Key Factors for Innovation

Innovation. The buzz word of the decade.

It’s the spin from all organisations, whether private or public, primary, secondary or tertiary producers; all sectors, all industries.

It’s a state of mind and an approach to your work.

What’s so new about it?

In engineering, it’s the cornerstone of what we do. It’s been there forever. We’re trained as professionals to act and think in this way. It’s a state of mind and an approach that allows us to do our job well.

So, what can be learned from the way engineers go about their work? What aspects are critical to innovation? My experience, and the results of our approach, have led me to the following conclusions.

Primarily, as with most things, it starts with employing the right people. Not only those who are capable, but also have confidence in their ability, along with intellectual and emotional intelligence.

Secondly, it’s critical to create an environment that allows innovation to occur. This requires a diverse group of people who can collaborate in an open and non-judgemental way, without the confines of perceived power and privilege.

It’s critical to create an environment that allows innovation to occur.

And thirdly, the culture of encouraging and embracing innovation must be instilled in the group. This very much comes from within, and requires investment and leadership. It requires acceptance of risk that is managed by strong ability, sound decision making and good judgement.

Leading an organisation to be innovative relies on clear understanding of what defines innovation and how to measure it. In my mind, innovation is about creating ideas, not implementing change. It’s an approach to thinking, not adopting something new or adapting new technology. There must be a clear understanding within the group, that everyone is expected to think this way, accepting that it may take a bit longer and potentially lead to some inefficiencies, without any guarantee of immediate reward. These messages and understandings are critical to a sincere and committed approach to innovation.

It’s about asking “what if we try this” rather than saying “we can’t do that because.”

Measuring the effectiveness of innovation based on a return on investment is flawed. The benefits are far too influential at all levels of the operation to naively assume they can be measured in terms of dollars. I liken the investment in innovation in a similar way to marketing. Spend as much as you see necessary to have meaningful impact, without being wasteful.

It’s about asking “what if we try this?”

The final piece in the puzzle relies on the clients and stakeholders who benefit from the innovation. Those we engage with externally must value and embrace our approach, and accept change while acknowledging and sharing ownership of the risk – only then will the return on investment be realised.