Mgr Author

Manager's Forum – Managing Innovation

An authority on successful R&D endeavors shares some of the culture and processes he believes help to inspire innovation.

A company's growth comes from the innovation of its employees, and sustained growth requires a reliable stream of innovation. While in a well-run R&D operation it is possible to predictably schedule and release products, it is not possible to schedule innovation, when you want those  eureka!• moments to occur. You can, however, nurture innovation, encouraging those moments to repeatedly, if not predictably, transpire.

Innovative People
Innovative products are produced by innovative people. You must strive to create a culture that identifies key innovators and innovations and have an execution process that ensures these innovations come to market.

Identify Innovators
For innovation to grow, tune in to the individual talents and strengths of your employees. There is no singular process that can be tuned for all individual needs and situations.

Yet, lack of a process leads to chaos and repeated mistakes. For that reason, processes should have built-in flexibility that respects an individual's abilities. Determine the individual strengths and interests of your R&D engineers and embrace the normal variances among them to maximize your company's potential.

Some engineers are great at finishing projects (closers) while others are good at starting projects (starters). Identify which employees are innovators and make them starters. Put them on the next project as soon as possible rather than expecting them to be good closers.

Recognize Innovation
R&D organizations need to recognize the innovation of their employees. Through a variety of methods to acknowledge employee success from cash bonuses to the old fashioned pat-on-the-back appreciation for a job well done• you can communicate what qualities you value to your team. Formal award presentations in a group setting give you the opportunity for peer recognition and to reinforce expected behaviors to the organization.

Engineers may respond even better to the private attention that comes from one-on-one recognition. Make sure your managers have some discretion in presenting timely awards based on outstanding performance for a direct cause-and-effect relationship between an engineer's actions and the reward.

Awards for achievements, such as patents or published works, also, produce positive results for the engineer and the organization. At National Instruments, we have several forums to honor innovation including an annual Engineering Excellence award program and a patent award program.

Connect to the Real World
Send your engineers out in the real world to visit customers, attend industry events, and work with key suppliers and partners. By interacting and maintaining close relationships with customers and key technology suppliers, they will have a better understanding of technology and market trends.

Innovation often is inspired by such interactions. Give engineers the authority to incorporate that feedback and knowledge into their designs. Integrate your innovators with the product development teams to increase the likelihood that innovative ideas make it into your company's products.

Ownership of the success of their product is the best way to achieve top performance from your engineers. Encourage engineers to spend time with customers and the sales force to learn firsthand about the strengths and weaknesses of their products. Have the engineers help train the sales force on their products. Keep your starters connected to the world around them, and innovation that is well aligned to your business strategy will follow.

Processes to Encourage Innovation
While you cannot schedule innovation, much less predict it to occur at a specific time, you can establish a process to increase the likelihood of innovation.

Lead User Process
For innovation to flourish, companies must find the lead users who are the pioneers and visionaries. Eric von Hippel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, developed the lead-user process. He identified lead users as those with a strong need to find new solutions to their applications.

Lead users offer insightful feedback and inspire innovation and do not have to be customers or even potential customers. By intently studying technology trends and following lead users, your company can become systematic in delivering innovation to the marketplace.

Forums for Collaboration
Innovation does not occur in isolation. To encourage collaboration, create forums for engineers to present and share their current research, product developments, and out-of-the-box ideas. NI Co-Founder and Inventor of LabVIEW Jeff Kodosky says that he never had an idea that was not made better through sharing it with others.

Internal technology conferences give engineers a platform to share viewpoints and insights with others. In addition, forums with key suppliers and partners can yield many breakthrough ideas.

Research Areas
If you identify general technology areas that your company needs to address and couple those general needs with engineer's interests and backgrounds, it often is a catalyst for innovation. By having the business leaders identify the general areas of research, you help ensure that the innovation is well aligned with the company's business strategy. Keep the problem broadly defined so that the researchers have the freedom to innovate and a strong sense of ownership in the solution.

Manage Innovation
Innovation is crucial for growth in most high-tech companies. A culture that rewards ideas and encourages collaboration typically produces innovative products and long-lasting, productive careers for its employees. While you cannot manufacture innovation on the spot, you can manage your organization in a way that increases the chances innovation will occur.

About the Author
Tim Dehne is senior vice president of R&D at National Instruments, managing R&D centers in the United States, Germany, China, India, and Romania. During his 16 years at National Instruments, he has served as vice president of engineering, vice president of marketing, vice president of strategic marketing, and GPIB product marketing manager. Mr. Dehne currently is a member of the Dwight Look College of Engineering External Advisory Council at Texas A&M University. He earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Rice University. National Instruments, 11500 N. Mopac Expwy, Austin, TX 78759, 512-683-0100, e-mail: [email protected]

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