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Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

Posted March 22, 2017 3:00 PM by MaggieMc

Perhaps I wasn’t paying proper attention before, but it seems that more and more we’re becoming obsessed with the idea of innovation. To be an innovator is to secure one’s position at a company. In fact, companies are increasingly creating “formal innovation roles” with names like Chief Innovation Officer, Innovation Manager, Innovation Director, or VP of Innovation. We even give awards for innovation. So much pressure is placed on innovation and the pace of progress, but we don’t always stop to consider what innovation really looks like.

Innovation, I learned as I wrote this blog, is in the top 1% of “lookups” at Merriam-Webster online—potentially due to what Victor Poirier and his co-authors describe as “the centrality of innovation to current educational and business efforts,” in a recent essay featured in Technology and Innovation, a journal published by the National Academy of Inventors.

The authors attribute more to innovation than Merriam-Webster, highlighting the idea that innovations must have societal value. This characteristic of innovation is what makes innovative thinking “critical to our everyday lives, regardless of individual interests and passions.”

After researching many opinions on innovation, the authors describe the process as stemming from a kind of fragmented inspiration, coalescing into a more complete concept, then moving the idea forward into society.

Fortunately or unfortunately, innovation doesn’t occur in a bubble. A lot has to happen for innovation to function properly—and a lot of it is dependent on the environment and the individual’s method of thinking.

When considering society and the environment’s influence on innovation, the authors rely on the ideas of Steven Johnson, which, conveniently, are summarized in the video I’ve included below. Pay specific attention to the idea of “the slow hunch” and the value of external discussion and feedback, because these ideas begin to fill in some of the gaps in the process Poirier and his co-authors describe.

With the addition of Johnson’s ideas, the path to innovation becomes more complicated, but also more complete, as the importance of collaboration is stressed. More often than not, innovation is not the product of a single individual, they need support from other areas, the innovative group draws on a multitude of different skills, and they eventually come up with a complete idea.

One piece essential to innovation that wasn’t mentioned in the process or the video is the idea of error. Error is an easy idea to understand, and it’s equally easy to devalue or dismiss. No one likes to admit we make mistakes, but some of our mistakes, or misguided hunches, propel us into the best ideas—once we’ve gone back to the drawing board.

With the length of the process, the inevitability of error, and the difficulty of achieving the right timing for a given innovation, it’s no wonder we prize innovative individuals. Especially because the most innovative individuals embody this process, they don’t necessarily consider it—they simply act in accordance with their intuition.

So, then, what makes an innovative individual?

Find out on Friday!

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#1

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 3:07 PM

I liked it better when people just knew who was important, and who is just full of hot air. Howard Hughes never needed any of those titles to get stuff done...why should anyone else, unless they are about to pop due to an overdeveloped sense of superego (God complex).

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#2
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 3:40 PM

I'm rather fond of just letting those who can prove they have the skills do the jobs over those who have the credentials on a piece of paper on a wall someplace.

Credentials and paperwork can be faked and hidden but raw talent and skill can not.

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#3
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 4:22 PM

A company where I was the engineering manager, when I gave them my 2 week notice, they actually wanted to stay longer and interview my replacement. Craziest thing... long story...

Anyway. I asked the president what he was looking for... I asked "are you looking for someone with education, or someone that can do the job?".

Basically he wanted education... the more the better...

Well, I interview a number of people, and gave him 2 piles with my recommendations.

1st pile,

Had education with a minimum of a graduate degree and above, rated 1 to 3 (3 resumes)

the 2nd pile,

I gave him the people I felt can to the job, (two had bachelors degrees, and the rest, associates. And I rated the people 1 - 5 (5 resumes) And my recommendation the one at the top of the list he should hire. after the 3rd on this list, it was all tied.

He selected the educated pile... I warned him, his brother (Vice president), his sister in law (his Brothers wife and HR) that's going to be a disaster... And it was.

He could have been worse, He could have selected his nephew.

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#4
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 4:27 PM

Nothing supports early retirement (by default) better than hiring the nephew.

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#5
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 5:09 PM

Nephews...

The older one (27 at the time) was a fan of 'Oprah'... coming in late, morning, midmorning, afternoon naps and cartoons. as well as other talk shows, He had a television in his office, and I even had to tell him (and I told him, I'm only going to say this once) to not only shut the door, but to turn down the volume. It can be heard in the conference room with clients. He down loaded and printed out the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky hearing transcripts . A few years after I left, the customs complained, it them or his nephew...

The second oldest (25 years old) would rather be out on the water with his new Jet ski... No one knew he was gone...

The youngest (18 years old) had the best chance, he actually did work and have his head somewhat in the game.

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#6

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 5:45 PM

<Rant mode ON>

1. NO, innovation does not require "societal value". They are just trying to project their own values by redefining the term innovation. If an engineer saves money on manufacturing a product, it is still innovation, whether John Q. Public ever receives any value from it is irrelevant.

2. Let's call these “formal innovation roles” by their real name: R&D. But since ~1980 Piss Poor Management decisions, aided addled by Bean Counter Mentality, has pretty much gutted most R&D. Now business has figured out that all they did was 'cut off their nose to spite their face' and need it back. Rather than admitting a mistake, they have simply rebranded it as the Innovation department.

<Rant mode off>

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#7
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 6:04 PM

I agree with your rant.

The word 'innovation' was and is a over and misused and abuse term for over 15 years to a point it just noise to me.

And I put the word 'innovation' with other words that are over and misused that no longer carries any impact and are just abused terms and are nothing but noise to me.

  • innovation
  • Nazi
  • racist
  • sexist
  • homophobic
  • xenophobic
  • islamaphobic
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#8
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 7:15 PM

You forgot this one.

  • Smart _ _ _ _ _.

The abuse of that term has become so pervasive, it has become a turn-off for me.

Or this one . . .

  • must-have, must-see, must-read, etc.

I really get frosted that someone else thinks I "must" whatever. Again, another turn-off guaranteed to cause me to avoid xxxxx at whatever cost, out of spite if nothing else.

Boy, I am really becoming an old crank.

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#16
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 9:30 AM

All us beloved old cranks need to band together, hang together, lest we be hanged separately. I see it is a crime in Merry England to use certain words, while Islamicist fundamentalist terrorists haters keep killing the innocent. How long will the silence of the lambs go on? How long O Lord, must be tolerate the intolerable?

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#9
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 7:32 PM

Can I still just hate people for the sake of how they act and or conduct themselves and nothing else?

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#17
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 10:34 AM

Why not? It apparently has never stopped anyone else. We used to have this electrician here that claimed to be the world's only equal opportunity hater, so that makes him OK, at least in my book. His witty form of humor usually cut lesser men off at the knees in short order.

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#15
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 9:27 AM

Nice rant, I vote you up. Keep up the good rant, corporate America deserves whatever tongues be lashing.

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#10

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/22/2017 8:15 PM

Innovation is just reading "someone or other's" book or blog, motivational speech, etc taking some of that advice and applying it to your own job.

It ain't rocket science and rarely is it truly new and innovative, just a rehash of ideas that have come before.

So, then, what makes an innovative individual?

Find out on Friday!

Why not just post the book or blog link now?

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#11

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 3:36 AM

As Solomon says "there's nothing new under the sun" - at some level we're finding/producing a new arrangement of the atoms and molecules available to us. Some guys are just good at spotting what might be useful.

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#18
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 10:36 AM

I was just about to quote the book of Ecclesiastes. Good quote.

What is new is our human rearrangement of our surroundings for our betterment, or our destruction, depending on the mood. Nothing in human nature is really "new".

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#12

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 5:04 AM

It is taking a very narrow view that "society" has to be involved with, approve of, or accept innovation. Maybe 2% of innovation is about leaps into the unknown, the remaining 98% is about incremental improvements. If you have ever tried to convince a client's management to take a leap into the unknown you will understand why. The most innovative thing I have done (to date) based on the change to how things are made and the improvement in bottom line is to take equipment that is standard in the dairy industry and apply it to making linseed oil putty. Does that count? The most innovative thing I have proposed involved changing an existing casting process into an extrusion process and slicing the extruded ribbon into the same lengths as the cast blocks. Savings on capital cost compared with the alternative, plant footprint, manpower, and energy that would have more than halved the manufacturing cost, improved product quality, made the production process more flexible and increased capacity, were all met with "it is too radical" and the proposal was turned down. The biggest impediment to innovation, and one that does not feature in any of the flow charts of how innovation works, is raising money to risk on the unknown.

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#13
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 7:25 AM

Good points...

other than my disdain of putting a label of innovation just about anything, I do have something to add.

I'm sure many here have experience of being in a company with the mindset of "but that's how we have always done it, it fine, why fix something that isn't broken"

Instead of trying and doing things differently that may be more efficient and cost effective. Label that innovation sure,... but I like to look at it as progress.

Innovation, like progress is always knocking at the door,... you just have to open the door and let it in.

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#14
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 8:51 AM

"I'm sure many here have experience of being in a company with the mindset of "but that's how we have always done it, it fine, why fix something that isn't broken""

Reminds me of the text of two motivational posters I was planning on making and putting up in my office years ago, until I realized that too many people in the Low-to-Mid level Management would take it as offensive and a personal attack:

  • Sacred Cows are to be attacked; the strong ones will reveal the logic behind them and survive, the weak ones will reveal the illusion of their existence and fall.
  • Golden Calves are verboten, as are similar "god objects" that are supposed to do/know everything. Better a plethora of small things that each do one thing well and work together to do everything than one thing that does everything poorly.

I should point out that the objections were not on religious grounds; these were seen as attacks on what were, at the time, core principles of Production/Maintenance (The Sacred Cow of "That's the way we've always done it, we don't WANT to learn another way.") and Management's design principles (between their love of 'scope creep'/'moving the goalposts' and their refusal to make distinctions between projects (installing a vision system on labeler A was blended into trying to make the labeler itself run at 150% of the manufacturer's recommendations; and also blended into reprogramming a different model vision system on an assembly machine to 'not kick off so many bad parts (while ignoring the fact that bad parts allowed to pass that point would gum up the works downstream); and also blended into ...) Let's just say that they considered every project to simply me known as "The Project" and you never knew which "The Project" they were talking about when they wanted a status update. They also never understood that a quality check system, such as a camera cannot FIX a problem, only identify it, the fix had to come from upstream, at the production machine (Which would not be changed because .. Sacred Cow)).

Things got better over there, but I doubt that that place will ever get anywhere near the concept of 'functional.' The captain of that ship could never make up his mind on a heading, and the first mate was too focused on following the 'latest order of the minute' and on 'maintaining discipline' to just pick a course and stick with it. With no course given, how can a ship make any sensible progress?

The Corporate Culture has basically killed any chance for REAL innovation from within their walls, Microsoft is probably the only company with even the appearance of innovation, but that's because they got rid of their R&D department, folding it into Mergers & Acquisitions. They copy what the REAL innovators have done, put a useless extra feature on it so it's no longer compatible with the original standard, then use their market dominance to try and roll over the original inventor and crush them out of existence.

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#19

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/23/2017 4:11 PM

A good engineer is a person who makes a design work with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.

Freeman Dyson

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#20
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 5:02 AM

Freeman Dyson is a theoretical physicist known for his work in mathematics. His knowledge of engineering does not qualify him to make such a statement and his career and background does not justify you in quoting him. The first sentence is just wrong. The second sentence would be more accurate if changed to "There are should be no prima donnas in engineering.

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#21
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 7:22 AM

Freeman Dyson is a theoretical physicist known for his work in mathematics. His knowledge of engineering does not qualify him to make such a statement and his career and background does not justify you in quoting him.

Then explain why the US Navy hired Albert Einstein a physicist, to figure out why the poor performance of the contact exploder on the Mark 14 submarine launched torpedo in World War II. Other than arrogant engineers/designers that designed it in the first place.

As well as assist with his clout to get other engineering concepts from designers who were not engineers, but a high school teacher of maths and physics to be heard by the engineering mainstream that was otherwise scoffed at.

The best 'innovation', may not come from the industry itself, but an outsider looking in.

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#22
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 8:17 AM

It has worked for me so far, because it has had to.

Anytime I've tried to introduce a better way of building the control systems on our process skids, the customers have ALWAYS said "NO!" Stay with the tried and true as we have done for the past 20 years. We can't even use a bus system the way it is to be used. Individual wiring to every instrument and valve from a central panel - no one wire loops allowed, even though they eliminate upwards of 60 cables to land in a control panel. If we get bus based instruments, they still individual wire to a summing block in a main control panel, just as they did in 1980.

Fifteen years ago, I did the entire skid system, not just controls, and I decided a round tube frame would be easier for us to build, as we were manifold experts - same result, only that time both the customer and our own engineering group said "NO!" Stay with the square tube and the associated polishing problems at the weld junctions as that is the way it has been done for ever.

What we produce now is the same as what we did 20 years ago, and I cannot change that, because I am not allowed to. No primma donnas allowed.

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#24
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 9:49 AM

It is this thing in industry called the "path of the calf", just as in frontier towns, there was always some cow path used as a footpath. This weaving crooked up and down path later becomes a street with the same topography. Later on the street become a thoroughfare, and eventually gets "upgraded" to an Interstate Highway, inexorably following the wrong topography to make the engineering practical, successful, or within budgetary and time constraints.

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#25
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 10:00 AM

Yeah - and that is in relatively flat Texas. Now try following the "deer paths" we follow up here in the ridge and valley sections of Pa if you want some real topographical challenges.

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#32
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 3:19 PM

Well, that long switchback makes a lot more sense when the straight line path is 'walk up the side of this cliff, then walk down this sheer drop. Turn left at the pile of broken mountain goat carcasses...'

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#34
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/27/2017 8:12 AM

That is the oil field lease roads. The highways follow deer paths, but the cash strapped stripper well drillers made their roads direct, and to last 5 years or less. 30% grade on a cheap dirt road - that is okay. Who worries about errosion? We now have a mountain bike bonanza here, with all the rutted hill climbs and descents, and the fact that the oil field gets a spurt just about every 20 years and build new roads beside the old ruts.

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#30
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 3:11 PM

As far as the highways go, if memory serves, the early ones were being laid out in straight lines from city A to cit B. however, they were generating MORE car accidents that the old back roads they replaced, with the longer roads being even more dangerous than the shorter ones.

The cause was determined to be the straightness and monotony of the road itself, causing a condition dubbed 'highway hypnosis,' where the driver has SO little to do to keep their mind occupied that they become susceptible to the rhythmic pulse of the lane markers in the headlights and lose a sense of where they are and what they are doing, essentially being tricked into falling asleep at the wheel.

To prevent this problem, highways were redesigned with occasional curves, making the road 'meander' when a straight line could suffice, thus forcing the driver to react to the road at intervals so they are not lulled into sleep. With the newer 'jumbotron' billboards being set up, Highway hypnosis is becoming even less of a threat, as the changing images on the billboards(1) provide a visual stimulation to keep the brain from wrapping in on itself.

Notes:

  1. They're all still images so far, haven't seen any use actual 'moving pictures,' despite the ease of doing so with the technology. The closest any of them have done to motion was an advertisement for a haunted house, where the 'slide' advertising the haunted house is replaced 2 seconds into its 10 second 'time slot' with a near-identical slide, but with a zombie in front of the text(2) as a sort of 'jump scare.'
  2. Bottom center-right of the billboard, obscuring the bottom right portion of an O and the bottom left portion of a W in the word ZOMBIETOWN.
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#33
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 4:03 PM

...and you totally missed the point of what I was talking about, but nice parody.

I was referring to companies that never venture off the "path of the calf" to a new way.

Sheeezsicks!

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#23
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Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 9:38 AM

I have often stated the following: "There is no religion in engineering a project." Intended meaning: There is no part of this object that is sacrosanct. Review every single part as if your life depended on the outcome, and in some instance it might.

God frankly might not care if you are careless as an engineer, but the Satan delights in poor engineering.

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#31
In reply to #23

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 3:15 PM

"God frankly might not care if you are careless as an engineer,"

Perhaps, but He at least set up some good examples for us to steal copy learn from. Yes the examples took thousands or millions of years to fully develop, but He was using the 'energy efficient' (aka 'lazy') method of "try all sorts of random stuff, then build on the ideas of the things that didn't fall apart or explode or die young."

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#26

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 10:35 AM

As usual, I seem to be the lone old crank. It has taken me a long time to learn this.

Successful Innovation leads to increased market share, increased profits, higher levels of employee commitment and loyalty. Innovation in any company, as one of the basic elements of business strategy, like finance, marketing, engineering, safety, supply chain management, operations process definition, requires the delivery of quantified parameters (re attempts or desire for innovation) in a format that leaders can use to allow companies to take advantage of opportunities. Risk is the arbiter of innovation. Innovation can be a quest to waste money. That reveals itself during strategy meetings, where innovation ideas are considered. Failing to invest in people who can innovate, and failing to assign risk rankings to innovation, is a terrible idea. Failing to innovate is a terrible idea. Innovating is the key to growth over your competition, unless you are Elon Musk, who is able to convince people to fund anything whether it makes money or not.

Hopefully, you (and my employees) see where I am going. Everyone must understand why they need to innovate, how that process is instituted and approved, and why your quest to constantly innovate in ways that don't have very positive implications seem to fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, if you are encouraged, nurtured, rewarded, you can be pretty confident that you are on board and secure.

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#27
In reply to #26

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 11:27 AM

The innovation environment you described is probably to be sought as an ideal. Every organization will have to evaluate how to implement their recipe for that, as the case reveals itself.

I agree though that in a "nurtured" or innovation "culture", it would at least seem that things can be more readily steered toward good ideas and away from money pits. Again, no snap decisions, but well thought out ideas presented, others shooting the idea full of holes (really just finding logical flaws, or physical impossibilities), full vetting of the ideas on paper, then prioritizing which ideas will contribute the most to the bottom line short and long-term goals of the organization seems to be the way to grow innovation. Another part of the innovation team is a good team of patent experts, I would presume.

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#28
In reply to #27

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 12:12 PM

You nailed it James, it is about actively steering innovation, not hoping it is helpful to your goals. I see your point about patents as it applies to engineering, but I presume that if you are hired as an engineer to produce something, part of the process is to institutionalize the steps, and that would include patent protection. I was referring to a company like mine, that deploys what we think are the most cost effective products and technical solutions for energy into a broad consumer environment, where solutions that are superior get market traction quickly. That is not new, I realize, it is exactly what businesses have always done. The pace is faster than ever, though.

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#29
In reply to #28

Re: Innovation, Part I: What Does It Really Look Like?

03/24/2017 1:52 PM

Yes, and a good practicing engineer for product innovation and development, usually has his ducks lined up, and the right eggs in the basket when it comes to registration of the patent documents, and all other CYA procedures related to prior art, etc.

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