by Teresa Jurgens-Kowal, PE, NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM
What images does the word “innovation” conjure for you? For many people, innovation means a lone genius or mad scientist inventing something new on his own. Many people believe innovation is spontaneous and relies on the creativity skills of a few. These characteristics lead you to the conclusion that innovation is easy.
Of course, innovation is not the work of a lone genius, it requires diligence, and it is not easy. In fact, innovation is a managed process with at least three important steps to build individual or corporate success. Let’s take a look at these arenas.
It’s rare when I have absolutely nothing scheduled on my calendar, even for weekends. With completely open time and a blank sheet of paper, I often don’t know how to fill that time and I end up wasting precious hours staring at the television. I certainly am not creative or innovative during unplanned time.
However, when I have a good problem facing me and I know how to tackle it, I can be extremely productive and creative. This represents strategy. Successful innovation requires a strategic approach to challenges, whether they are personal, professional, or corporate. Strategy gives us a sense of direction and sets targets for achievement.
The three core elements of strategy are vision, mission, and values. Vision describes where we hope to be in the long run. For a business seeking to improve its innovation capability, a vision statement describes what the future will look like, how the business will participate within its chosen industry, and where the business will operate.
On the other hand, a mission statement describes how the company will get to the desired future state. What are the tools, resources, and talent necessary to achieve goals? The mission lays out a plan of attack, sometimes in bite-sized pieces, so that the company can reach its vision.
As an example, at its founding, Microsoft had a vision of a computer on every desk and in every home. This vision framed the company’s mission, including how it would innovate and compete. Building desktop computers became the goal as compared to improving the processing of giant, mainframe computers. Having a vision statement clarifies the mission – a mainframe computer is a ridiculous idea for every desk or in every home.
Finally, the values statement explains the expected behaviors of employees and the priorities of the company. As a chemical engineer, I spent my early career in the petrochemical industry. Every conference room at my employer and every customer’s conference room posted a shared value – SAFETY is our number one priority. Safety, as a value, tells operators how to behave and teaches engineers how to design equipment. Our behavior in a petrochemical plant was focused on ensuring that workers and the environment were protected from potential harm. Values drive actions, and actions are how the mission is accomplished.
In conjunction with the strategy, successful innovation requires understanding customer needs. Even if the lone genius were to invent an incredibly awesome technology in her basement, the technology is only useful if someone buys it. As engineers and engineering managers, we are at the forefront of transforming peoples’ lives. But we must first understand the problems and challenges that consumers face.
Understanding customers’ needs informs the technologies we develop. One innovation I love is heated seats in the car. Automobile manufacturers could only develop this feature if they understood the needs of customers. In the winter, cars are cold and thus, drivers are cold – whether the car was parked outside or in a garage. It takes a while for the engine to warm up and thus, the interior of the car is often cold until the engine warms fully. Electric heat is not sustainable for the whole car for an entire trip, but focused electric heat on just the seats (and steering wheel in luxury vehicles) can bridge the gap until the engine warms.
The only way that we can find a match between interesting technologies and business growth is to understand market needs. Engineers and engineering managers must jump at the opportunity to visit customers (B2B or B2C). We can learn what problems our end-users face and we can identify better ways for consumers to accomplish their day-to-day tasks. Get in the field and discover your customer needs!
I once heard a phrase that has stuck with me over the years: “Not making a decision is making a decision.” This means that if we punt a decision or get mired in analysis paralysis, we really are making a decision to stick with the status quo. Innovation can get stuck in the ideation stage, especially if you have a lot of creators on your team (see the ASEM post on Managing Innovation Teams). Ideas are great, but action is necessary to reach the visionary goals articulated in the strategy.
There are many useful tools in decision-making: simple pro/con analysis, SWOT analysis, and portfolio management. For innovation and product development, I recommend a portfolio analysis approach. This will include a cross-functional team, financial valuations of projects, and verifying that the new product aligns with your strategy and customer needs. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to learn more about product portfolio management.
Innovation might seem intimidating, relying on extraordinarily creative individuals with wild flashes of genius striking them as lightning. Yet, successful innovation is a process. We manage innovation by describing the organization’s strategy: what are the vision, mission, and values that drive growth? Next, we align market and technology opportunities with customer needs to design and develop new products. Finally, because we often have more ideas than resources, we deploy robust decision-making tools.
Learn more about Innovation Management in this recorded webinar, courtesy of the German-American Chamber of Commerce (https://globalnpsolutions.com/events/). I’d love to connect with you on LinkedIn to continue a discussion on innovation.
About the Author
I am passionate about innovation and inspired by writing, teaching, and coaching. I tackle life with an infusion of rigor, zeal, and faith. It brings me great joy to help you build innovation leadership. I am an experienced innovation professional with a thirst for lifelong learning. My degrees are in Chemical Engineering (BS and PhD) and in Computer and Information Decision Making (MBA). My credentials include PE (State of Louisiana), NPDP, PMP®, and CPEM, and I am a DiSC® certified facilitator. Contact Teresa Jurgens-Kowal at email@example.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.