Archive for the ‘Entrepreneurship’ Category

As promised in the previous post, below is part B of an insightful piece from guest blogger, Brandon Sights, on how he has used his MEM degree and generally how to apply yourself and navigate various opportunities in your organization….

How I Have Used My MEM Degree (Part B) by Brandon Sights


In order to complete the MEM program at Duke, you must be able to communicate effectively. This is not typically a strong skill for engineers, especially when communicating with people outside of the engineering department. In several instances, I have utilized skills learned in the program to effectively communicate with various stakeholders, including customers, fellow engineers, marketing personnel, and members of the upper management in both Trimble and our largest customer.
My job often takes me to a customer’s farm where I spend time observing, diagnosing, and fixing problems that the support team has been unable to resolve. This means that I have to be able to communicate with the farm manager to understand what is important in terms of fixing their problem, while discussing the issue in non-technical (software and control systems), yet agriculturally correct, terms. This skill was discussed in several classes, including Commercializing Technology Innovations. In that class, my team contacted laparoscopic surgeons to better understand their needs with regards to hand held tools that could improve patient outcomes while reducing costs. Because we were unable to discuss specifics about the device that we were evaluating the commercial potential of, we focused on the surgeon’s needs in the hand held laparoscopic tool space, as described with a surgeon’s vocabulary. Being able to communicate with customers about their needs, utilizing vocabulary specific to their situation, is a tool that I learned in the MEM program.

When I am fortunate enough to spend time with farmers and farm managers, I try to gain a better understanding of several aspects of their experience with our products, including:
• Outcome versus expectations, beyond just the problem we are working on that day.
• Features they wish the products had.
• Features they wish the products didn’t have.
• Their level of comfort with new technologies that we might be able to implement to bring value to their operations.

These topics were covered in several courses, including Marketing, Designing the Customer Experience, Project Management, and Innovation Management, and this is one area where I believe my MEM degree sets me apart from other engineers. I understand that the most important aspect of my job is making the customer’s experience with our product the best it can be, not just checking boxes next to a list of tasks every week. This primary reason for creating a product in the first place also translates into how I deal with our largest customer.

The largest customer of the Precision Agriculture Division at Trimble is a large manufacturer of heavy equipment. The machines that they sell often cost an order of magnitude, or more, than the Trimble products that are installed on them. Over the course of the last year, when integrating our products onto new platforms, or troubleshooting existing problems, I have discovered that although the farmer puts a huge emphasis on how our component of the total product performs, the resources allocated by our largest customer to ensuring our product exceeds the farmer’s expectations are lacking. This is because they are looking at our components in terms of revenue, not in terms of user perceived value. Because of the discussion on customer touch points in Designing the Customer Experience, and the benefits of favoring customer retention versus customer acquisition (it’s cheaper and more profitable) from Marketing, I have focused the discussion related to fixing the problem I have been testing in Arizona on the importance the auto guidance system plays in the farmer’s ultimate decision to purchase one or more pieces of equipment from our largest customer. Communicating this fact effectively has also used several skills I learned in the MEM program.

Already three times this calendar year, I have found myself leading the effort to resolve high visibility issues with our guidance system on one of our customer’s most important product lines. Each time, I have had to take complex control system data and system performance analysis, and communicate it to various stakeholders, from engineers to executives. In order to do this effectively, I have leveraged the report structure utilized in Project Management, and lessons from Presentation Zen, that was studied in Designing the Customer Experience. These resources have greatly affected the quality and effectiveness of the message I have presented. As an undergraduate engineering student, and an engineer, I often only focused on finding the answer to a given problem for myself (or for a class grade). Rarely did my answer need to be explained. One of the biggest lessons I learned from the MEM program was that there may be several answers to a given problem, because of the tradeoffs to fixing the problem that go beyond just the engineering analysis. The customer experience, profit margins, and intellectual property rights are three aspects which also need to be considered when making a recommendation. Being able to recognize the other, non-engineering, constraints that affect the resolution to a problem has enhanced my ability to create and communicate problem resolutions to all the different stakeholders. The “Analysis of Alternatives” section of the report outline in Project Management is the epitome of this ability to think about, understand, and make decisions based on the tradeoffs of different solutions. Communicating and convincing people that the chosen solution is the best solution is a difficult task, especially if they are biased towards another answer. In order to overcome this problem, I have utilized what I learned from Designing the Customer Experience to create presentations that thoroughly explore the tradeoffs between solutions. These presentations have been used with little modification all the way up the chain of the command of both companies. The Marketing Director of Product Management at Trimble even asked in the middle of a meeting who did my great slide designs, so I loaned him Presentation Zen.

Intellectual Property Law

While still working as a senior software engineer, I accepted a stretch assignment as the free and open source software (FOSS) representative. The role was a great way to combine my software engineering background, with the coursework from the Intellectual Property Law course, and required me to work with people from different functions throughout the company. I often found myself involved in detailed discussions of intellectual property law with engineers and project managers who had never considered the subject. It also helped me to understand the importance of ensuring that a company does not find itself in a litigious situation due to improper use of open source software packages. Overall, my efforts helped two projects deliver their systems on time, and elevated me to a position of intellectual property law authority inside of Autonomous Systems. I also saved the corporation money by performing the initial data gathering and assessment of open source licenses, saving expensive lawyer billed hours. I recently interviewed for a similar full time position at Trimble, Open Source Software Architect, but turned it down because it would have taken me away from working on vehicles on a regular basis.

I have also used lessons learned from Intellectual Property Law while trying to get my own startup company, inSightful Robotics Corp., off the ground. From using Non-Disclosure Agreements when sharing information with potential collaborators, to making sure to mark documents and emails as “Proprietary,” IP law has been a huge concern for the young company. However, the most comprehensive use of the material in Intellectual Property Law took place when I filed a provisional patent. Based on what we learned in the class, and with Dr. Boyd guiding me during my Independent Study in Entrepreneurship, I searched existing patents that may prevent my filing, drafted the initial description, diagrams, claims, etc., and took my draft to a respected law firm to finalize it. Even though they only had to make a few minor changes to the provisional patent filing, they still charged me the full law firm price. When the time came this year to file a full patent based on the provisional patent, I used what I learned in Commercializing Technology Innovations, and the fact that a recent court decision failed to uphold a similar patent for a competitor, to decline to spend the resources to file, on the grounds that it would not have been defensible. Having IP law knowledge saved inSightful Robotics Corp. time and money.


Flying back to Colorado, I’m in a good mood, despite my sore head, neck, and wrist. The data we have collected is exactly what we need to explain the tradeoffs in solving the problem we traveled to Arizona to test. The MEM degree is exactly what I needed to perform well in this role. Skills learned in the program will help me convince all the stakeholders of the best solution, the solution that best meets the customer’s needs and situation. Just in time to fly on to the next challenge.

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I don’t usually recommend business books unless I am specifically asked to because a person’s reaction to such books is strongly influenced by our individual preferences and experiences.  But in this case I will ignore my general rule and highly recommend the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg.  This is a book about women and leadership with many insights on gender differences in the workplace. As such, it is important for all of us who strive to understand how to work more effectively with our colleagues; male and female.  And I would argue this book is also about gaining a better understanding of the business environment irrespective of gender issues; including how to navigate that environment to enhance your career.  This is because there are many exceptional lessons in this book about career development and advancing in business.  Sheryl provides excellent advice about climbing the corporate ladder (or corporate jungle gym as she aptly describes it) without any judgment about those who choose not to or have other priorities.

Lean In provides excellent advice on general differences between the way men and women approach business situations.  For men managing or working with women, this advice is invaluable.  Some of the stories recounted in the book are hard to imagine in today’s society and yet they occur all too frequently.  Of course, with respect to gender differences, we cannot say that every woman or every man has the same perspective on a given business situation.  Nonetheless, throughout the book, men will learn to reconsider their perspective on the decisions and actions of women they work with as well as the unintentional biases they themselves have.  

I found myself relating very directly to some of the ways Sheryl indicates that women approach many of these situations.  Many of these situations will resonate with both genders and provide advice to be followed by male and female alike.  Such areas include: i) crying in a business meeting (it is not as bad as we think to show genuine emotions – Howard Schultz’ speech when he returned to Starbucks is a good example), ii) take a seat at the table (many of us literally do not sit at the conference room table during meetings and miss opportunities to maximize our impact on the meeting and the organization), iii) first impressions with new colleagues are critical (asking for something, even if it is reasonable, may not get the relationship off to the best start), iv) frequently ask for feedback (few people like to give you negative feedback but if you ask, they usually will and you will be better off), v) no one below you in the hierarchy of the organization wants to tell you when you are wrong (you need to constantly and diligently work on developing a culture that encourages your employees to tell you when you are wrong!), vi) you sometimes need to negotiate even if you are worried it will damage a relationship (this was specific advice for woman but I also approach negotiations the way the book recommends and feel it has worked well in most cases).

In summary, I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to expand their understanding of what women face in business, how women tend to react to many business situations and, for men and women, how do you develop your own career.  Men in leadership positions have numerous opportunities to help resolve the gender gap in business.  This book will help these leaders find and address such opportunities.  Of course, I do not agree with every perspective in the book and in many cases a balance between one approach and another must be achieved which is sometimes missing from the anecdote, perhaps for the sake of clarity.  In addition, addressing common traits for an entire gender, male or female, has its limitations.  Nonetheless, this book is a must read.  Men and women, leaders and followers; will enhance their careers by considering the career advice in Lead In.  Do yourself a favor and take the time to read (or as I did, listen to) this book.

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Our previous post was the first part of a very insightful piece by Duke MEM alumnus Charelle Lewis.  It was very well-received so I am particularly happy to post Part B.  For Charelle’s bio and Part A of her Career Development Insights please see the previous post on this blog and enjoy her additional insights below.


Career Development Insights – What I Would Tell Myself at 22 (Part B)
by Charelle Lewis

Be Mindful of Your Reputation

This seems obvious, but you would be surprised by the number of people who commit reputation suicide. Keep your “Digital Image” clean, this means Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In. While you might not agree with it, employers ARE monitoring their employees’ activities on social networking sites. Remember, once something is out in the digital universe, it’s almost impossible to get it back. Play it safe, don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.

Learn how to be a Team Player. . . You need to follow before you can lead.

Know Where You Stand

Career Development is YOUR responsibility. Take the time to create a Development Plan and make sure you keep it current. Constantly ask for feedback (real feedback, not the fluff that is often exchanged).  Tell your manager about your career goals and get their advice on next steps.

Whenever you are given advice, remember to “Keep the meat, and spit out the bones”.  Translation: Not all advice is good advice. Respectfully listen to the advice, but only act on the things that make sense given your situation and desired outcomes.

Keep a file of your job history, rewards & accomplishments.  Job applications are much easier when you have all your personal information in one place and you can copy and paste to tailor the application as needed. Also, keep your resume up-to-date. Updating your resume is a lot less painful if you have a 6 month cadence around it.

Learn The Art of Bragging

Learn how to humbly publicize your accomplishments.  “Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horne w/o Blowing It” is a great book on this topic. Once you learn how to brag, find Advocates/Mentors who will do the same.  The REAL difference between an employee making $40K and one making $400K is perceived value.  If you are not perceived as valuable, you won’t last long. Share stakeholder feedback about your performance (especially unsolicited feedback) w/ your manager (and their manager) to confirm your strengths.

You’re Not Supposed to Know it All                                                            

You Don’t Have to be an Expert, but Learn Who the Experts Are. Surround Yourself with “Smart People”. Like the President, build a strong Cabinet of knowledgeable individuals who can advise you on every aspect of your responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to borrow shamelessly (as long as you provide credit). Don’t reinvent the wheel; spend your time and effort on things that don’t already exist.

Last but Not Least…Know Where You Draw the Line

At some point in your career you will probably face a situation which causes you to question someone else’s actions and/or integrity. Make sure you take the time to get all the details and act according to your moral compass.  Document everything! By focusing on facts and data, you eliminate the confusion emotion often brings. Your integrity is one of your most important assets, once it takes a hit it is really hard to restore.

These key principles have helped me acclimate and excel in many different roles, but this of course is not the only recipe for success. As mentioned previously, “Keep the meat, and spit out the bones”.

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For those of you who are aspiring engineering managers AND music festival fans, this post might be particularly interesting. Hopefully it is of interest to everyone as it illustrates how we can find lessons on business and management everywhere we look.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a very popular festival in the Appalachian Mountains near the town of Floyd, VA. The Appalachians have a long history of music from Blue Grass to Folk to Country (e.g.; see http://www.crookedroadenterprises.com/) and for the past decade have hosted an outdoor music festival called FloydFest (https://www.facebook.com/FloydFestVA#!/FloydFestVA). Those of you who know me probably don’t picture me at an outdoor music festival with 14,000 of my closest friends but several things came together to make this a special opportunity, including; the artists, special interest from members of my family and the location. Thus, despite it being a bit out of character, I attended all three days of the festival (well, a couple of hours each day anyway). Headliner artists included Jackson Browne, Brandi Carlile and Michael Franti making it of interest to even those who are not hardcore music festival fans.

But more to the point, as I attended the festival I realized how many exceptional business and management lessons could be gained from observing the festival and studying its history. FloydFest is particularly interesting because it has grown from a small local venue to a national event with 14,000 attendees, seven different stages for musicians, and VIP tickets costing $600 per person (although I don’t know the exact number of VIP tickets sold, it appeared to be hundreds rather than dozens). Thus, I compiled the list below while sitting on the grass listening to music on a beautiful sunny day in the mountains. These are not new but the context is quite unique:

Develop a portfolio of products – The festival is truly innovative in its vision for the type of music that it provides. A portfolio of artists in at least two different dimensions was presented to the audience; (i) both early career artists and well established artists, and (ii) styles ranging from traditional country to reggae. It struck me that this is a wonderful portfolio but has the potential problem of being interesting to such a diverse audience that making a strong, focused value proposition might be difficult. However, the organizers understood their customers extremely well which brings me to the next point.

Understand and segment your customers – Despite the large diversity in types of music, all of the customers had one general and important trait in common. They wanted to listen to music and be outdoors. The attendees ranged from children to people in their 90’s. (I’m not making that up, one of the musicians brought a ninety-something year old onto the stage to celebrate their birthday). Thus, as long as the organizers delivered an outdoor experience with high quality music, diversifying the types of music offerings is beneficial; enhancing the experience and bringing in more customers. Of course, the organizers must be aware of any correlation between people who like the outdoors and what type of music those people enjoy. As far as I could tell, there were no classical music offerings at the festival.

Know what your customers value – This means know what your customers are willing to pay for! In reality, there were many things about the venue and the festival that were rather primitive and frustrating for those of us who were not regular festival attendees. From the food choices, to the restrooms, to the parking; there were logistics that limited the quality of these services throughout the weekend. On the other hand, the sunsets, beautiful blue sky, and even the downpour which occurred in the middle of the weekend were all unmatched. Couple this with the diversity/quality of artists and the personal feel of the venues and you have delivered great value to your customers. Even the VIP customers obviously feel that these “product specs” are more important than the logistical challenges compared to a nice concert hall with real restrooms!

Organic growth – there is certainly nothing wrong with growth by acquisition or growth by significant external investment. However, the benefits of organic growth are difficult to match in many situations. Organic growth, like the growth experienced by FloydFest from the time it was a one stage local outdoor gathering to the 14,000-person seven-stage extravaganza that currently exists, allowed for knowledge capture, flexible response to the market, and word of mouth advertising to the customer base. There are still no FloydFest signs on the road at the venue – everybody has already talked to someone about where to turn – now that is organic! And again, the organizers know what their customers value; high quality music in the beautiful outdoors (with a diversity of outdoor cultural activities for young and old alike thrown in).

Find synergies in your product lines – one of the most interesting observations about the musical sets was the obvious friendships and partnerships that existed between the artists from different locations and musical genre. Most artists I observed had another artist from the festival come onto the stage as a guest for a song or two at some point during their set. In many cases they described a long and storied friendship. This provides all kinds of benefits such as making the experience unique for the customer, ensuring that the artists themselves have a good experience, and optimizing the efficiency of the “product” by utilizing artists in multiple ways.

And last but not least…..

It’s all about the culture – Every organization has its own culture and what we saw at FloydFest was how that culture can impact customers. There is a “peace, love, joy” culture that has been cultivated from the early days of the festival and this has permeated the environment even as the venue has grown by an order of magnitude. This culture is passed down by word of mouth, PR and direct advertising. It manages the expectations of the customers as well as the performers. It probably encourages some would-be customers to screen themselves out of the event if they do not subscribe to a mellow, things may not be perfect but you will have a great time, environment: a little mud, some poor lighting, too many people in some lines, and some acts starting a bit late are all part of the experience and nothing to get upset about. After all, it’s about making music in the mountains. For the most part, the audience reaction was very consistent with the culture and a good time was had by all.

So the next time you are doing something unrelated to your business, see what lessons you can learn. Many so-called “breakthroughs” come from importing ideas across industries and product areas. It has been said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” (William Gibson). You might learn about the future of your business by some “outside of the box” observations of the others.

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A thorn in every manager’s side is the very smart employee who is just not self-motivated, at least not with any consistency.  When they are engaged, they are spectacular and provide brilliance that is not matched by any other employee but when they are not engaged, watch out. They go AWOL, they promise to deliver what you need but don’t make any progress at all by the due date, they are so absent at times you are not sure if they still work for you.  But then, suddenly, they deliver the breakthrough that you needed.  ARGHHH!  You can’t live with them but you can’t live without them (or at least you worry you can’t).  You love them and you hate them. How do you manage such an employee, or if this sounds like you, how do you manage yourself?  After managing employees for more than 25 years, it has only been in the last year or two that I really understood the importance of this problem and the lesson it provides for managing all types of employees.

First, as such an employee’s manager, you probably need to accept that you are not going to fundamentally change this person.  You can minimize the damage they do (maybe) and try to optimize their value but fundamental change is a different story.  The good news is that they might still be very valuable to your organization.  Furthermore, managing this type of employee is just an extreme example of managing any employee.  That is, you need to find out what motivates them and provide as much of that as possible.  In this extreme case, many times what motivates them is the intrinsic project.  Are they excited about the activities and if they are, you get brilliance; if not, you get nothing.  Don’t get me wrong, this is not easy.  You usually cannot simply ask the employee what motivates them or what they need to be more productive because they don’t really know.  And if they do, many times they are not comfortable telling you.  This is one of the reasons that MBWA is so important – it allows you to get to know your employees and observe, to some extent, what is happening (MBWA = Management by Walking Around).  Perhaps in today’s virtual world where teams are located at far reaches of the globe, it is a combination of MBFA and MBCA (Management by Flying Around and Management by Calling Around).  For those of us early in our management career and who are action-oriented and have a “just do it” mentality, taking the time to do this MBWA can be disconcerting.  We feel that we are not really doing anything.  But if you consider that one of your primary jobs is getting the best from your employees, this may in fact be the most important thing you have to do.  The bottom line is, get to know your employees so you can provide the environment, incentives and activities that motivate them since, although it may sound a bit cliché, everyone is different.

One of the classic mistakes I see young engineering managers make is not understanding how different people really are. They have a tendency to assume that everyone is pretty similar and thus what makes them happy will make their employees happy.  In reality, I have had people working for me who were so incredibly sensitive to feedback that it was best for me to provide a gentle nudge in a particular direction or mention in passing what I might do in their situation rather than make a specific request.  They still beat themselves up that they had not already thought of what I suggested and apologize! On the other hand, I have had employees who would not “get it” despite numerous very direct conversations (at least from my perspective) until I had written them up in a formal reprimand – they simply did not feel they could ever be wrong and did not understand they needed to do what I requested as their manager.  Similarly for the work environment.  Some employees thrive in a bustling, communal, interactive, multitasked environment whereas others require a relatively quiet, uninterrupted atmosphere to do their best work.  And it is your job as manager to know which is which and give them what they need to be most productive, at least to the extent possible.

So this begs the question – “When do I give the employee what they need to be most productive and when do I decide enough is enough?”  Well, first of all, don’t think of it as giving them something extra or a perq simply because they are motivated differently than you are or need a different working environment than you do.  Don’t make it personal even though it is likely to be more effort for you than if they were just like you.  Value diversity.  As the saying goes, if they always agreed with you then one of you is redundant.  So you decide if it is “worth it” just like for other decisions you make – is the net value to the organization positive.  If it takes too much of your time, disrupts other employees or in some other way costs the organization to accommodate the employee, then at some point, it is not worth it and you need to encourage (or require) that the employee finds an organization that is a better fit.  But the collective value of motivating and accommodating different types of employees is quite a powerful force so don’t be too hasty with that decision.  If they are valuable to the organization, try to accommodate their needs and work style and you will gain a loyal employee while benefiting your organization.  I have seen this work time and time again.

So what about the flip side of this discussion?  What if you find yourself at odds with the motivation style and environment of your organization.  If your boss gives hugs and warm wishes whereas you need a threat and kick in the tail to get going.  If you need to be left alone to do your best work but your organization has pep rallies and joint morning calisthenics.  Well, in the extreme (like these examples) it is probably time for you to find an organization which is a better fit.  But if you just need some reasonable accommodations rather than a wholesale change in the organizations culture, it is worth a try even if it is not easy.  If you build trust with your boss, gain credibility with early wins and are clear about you can deliver for the organization, the chances are you will find common ground.  If you can show the value you provide and you can be clear about what helps you deliver that value, most managers will work with you.  But to do this, you need to understand what your manager values and what she needs to do her job too.  If what you need makes it fundamentally harder for her to do her job, then forget it.  Her time is probably stretched much too thin already and you still need to be considering how to make it easier for her, not more difficult.  For example, if you work best with uninterrupted effort so you only want to check email once a day but your boss is must prepare data for her manager every two hours that requires your input, you have a problem. All of this requires significant self-awareness on your part.  If you are a high performer you probably have this awareness and you will adapt to your environment as-needed while still asking for what helps you perform at your best.  If you have an overinflated opinion of your value, which it turns out many underperformers do, it is going to be difficult.  You are not self-aware enough to know you are not self-aware.  There may be a couple of future posts for these topics –  (i) Don’t be Shy but Don’t Whine and (ii) Being Self-Aware Enough to Know You Are Not Self-Aware Enough.

To sum up the current Post, be sure you internalize the significant differences between each of your employees with respect to how they are motivated and the environment that allows them to optimize their performance.  When it comes to obtaining the best from your employees, there is really no substitute for understanding them as individuals.

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I have had the pleasure of teaching Innovation Management this semester to our Master of Engineering Management students at Duke; both distance and residential.  The student engagement in the material has been great, making it a lot of fun, including some great analyses of how companies manage innovation (or don’t in some cases!).  For the current post, I asked students to provide their opinions on the top 10 innovation management concepts (an extra credit assignment for the class).  I then choose some of them to share here with a little editing in some cases.  I hope you enjoy them – I did.

1.     Recognize Innovation vs. Invention

This is important because for every great idea that turned into Crocs or Snuggies or Facebook, there are hundreds and thousands that remain just that – great ideas.  The book “Managing Innovation” puts it succinctly, to paraphrase, innovation is invention plus.  It is invention plus implementation, invention plus value extraction, invention plus extra steps.  The invention portion of innovation, whether completely original or incremental, is just the first step in the innovation process.  (Colin R.)

2.     Build a Culture of Innovation

Innovation is not created by a single individual, but rather by a concerted collective effort of the entire organization. 3M and Google are considered temples for innovation as they cultivate their employees to innovate and have set up a framework that supports integration of innovation across the organization.  The company must become an ‘innovation factory’ where employees are challenged to drive a constant but focused flow of ideas through the factory. The company must support innovation at all levels and should be organizationally structured to support innovation, for example, flat organization structures or innovation cells. (Sreecharan C.)  and

“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have…it’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it” by Steve Jobs in an interview with Fortune Magazine.  Innovation is increasingly about teamwork and the creative combination of different disciplines and perspectives. (Haoze Z.)

3.     Cultivate Champions

I think the concept of “champions” plays a very big role in a company’s innovation management process regardless of the innovation being sustaining, incremental or disruptive.   Companies need these creative, passionate, risk-seekers to sustain their innovative environment.  Champions can sometimes stick to their ideas irrationally and advocate them without justification, but the value they bring to the innovation process outweighs this problem.  The Stage-Gate process should be utilized to help manage and harness the value of Champions. (Duygu S.)

4.     Fail Early (and Often)

Start with lots of ideas, but have a process that carefully selects and develops the right ones, and gradually reduces risk as projects proceed.  Utilize a “funnel” selection approach by continuing projects that pass pre-determined criteria and dumping those that don’t. Using a stage-gate process ensures that resources are not wasted on projects that cannot meet company targets and guarantees that the right activities are undertaken at the right time. (Doug M.)

5.     Build a Portfolio

In innovation, as in investment, we should seek balance. A matrix-based innovation portfolio is an excellent tool to visualize and understand a company’s range of projects. The use of portfolio management allows a company to spread risks while taking on projects of varying potential reward. (Doug M.)

6.     Practice Open Innovation

Open innovation is a relatively new concept, but due to the many benefits it provides it is currently becoming more popular among innovative companies.  Companies go beyond their boundaries and open up their innovation processes to partners, vendors, customers and sometimes even the general public.  They are no longer limited by their internal workforce.  Previously, every company was responsible for “inventing its own future”, but open innovation can enable industry, academia, government and the public to collaborate and contribute to the innovation process.   (Duygu S.)

7.     Engage in Customer development

Customer development is as important as product development. Steve Blank’s four steps in customer development include —“customer discovery”, “customer validation”, “customer creation” and “business building”. Each should be implemented according to the target industry and company strategy.  Although developed for start-up companies, this concept is equally valuable for large organizations. (Shibo F.)

8.     Sharing is Caring.

If only your company knew what it knows!  Knowledge management is more essential than ever as we deal with increasingly complex projects. How does your company make knowledge sharing easy? Does your company utilize social networks, wikis, blogs, instant messengers, and other communication tools? If not, you’re missing out on opportunities to forever capture and pool knowledge that may otherwise be lost.  (Doug M.)

9.     Enlist Diverse Talents and Backgrounds

Along with experience, in order to have a successful working group, there must be people in the innovation management process who have diverse talents and come from different backgrounds.  This creates a team with different points of view in order to foster a climate of creative friction.  More ideas – in number, subject, and quality – will be generated, which will lead to stronger innovations. (Colin R.)

10.     Ten Concepts Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Let’s face it; this assignment is not very realistic!  There are so many facets to innovation that defining the top ten is not really possible.  Disruptive Innovation, Blue Ocean Strategy, incentives to motivate employees, core rigidities, life cycle concepts and the S curve, technology forecasting, etc., etc. all have an important place in innovation management.  Nonetheless, these important concepts summarized by future innovators for our society is a great start and a fresh view of an important topic.  (Jeff G.)

Footnote:  Special acknowledgement and thanks to the text we used in the course which discusses many of these concepts: “Managing Innovation: Integrating Technological, Market and Organizational Change,” by Joe Tidd and John Bessant.

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I recently relocated to San Francisco for a 6 month sabbatical and it has been a very interesting, even enlightening, experience.  The cliché’s about San Francisco aside (the spectacular food, the great parks, the fog rolling in, the cold summers, the hills….all absolutely true), a move is quite interesting in that it makes you relearn things that you could previously do without thinking.  When you move from a small place like Durham to a big place like San Francisco this is doubly true.  And during this relearning process I have been reminded of how problematic indecision can be.  Let me explain.

When you move to a new city and you need to do simple things like get to the grocery store, find a gym, get your dry cleaning done, etc. it is very easy to let the unknown dictate your actions.  That is, you keep waiting for a “just right” circumstance to emerge rather than simply trying something.  I have seen this dozens of time in research labs that I have managed and in all types of new project teams too.  There are other ways to think about this; the most common being that it is a “too much thinking and not enough doing” mentality.  You are frozen in time because there is no clear path and this ambiguity causes you to have a delayed action.  When you finally start just trying things, you find it is not nearly as difficult as you expected but you spent so much time worrying about it that you are behind anyway.  Also, there is a “time value of time” that makes this much worse than the direct or immediate impact (i.e., a waste of time is like a snowball and builds on itself because you become behind in all of the things that were dependent on the first decision; the one that you did not make in a timely manner!).

So as Nike coined, “just do it”!  In fact, Nike coined this catchy manifestation but the concept has been around for longer than any of us – experiment, experiment, experiment.  Learning by doing.  Perhaps we could say “just try it”.  In the area of innovation, 3M was a pioneer in the concept of just trying it, without expecting perfection (and remember, perfection is the enemy of completion).  You expect to stumble when you are always moving forward.  If you are not stumbling a bit, then you must not be moving enough!

So how does this relate to your career?   Too often I have seen employees in new projects or new jobs take the safe “sit at my desk and wait for directives” approach and then when a directive comes, there approach is “think about the directive until I have what appears to be the perfect solution.”  Unfortunately, your colleague is out trying three different solutions while you are thinking about one and they are learning three times as much as you are during this same period.  And they have chosen the solutions with intelligent, educated guesses (even though they did not have all theinformation that wanted) so they make more progress at the same time!

Of course there is judgment and balance in this as well as a heavy dose of corporate culture.  The cliché “You don’t have time to do it right but you always have time to do it over” is the opposite extreme of acting without enough thinking.  You need to be self-aware to know if you are an over-doer or an over-thinker but in my experience, most of us lean too much towards the overthinking, indecisive side of things; especially early in our career and in a new job.  There is a generic curve I like to think of that can be called the Quality of the Solution vs. Time to Obtain the Solution and it is not even close to linear! (Quality of Solution vs Time to Solution Graph) It starts with a steep linear sloop but then tapers off quickly and then slowly approaches perfection but never gets there. You want to work in the knee of this curve and recognize when indecision or a desire for perfection is taking you into the long plateau.

So in summary, keep a close eye on yourself and your new employees to ensure that indecision, a lack of a clear path forward, a discomfort of the unknown, a fear of failure, etc. is not creating an unnecessary delay in action. Just try something!  If you don’t, the decision to be indecisive can cause a tremendous inefficiency and will likely cause you to miss some opportunities for you and your organization.

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We generally talk about micromanagement as a bad thing but I want to challenge that premise. I think great managers need to be great micromanagers too. There are simply too many situations where micromanagement is the best approach and if you are inept at it, you damage your credibility and achievements as a manager. The critical issue is “when” to micromanage. A great manager needs to manage each situation and each person differently to bring the best out of their people. There is no “one size fits all” in management. Unfortunately, if you are micromanaging a part of your team, then you are spending time away from other productive activities and thus you are not optimizing your own efficiency. As always, management involves balancing competing effects and trade-offs. The trade-offs related to micromanagement include:

i) getting the job done quickly if you micromanage vs. providing your people with the opportunities to learn and develop new skills

ii) short term benefit if you micromanage vs. long term value if you develop your people

iii) minimizing risk if you micromanage vs. letting your people learn from some mistakes

I have heard managers say; I like managing as long as my direct reports are self-motivated and have good judgment. No kidding! That is clearly the fun time to manage – maybe you would just call it coaching then because the employees are actually managing themselves, as you would hope. This happens in the best teams too and is one reason why self-directed teams are so valuable and why the number of middle management layers have been decreased in recent years. But as a manager, you need to hold your people accountable and manage people out of the organization who can not or will not perform the jobs needed. Micromanagement is generally part of that process. So when is micromanagement a reasonable, even the best, approach to managing:

•  The early stage employee: If someone is new to your team and you need to train them in various issues, both content and process related, the chances are that you need to spend more hands on time with them. You probably need to “look over their shoulder” to insure their tasks are getting done effectively and on time. In most organizations, we no longer have the luxury of letting someone flounder as they learn the ropes. Rather we need them to hit the ground running as quickly as possible and that means a bit of micromanagement.

•  The problem employee: Even if you start out with a hands-off approach, holding employees accountable but letting them choose how to do their jobs, there will be some who cannot meet your expectations. Rather than just continuing to tell them WHAT to do and the goals they need to reach, you may need to roll up your sleeves and actually help them with HOW to reach these goals. That is, tell them more specifically the actions they need to take; i.e., micromanage them. And if they continue to miss the targets, the level of detail you provide is likely to increase to the point where you are micromanaging them until they either get it or get out.

• During a crisis: If you are in a leadership position, the chances are you got there because of a skill set that involves judgment and decision making in addition to some content area. If there is a crisis, you do not want any delay between you and the actions that need to be taken or decisions that need to be made. Your style probably needs to be more directive and you tend to micromanage to achieve the best result.

• The high risk endeavor: Even if you are not in a crisis, some activities are simply so sensitive and can lead to such a loss if done incorrectly that you need to insert yourself into the situation more than you or your employees would ideally like. An activity or decision where the stakes are high naturally lead to more involvement of higher levels of the organization. Sometimes that involvement may need to be micromanagement when the potential loss is high and you, as the manager, have expertise or experience that can provide value to the activity.

In summary, as an effective manager, you need to change your style depending on the situation. Be thoughtful as you go into every situation and as you manage each person on your team. Think about how much time you need to spend with them and how much guidance you need to provide. Some employees you may just check in with once a month and see if they need anything. Others you may need to meet with several times a week and provide detailed guidance to them. The chances are you can significantly improve overall performance of your organization if you do this and sprinkle in a bit of micromanagement at appropriate times and in the right situations.

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Is there a difference – heck yea! There is a difference in both how you communicate to others (i.e., how you tell your employees they are responsible for a problem that has occurred or for a future issue) and in how you think about them for yourself. So what is the difference between blame and responsibility?

•  responsibility is empowering, blame is discouraging
•  responsibility looks forward, blame looks backward, and most importantly,
•  responsibility acknowledges that external factors may mean success is simply not possible whereas blame implies that if you had done something differently, it would have succeeded.

To expand a bit on this last point, I cannot stress enough how managing an organization or a group within an organization is too complex to assume that good people are always successful. Even if you assign responsibility for a failed result, it is different than assigning blame. The external environment changes too quickly and in too many ways for anyone to always be assured of success. Ask the best managers you know about the failures they have been involved in – it is highly unlikely they will be able to say “I have not had any”. Good people, doing the right things, the right way can still end up with a failed result. Again, the environment changes too quickly and in too many unforeseen ways to ensure success all the time. This why I like the business phrase:

“Never confuse process with outcome”

Reward good process, even if it leads to a failure or your people will never take risks, including calculated risks with great potential. Likewise, a good outcome can come more from luck than good process so beware of getting too excited about a lucky win.

Even world class leaders of businesses have failures. Most of these folks have been spectacular throughout their careers to get to the pinnacle of these companies (Fortune 500 CEO’s have essentially competed with thousands of people during their career to get to their positions!). Examples of brilliant managers who have “failed” include: Bob Nardelli from Home Depot, Hank McKinnell from Pfizer, Carly Fiorina from Hewlett-Packard and Richard Grasso from the New York Stock Exchange. All of these managers were extolled for their accomplishments before their very visible and public failures. And what about those we still think of us as extremely successful. Steve Jobs dropped out of college, was fired from the company he started and went through a significant period of failed strategies at NExT before it found a profitable niche.
My wife tells me this distinction between blame and responsibility is particularly important for women leaders. Women tend to take the blame for things more readily than men. I have heard this from coaches who have led both male and female sports teams too. When something goes wrong, men tend to point to their team mates as the problem whereas women tend to apologize for their own actions. Of course, it is not possible to characterize gender differences except in a very general “on average” way but this still may be of some use as a manager.
The bottom line: As a manager and leader, readily take and assign responsibility, not blame.

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There was a very interesting article in HBR (Jan-Feb 2011 issue) titled “The End of the Middle Manager” by Lynda Gratton.   It notes that traditional middle manager roles are being automated such that technology is “replacing” the middle manager.  Roles and skills based exclusively on monitoring, providing feedback, and generally keeping things running smoothly are increasingly being taken over by technology coupled with self-managed teams.  So what’s a middle manager to do?  Develop what the author calls “signature” competencies that are rare and valuable.  In addition, develop new areas of proficiency or adjacencies throughout your career.  Right on!

This is consistent with Engineering Management education for engineers and with the advising we have provided to numerous students in our program.  One of the concepts we are constantly pushing with MEM students is that you are engineers expanding your education into engineering management.  So take advantage of the engineering skills you worked so hard to build.  Combine your engineering background with the newly acquired business, management and leadership training to become an expert in a unique combination of skills that can not be duplicated without your unique background.  This requires embracing your engineering training while understanding how a particular organization will value that background without pigeon-holing you into a technical niche that you are not passionate about.  This may take some time.  For example, I often hear students say “I do not want to be a programmer” and thus they avoid any company that hires into a programming role, even if the company is a great organization to work for and has all the right opportunities, products and processes of interest to them.  Bad move!  Getting into an organization that has this kind of potential and developing an expertise or signature competency while you rely on your core engineering skills is exactly the opportunity you should be looking for.  So starting as a programmer with the company while proving yourself and finding the right areas of focus for your expanded “engineering plus business” expertise is a good approach.  Microsoft is an example of this but I have heard the same story from alumni in many companies:  “I started out as a hands on engineer [a.k.a.: programmer, lab assistant, quality control technician, etc.] but within a year, my team leader was asked to move to a new area and the company asked me to coordinate the project because of the broader skills I had developed with the help of my engineering management education.”

I strongly recommend that you find the engineering and business areas you are passionate about and put them together.  Become an expert in something that the organization values.  Of course, you will still work your way up in the management hierarchy but you will do this with the added benefit, security, clout, etc. of also having an expertise.  For example, assume you are a biomedical engineer and have an interest in medical devices.  Perhaps you should become an expert in the medical device development process, including FDA approvals.  This requires a heck of a lot more than just engineering skills and is very transportable to different companies.  Or perhaps you have studied wireless communications as your technical area.  Learn the adjacency related to the licensing of wireless bandwidth, maybe focusing on developing countries.  This probably requires understanding some policy, some law and, of course, some technology.  You have just increased everything from your job security to your salary potential.

The HBR article goes on to mention that the areas which will be highly prized in the decade ahead include: the life and health sciences, energy conservation, advocacy, social and micro entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and coaching.  These resonate with me too but there are also hundreds, even thousands, of other areas in which companies will need expertise.  The key is to pick something you love and something you are good at; then work like heck to become an expert.  Add your management and leadership skills on top of this expertise and you can’t lose.

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