Early in my career, I was leading a small R&D team and found ourselves in a challenge to meet a key customer’s needs and timelines. A proposal was made for a “minimum-viable” product that could be delivered within two years. I asked my team: Should we spend the next two years of our lives, not to mention our intellect and energy, developing something that has already been done or is barely acceptable? Their answer was “No,” and what followed was a proposal for a highly differentiated product—the world’s first protocol exerciser for that technology, the descendants of which are still in use decades later in validation labs worldwide.
That formative experience turned my belief in innovation into an obsession. It may be an overused term, but innovation—call it disruption if you prefer—is the most important aspect of a technology company, yet it’s often sacrificed for expediency. It doesn’t have to be that way. Over the past three decades, I’ve learned that innovation is repeatable and sustainable if you do five things.
1. Refuse to be a fast follower.
The mistake we almost made on that early project was focusing on our competitor. If you set your strategy based on what your competitor is doing, then by definition, your competitor is the leader and you’re the follower. True, it’s important to keep tabs on competitors, but make sure your customers’ needs are driving strategy. What do they need to succeed? What problems are not being addressed? What new challenges are coming? You have to understand your customer’s business almost better than they do to identify challenges and opportunities. But that level of understanding puts you in a unique position. Rather than being a seller of products or services, you’re a value creator. You’ll find yourself creating products that don’t currently exist to solve problems your customers haven’t even identified. Think of it as a Declaration of Innovation: commit to doing something that hasn’t been done.
2. Replace your products.
I truly believe that resting on success is one of the biggest failures of most companies and teams. Yet it’s what large companies often do. That’s why disruption tends to come from new, nimble startups. Large companies make a big investment in their products, and if things go well, they see a steady income stream from the investment. It’s hard to walk away, but that’s exactly what needs to happen. We’re lucky in the electronics test business because each generation of new technology renders the last generation of test equipment obsolete. You can’t do a good job testing 5G technology, for example, with 4G equipment. Last quarter’s big breakthrough? It’s in the past. The best innovators accept it and move on.
3. Focus on opportunities, not obstacles.
When learning to ride a motorcycle, instructors usually teach you to deal with emergencies by focusing on the path you want to take, not the obstacle you’re trying to avoid. The same is true for driving a company forward. Fix your gaze on where you want to go—on solving your customer’s Big Problem with a Big Idea. To be sure, obstacles will be placed in your path. You’ll hear from your internal teams that there’s not enough budget, not enough time, or too few resources to deliver what’s being asked. Don’t believe it. Convince your team that the opportunity is non-negotiable, and change the assumptions instead. Get resources reassigned to the project. Reallocate funds. Buy time by outsourcing. Revisit the timeline. Do whatever it takes to bring your Big Idea to life. Because while meeting schedules and staying on budget are important, that’s not what the customer will remember. Solve their problem, make them successful, and you and your team will be the stuff of legend.
4. Get specific.
Often I hear from teams, “If we want to do this, we’ll need 2X our current budget.” My response is almost always: Tell me exactly how much you need, why you need it, and how it will be used. Only with specifics can you get to the root cause of a problem, and that’s where innovation is born. I learned that lesson years ago with a Japanese customer that asked my team to reprogram a pulse generator in a way that really wasn’t feasible. Rather than telling the customer they couldn’t have what they wanted, we got more details. We visited their site, dug into their business, and discovered they were trying to solve an entirely different problem around productivity. So we developed a new product that met their exact needs, became a best seller for us, and opened a major new revenue stream.
5. Let your team lead.
Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard were technical geniuses, but I think one of their best inventions was on the management side of the business. They pioneered the concept of management by objective, or MBO, and it was the key to decades of innovation at Hewlett Packard. The concept behind MBO is that you define an objective, get agreement from the team that it’s the right objective, then let your team decide how to get there. And agreement means really agreeing, not dictating. It’s a conversation, an honest exploration of restrictions and ideas to build consensus. Once you have agreement, give your team the resources they need, then step aside and let them race forward. As long as the objective is clear, they’ll get there.
What are your keys to making innovation happen? How do you make it sustainable and repeatable? Leave a comment here and let’s keep the dream of innovation alive for a new generation of engineers.