Leaping Innovation’s Hurdles

As a technologist, I have come across many a discussion with industry peers about the challenges of driving new initiatives. It’s often frustrating to get business groups to listen and understand new ideas. While there’s no silver-bullet solution, we have had reasonable success in this area. As a small-cap public company entering into the PCI Express (PCIe) space in 2002, the odds were stacked against us. The only way to compete was through relentless innovation.

There are “moonshot” programs that can be driven by a CEO who can pretty much set the direction of the entire organization – for example, a Steve Jobs or a Jeff Bezos. However, I’m referring more to pragmatic innovations -- more modest in ambition than the moonshots, but can significantly impact the business. These pragmatic innovations can help an organization leapfrog competition, deepen its foothold in the market and even launch into completely new markets. For those kindred souls out there in the electronic-design community who are pushing pragmatic innovations, I have a few suggestions.

First, establish a track record. Design and build a product, take it to production, and engage your customers. Having a strong record on execution is essential to getting people within the organization to listen to new ideas. If you try to push new ideas or concepts with no traceable history – and thus credibility -- you’re likely to fail. Once you’ve developed such credibility, you’ll be amazed at the support and flexibility that the organization will automatically provide, and you will find silent support across the functional groups. I use the word silent because some people are uncomfortable with risk and are afraid of failure; the pain vs. gain metric enters the equation and people will silently help and support but not openly commit.

Most people at the top of the management chain are inherently aware of the need for innovation – and if you have a good idea, they will listen. Conversely, if you have a bad idea, they won’t be shy about it. The key is to have a credible plan that will not derail resources and schedules of ongoing projects.

When viable, initiate skunk-works efforts to build working prototypes, as this reduces the perceived risk by making the product real. In general, creating a prototype requires significantly lower overhead than a full production part. The advantage with skunk-works efforts is that there are usually fewer barriers to get a program moving. It sharpens and validates the core ideas and also de-risks execution. A real working product gets a lot of people in the organization to see and feel the vision.

Second, don’t get caught up in the latest craze in technology. Innovation just for the sake of cool technology is wasteful; you have to find a clear application and a necessary solution. Too many engineers are reflexively attracted to the latest technologies for the sheer technical challenge and the newness of the approach. Unfortunately, in today's corporate structure, the investment for pure R&D is difficult if not unrealistic. A more pragmatic approach would be to identify initiatives that strengthen your products, expand existing market or provide a bridge into adjacent markets. In many cases, it’s most advisable to enter into new markets while leveraging your organization’s core competencies.

Third, work with your business counterparts within your organization. By understanding the market dynamics facing you commonly share, you can simplify, distill and evangelize your technology application. Just as your business colleagues have gaps in comprehending new technologies, you have blind spots about markets. Acknowledging your lack of understanding of the market dynamics and the competitive aspects can help eliminate such blind spots. Use the marketing team’s skepticism and inherent cynicism to further fine-tune and sharpen your ideas. Most business models rely on historical product data and analyst reports used in marketing. Such data, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt -- as Warren Buffet once famously said, "Forecasts tells you a great deal about the forecaster, not much about the future."

Fourth, refine processes to enable positive, productive exchanges of ideas. Creating a culture of innovation isn’t easy, but in my experience, if you have an environment that celebrates innovation, however small it may be, it sends a message. There is significant satisfaction in innovating and getting recognized for it, so be generous in distributing credit to the entire team and remind members that great products are often a collection of many ideas.

Finally, play it safe in execution. Piling up risks is not advisable, so find the best engineers for the job and eliminate risk as much as possible in the implementation. There is going to be risk, so acknowledge it and in the process de-risk the project/program as much as possible. Communicate the upside repeatedly to motivate your teams and keep them focused on the key tenets of the innovation. Make sure your organization is in a position to absorb risk.

Despite the most thorough research and planning, you will face opposition, political maneuvering and perhaps even ridicule. So, navigate smartly, execute efficiently and maintain your conviction throughout. For perspective, remember what Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

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