Instigating innovation: Where to start

Originally published in 2015, revised in February 2018

I am currently focused on strengthening the manufacturing sector. I am speaking more and more at meetings and events, in boardrooms and to post-graduate students about innovation. In this increasingly engineering-minded world people frequently ask me for tips on how to get innovation going.

Some of the ideas people put forward are:

“How about an idea box?”
“How about canvassing ideas for a new product design from our customers?”
“How about rewarding our engineers with a profit share if they design a new product?”

However, the truth is that many manufacturing enterprises, especially the smaller ones, are too narrowly sliced into specific functions. They are mimicking large organisations and by doing so are giving up any flexibility and resilience that they might have had. Designers design, manufacturers manufacture and salesmen sell. This functional division of their hierarchy makes information flows about potential improvements, new market opportunities and some old tricks that could become useful again very difficult. The cost of coordination in these enterprises is very high. In these silo-based organisations the cost of finding information, new signals and new ideas from outside the organisations is extremely high, and in general they struggle to learn. Why I mention them is that innovation is something that most organisations are already doing, they just do not recognise it as such. Innovation is lost within functions, or is overlooked because a project is focusing on addressing some or other need. Every improvement project could also be used to change or improve the culture of innovation, to deepen the use of knowledge and to increase capabilities and options for an uncertain future.

A second problem is that most smaller manufacturers are mainly focused on product innovation. Which does not mean being focused on knocking the socks off their customers with frequent improvements or brilliant designs. Unfortunately, many of the more traditional manufacturers are focused on how to reduce the price or how to sort out quality issues. This is actually a kind of process improvement, but a very narrow one. The limitation of this incremental approach is that you can at best only grow and develop as fast as your customers can articulate what they want. Competitors or substitutes can also upset market relations by coming up with novel solutions that an incremental approach struggles to generate.

A third problem is that innovation is only carried out when customers demand it. It is passive. It functions in bursts to get things right, and then it settles into a problem-solving mode until the next customer makes some unreasonable demands. One should be grateful when clients give you a piece of their mind, but this is still far too passive to my way of thinking.

What many manufacturers lack, especially those in the more traditional sectors such as metals and engineering, is a focused effort by top management to build a culture of innovation that is actively trying to find product, process and business model improvements. The effort must be focused internally in order to constantly rethink the business and its core processes, and at the same time it must be focused externally on what customers and competitors are doing. The really good companies are also looking beyond current markets and competitors at new technologies and how they might shape the future.

Thus far I have addressed the business perspective. However, research organisations, technology transfer centres and industry support centres can also become trapped in a low-innovation culture.

I am currently working with a few industry groups and research and technology centres to find out how these organisations can move beyond the “catching up” and responding to change modes towards anticipating what will come next. This sounds perfectly simple, but by merely mobilising more and more people in the organization to search for what’s next has already yielded amazing results in a short time. Perhaps I am being over-optimistic, but I can already sense the innovation culture change in these organisations as more and more people become involved in searching for possibilities.

Here’s an apt quote attributed to William Gibson: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”.

The first kind of search is to get more people involved in searching for what is already present within the organisation, but is not recognised or is not being used to transform the organisation. The second kind of search is to go beyond the organisation in related and unrelated markets and technologies. Take trends such as the global shift to automation, or the new developments in artificial intelligence and play with these within your organisation. Wonder out loud with your people about what this might mean for the organisation, for clients, for suppliers. How might these technologies or trends influence their investment decisions, their viability or their business models? Use these vague concepts to rethink the organisation, its networks, its technologies and systems.

That is what I call instigating innovation, when the dialogue led by the leadership mobilises more and more people within and outside the organisations to start thinking creatively, connectedly and in new ways about the future and the present. Lay a strong foundation for innovation by getting more people to think, imagine, connect ideas and improve.

2 thoughts on “Instigating innovation: Where to start”

  1. I enjoyed reading this. Problems are well described.
    In addition, if we observe very small companies which even do not have organizational structure with separated functions, the rest applies to them, too – focus only on product innovation, only when demanded (in our area there is a number of such companies, so them may also be in focus of research).
    Yes, companies are mostly focused on product innovation and it mostly happens when demanded by customers (by customers, the producers often mean wholesales and retails buying from them – therefore seen as buyers – rather than final consumers which should be in focus of market research – the impression is that power of wholesales and retails is mostly based on proximity to final consumers/buyers in terms of access to information about their needs and in terms of possibility to influence their purchase decisions).
    I also agree about importance of innovative culture that does depend on top management. However, when innovations are discussed, discussion is often focused on how to engage employees. Examples of questions / ideas in the weblog are also focused on employees, not owners/top management. On the other hand, without their decisions and implementation of those decision, innovations will not happen. The key word may be – motive. I remember one of training sessions organized within the project where trainer made very good presentation of possible results achieved by process innovation (he showed a video of workers producing cakes (sweet example, indeed) and how just reorganization, in fact more specialized work, resulted in significant improvement of production with same resources – same number of employees and same machinery. And you could just see counters in their eyes starting to roll. After that session several applied for voucher support to improve production processes. Same resources = no need for investments and no increase of costs, and increased production = more incomes / profit (if they can sell additional quantities, but that is another story), this may be the motive for top management to start innovating processes.
    Also, attention should be paid to “operationalization” of innovations – what happens when a good new idea is born, how can the company absorb it, turn it into something profitable. Properly presented, this may also be a motive for top managers.

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