Who needs innovation?

Or rather, who needs innovations groups? Once upon a time, people had ideas. People in big companies had ideas. And told their friends, and took them to their bosses, who if they were good ideas often took them to their bosses who had private venture funds that they could allocate to promising-looking ideas. 20-odd years ago I got my own crazy ideas funded that way: some of them turned into products, some of them died, but none of them needed someone specifically dedicated to innovations processing to make them appear. So what changed? I worked for monolithic companies back then, I work for monolithic companies now, and engineers have always been engineers, whatever the decade (although there wasn’t really the concept of a ‘hip’ engineer back in the 1980s). So maybe the environment changed. Maybe the standards for what makes a good engineer have changed, maybe it’s the move from…

Disappointment

One of the more important features of an innovations program is failure. Innovations should not be low-risk (although they should be risk-managed, which is not the same things), which means that even in a well-managed scheme, some innovations projects will fail. Indeed some of them *should* fail – if this isn’t happening, then you’re either not reaching high enough to really make a difference, or your standards for what should and shouldn’t continue to be funded probably need to be adjusted. Innovations is about having the taste to choose a set of projects that might work, but also about having the sense to stop the ones that don’t. Which inevitably will disappoint several people: not just the people with the ideas that don’t get continued, but also the sponsors who put effort into backing those ideas too. And that disappointment needs to be managed, so that it doesn’t become corrosive…

Diversity… and diversity

Helen Greiner has a lovely list of things she’s learnt about innovation, one of which is “Diversity in the workplace leads to diversity in ideas”. I think she meant that a company whose staff have a diverse set of backgrounds is likely to be more creative in its applications. One of the problems with dinosaurs is that often they are very homogeneous. As an extreme example, take the defence industry in the UK. If the workforce is mainly composed of people who got their security clearances 10, 20 years ago, then that does by definition restrain the types of people that they are: safe, no dodgy pasts, more gays than in the past but still not a representative percentage (please feel free to argue with that if you think I’m wrong), and still not a great percentage of ‘ethnic minorities’, which given the traditional non-inclusive definition of this, I’m taking…

How Fast?

I spent a day with our research division recently, and got chatting to one of the chaps presenting a project. Now he’d got it going from idea to mock-up and working-if-you’re-careful system in 3 months, and that 3 months struck me instinctively as a very good timeline for developing an innovation prototype system. In some industries (and I’m looking at you, City Boy) 3 days is a long time to develop some mock-up software, but for a reasonably complex idea developed within a larger company, 3 months seems about right. That’s pure engineering judgement from a lot of years of experience, but it’s interesting to try reasoning that out. So… There are insightful geniuses out there who see things coming a long time before anyone else, but a) unless they’re working for themselves it can be difficult to get the boss to go out on that far a limb, and…

Confidence

Many of the female engineers that I’ve worked with suffer periodically from a severe lack of confidence. I guess it happens to us all sometime: that little voice saying “why try, you’re not going to make it work”, “you really can’t do that as well as X”, or “who are you to be telling Y what to do”. I’ve always seen it as a bit of a problem, to be countered with careful handling when found in others and with the phrase “do what you can with the resources you’ve got” for myself. But much as you can have faux amis in language, so maybe you can also have a false enemy in a loss of confidence. Maybe, just maybe it’s a useful thing, a check-and-balance that you’re going the right way and doing the right thing. It’s all too easy to rush headlong into a project, then cling grimly…

Requirements

Requirements can be a little problematic. User, system and technical requirements are difficult enough to define well in a customer-driven field where there is a defined customer who is expert and knows exactly what they want, but in a field with a non-expert customer or no customer, they can be close to impossible. In innovations, there is typically no defining customer, so you have to create requirements against a series of expert guesses about who the end user is, what that end user is likely to want and to use the system for, who the buyer is (and their own estimate of the end user, which is itself likely to differ from the eventual end use) and against market moves that you can only roughly predict from what you can see of your potential competitors, suppliers and market-makers (where they exist too). And if you’re innovating in a fast-moving field…

On the Importance of Being Honest

How important is honesty in business? For many of us, the image of businessmen – I mean businesspeople – is that of players in a large-scale game of poker, where deception is common and nobody ever wants to show their hands. Maybe that exists in the middle layers of some places, from and between people using image and perception to gain their next promotion, but on the whole people at the strategic layers of business appear to be essentially honest about what they do, what they want and what they believe their company to be. This is amply backed up by studies of leaders and enterpreneurs, which show that honesty is one of the most externally valued traits by venture capitalists, and the trait most likely to be rewarded with money. So honesty at the strategic level of a company is to be broadly applauded. The flip side of strategic…

Living organisations

I’ve been reading “transferring tacit knowledge in extended enterprises” by Nousala et al. Yes, yes, I know, but it’s useful for work. So today’s thought is “how far can we take the organisation as organism analogy?”. The paper picks up on a previously popular theme, that organisations (companies, cities, any complex set of interacting people) can usefully be modelled as if they are living organisms. Which includes concepts like autopoiesis – how do we know when something is alive, and rather more Popperian theory than I’ve seen since I was last at university. Now I have a soft spot for the independence of mitochondria – the idea that something as complex as a human can contain cells that are not only doing their own thing, but just happen to be hanging around in the neighbourhood. But I digress. What is perhaps more important is the question “is a company a…

One a day

Hokay, I’ve committed to one a day. One post every day; one paragraph on just one idea. It’s going to be difficult: the fear of not capturing every idea immediately is always with me, but I’m going to try. Today, I have no ideas. Tomorrow, I’ll think of something.