Cultivate Innovation: What Companies, Managers, and Engineers Can Do

Note: This post is the final entry in a series on Engineers, Workplace Change and Cultivating Innovation from an engineer on our team at Industrial Interface.


In past blog posts (here and here), I discussed change in the high-tech design workplace. Today's blog is about innovation-the driving force for profit in this market is innovation. Companies who deliver the newest, best-performing, most-reliable products to market are almost always the most successful. This requires an efficient company streamlined to foster, cultivate, and encourage designers to come up with cutting-edge ideas on a daily basis.

1) "Spread The Wealth" - Company Culture

From a company perspective, division of resources is the key to improving design. Listen to a report from a CFO, and you will hear how internal company costs are split between administration, sales and marketing, and R&D. It is unreasonable to expect a company to spend 99% of its money on R&D in order to get the best designs possible. That is an academic exercise meant for university research. The company's goal is profit, which requires significant overhead and dollars put towards customer development and sales.

However, the company can absolutely allocate its R&D budget so that the newest and best products come from in-house. Dedicating engineering teams to design flow improvements, encouraging engineers to "cross-train" with other departments, budgeting resources (money AND time) for software training, upgrading machines regularly, and, of course, dedicated top-level research to new product lines. Companies that wisely allocate these resources while maintaining a responsible bottom line have the best chance for innovation success.

2) "Follow The Leader" - Management Techniques

The best engineering managers are the ones that efficiently distribute their employees' time. In my experience, the technical managers that encourage and/or demand a consistent culture of technical learning produce the best engineers that ultimately make the most strides in technical innovation (see my post titled "Why Engineers Resist Change & 4 Ways To Change Their Minds"). Now, certainly a careful balance must be struck here. After all, products have to be designed for profits to be made. Deadlines must be hit, work must be complete, and measurements must be accurate. The key is allocating enough time for learning, while at the same time hitting those stringent time constraints. If time is too tight, it's obvious that the product comes first and foremost. But the incapacity to learn new design techniques, improve the design flow, and/or cross-train with other groups in the company is a significant sacrifice that should be communicated up the management chain of command. Future innovation will suffer if the team can not improve.

Another potential pitfall is the manager expecting too much from his or her team. In any high-tech industry, there are significant pressures to get design-to-market as quickly as possible. Smart managers know that the team must improve itself concurrently with the product development. (Note: there are ways to cultivate a learning culture while working on a product. Perhaps I'll address this in another blog.) It's important not to stretch the team too thin when they're already working 80+ hour weeks on a project. For one, you can quickly drive away your best talent. In addition, when teams are working that hard on a project, the chances of absorbing substantial information and applying it later to design techniques is minimal.

3) "Down in the Trenches" - Engineers

Bottom line, it is an engineer's job to innovate. (see my other post titled "When Engineers Should Embrace Change") At all times, an engineer should be striving to design, create, improve, and optimize. Whether it is making a microchip smaller, a bridge stronger, or a drill consuming less power, it is the consummate goal of those in the trenches to push the envelope and make his or her product better than the guys next door. It seems counter-intuitive, but routine design flows can often facilitate and encourage creative thinking.

Say, for example, an electrical engineer is designing a low-noise amplifier circuit for a wireless phone. If he is unorganized, follows different design techniques at every step of the flow, uses the design software inefficiently, and/or measures circuit performance at unmindful points in the design, how can he be assured that tweaks to his design are actually optimizing the circuit? Engineers with well-defined, organized design flows have an advantage in measuring data and ultimately improving their design in the end. Also, engineers with intimate knowledge of the flow itself (more than just "users") see opportunities in the details of their routine that can be revamped and rewritten. Engineers that dig into this level of detail are the ones that stand the best chance of creating the next great product.

How do you see innovation cultivated or stifled at your company?

(cartoon courtesy SkyDeckCartoons)

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Comment by Brian Jones on September 24, 2009 at 11:37am
Thanks for the great resource suggestion. I'm always looking for these. We share a lot of these on our blog ( and I tweet out a ton of great resources too (

Let me know if you've got any other good resources.
Comment by David D. McCormick on September 24, 2009 at 8:26am
The process of visualizing an engineering solution may seem trivial in complex engineering processes but the importance of this step cannot be underestimated. Real innovation comes from being allowed to spend time doodling solutions in the early stages of a project. If engineers are forced to set out hastily in the wrong direction and the design is developed in detail, an opportunity for real innovation is lost. Engineers create and explore ideas by sketching them out. Sketches are a powerful part of a successful design process acting as a channel between creative engineering thinking and critical engineering thinking. One website is dedicated to this topic and may be worthwhile viewing for engineering managers charged with responsibility for innovative engineering.


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