Monday, January 26, 2015

Changing Engineers Into Innovators

“Why aren’t our engineers more innovative?”  

Have you ever heard senior management make that complaint?  I have at many companies around the world and from executives in many different industries.  Well, to answer that question I would like to contrast the typical innovator with the typical design engineer.
I have worked with dozens, even hundreds, of both types.  And although these tables are a composite caricature, I think they are pretty accurate.

The innovator is a possibility generator whereas the engineer is a problem solver.  Let’s say your business is facing a problem that needs to be solved quickly for you to continue to grow.   If you picture a funnel, the innovator sees the funnel constantly expanding to more and more ideas.  They are thinking of multiple options for addressing the problem.  While the engineer is holding the funnel the other way and narrowing down possible options to a single viable solution.

The innovator is often connecting diverse systems and concepts to create totally new connections with new applications.  The engineer is isolating systems and attributes to resolve a problem or optimize performance.

Innovators often love challenging the status quo.  They try unconventional approaches.  Some work, many don’t, but each leads to another idea.  The engineer has been trained to use the discipline of following the best practice procedure or professional standard to minimize failures and ensure the result is compliant.

The innovator brainstorms an idea and runs some tests to see what might happen.  The innovator is trying to expand their knowledge of how products and systems could perform.   The engineer analyses a problem, develops a solution, and runs some tests to prove that the solution works as expected.  The engineer is demonstrating that they already have the knowledge to understand how the products and systems will perform.

The innovator’s ideas often require transformational change to a company or industry – and culture change is always long and dangerous.  The engineer’s ideas are often incremental changes to improve performance of an attribute of a well-established product or process.  This improved performance is welcomed by both the customer and the company management.

An interesting element of personal characteristics is that both successful innovators and engineers are technical experts and display the character quality of perseverance.

So if the character qualities are the same, why aren’t more engineers innovative?  Let's look at the other characteristics.  Does your organization reward and recognize people who have lots of ideas that upset the status quo, raise more questions than they answer, and often result in test failures?  Or does your organization reward and recognize people who generate a solution to problems that works well the first time with the current systems?

In addition to the management systems, our universities teach and train engineering, not innovation.  I am not aware of a school that offers a technical degree in innovation.  They may have an MBA for entrepreneurs, but that focuses on risk management, venture capital markets, and recruiting a team.  It is not focused on technical innovation. 

So what is the answer?  If engineers are problem solvers, then reframe the problem so that the answer requires innovative solutions instead of incremental solutions.  Today when a company initiates a new product development project it often starts with the engineers turning to marketing and asking, “What is the problem?”  “What does the customer want the product to do that it does not do today?”  This leads to minor enhancements on existing products, not innovative new product categories.  The engineers demand a set of fixed requirements to start the project. 

Instead, the engineers should work with customers and customer experience data to determine what the customer would “like” to do, which is often not what the customer is actually doing.  For engineers to become innovators, they need to start with the assumption that the product as it exists today is a generation behind in the required technology and then rethink how best to provide the customer with a product or system that lets them accomplish their goal.  This will change how they use their technical problem solving skills.  They won’t be trying to fix the product; they will be trying to fix the customer experience.  

That will lead to innovation.   

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