires. Managers need to give innovators the ability and time to make connections and work together and may have to foster this appreciation. Second, they developed a simplified understanding of the market and product that made sense to all the thought worlds and cut across the particular biases of each. Hands-on, team learning with real customer contacts facilitated this more simplified, yet realistic, view. Everyone who works on a product should be held accountable for the market-technology linkages; if these jobs are separated, the ideas will be too. Third, the successful developers generated new evaluation criteria for the product. This technique requires that managers appreciate the new product on its own merits, yet insist that the innovators do a thorough job of technology-market linkages.

On one level, this analysis points out the obvious--that "they" (in R&D or sales) are different, and that all firms generate procedures and expectations about how work gets done. Yet, on another level, the argument is that these subtle mindsets impose very real barriers to innovation and must be managed directly. The innovators need to step out of these group and organizational mindsets, yet also work within them to coordinate people and resources. Managers need to appreciate the force of these shared understandings about work because they dictate the degree and nature of communication, both up and sideways. If people who do not understand each other are to work together effectively, then managers must build in the social infrastructure that facilitates collaboration. This infrastructure can take on any number of forms, from simple reward systems or rules about connections, to task forces or venture teams, depending on the firm and situation. The bottom line is that human groups always create a social infrastructure; the challenge is to make sure that a group meets the specific needs of innovation detailed in this paper.

About the Author
Deborah Dougherty is Assistant Professor of Management at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

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