Monday, November 7, 2011

Secrets of Innovation

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This past week I attended the annual conference of one of my partner associations. Like the association I work for, they are a manufacturing-based trade association, whose members buy components from my members. The two industries are closely aligned, and they're facing many of the same issues we are.

One of the presentations they organized was a panel of the member CEOs, talking about challenges in their environment and some creative solutions that they have seen. Not surprisingly, the question of innovation came up.

One CEO talked about a partnership his company had forged with a local arts college. There were some skeptical scoffs from the audience. Art students? those scoffing seemed to say. What can a bunch of art students teach my professional engineers about innovation?

The CEO was very direct.

"Think about it," he said. "These are highly creative and ambitious people. They want to make a difference in the world. By inviting them into our product design process, we have given them an opportunity to do exactly that. And they have come up with business-changing ideas that the highly skilled engineers who work for us would never have thought of."

This really is one of the secrets of innovation, isn't it? Bring outside perspectives into your organization and allow them to identify new opportunities hidden by your internal culture and demographics. Even if your team is diverse--and engineering teams at manufacturing companies are about as monolithic as they come--there are things that people too close to a problem will never see. They all live within a the same paradigm, and it only allows certain approaches to certain problems. It's not good or bad. It's just the way things are.

We hear about this strategy all the time, and it makes total sense. But how many of us really do it? It was nice to see how one organization is actually doing it and the success it is driving for them.

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