Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

Happy 2015! My New Year’s resolution is to write more posts for this Blog by trying to write some short, simple observations for our MEM community. We’ll see how that goes. Now on to my current blog; I am already having trouble with the “shorter” part…..

For those of us old enough to remember the heyday of the former AT&T Bell Laboratories research machine, we think fondly of those days when a major laboratory could pursue paradigm-shifting inventions with no real knowledge of whether they would ever be profitable endeavors. The former AT&T Bell labs can take credit for such inventions as the transistor, cell phone technology, solar cells, the laser, communications satellites, digital switching, the fax machine and the list goes on. Bell Labs is responsible for some 33,000 patents and employed 12 Nobel Laureates with 7 Nobel Prizes going to Bell Labs inventions. Yet employment is now down from 30,000 at its peak to around 1,000 – ouch! (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_36/b4145036681619.htm). Clearly AT&T Bell Labs did not benefit commercially to the same extent they were successful scientifically (http://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkanellos/2012/06/27/was-bell-labs-overrated/). So a key issue with all of these great inventions was that the company didn’t make sufficient money on them. It took decades for the inventions to make money and when they did, often it was from products that were not commercialized by AT&T. Over the years Bell Labs went through many transitions from splitting to being absorbed to being downsized but the overarching theme was “do more applied work that has shorter-term and more obvious market potential.” This trend has continued with many corporate research labs following suit, even when they weren’t as blue-sky oriented as Bell Labs. The same has even happened to university research although not to the extent that it has for industry. And I would argue that this has been beneficial for universities – they have also become more applied to fill the gap left by this industry transition but are now the primary long term research outlet. They have been able to work more closely with industry over the years and to be utilized as a key long term research arm for many companies and for government agencies (the “6.1” money).

So how does this relate to Google X? As I was driving along today on the highway watching a car in front of me drifting from side to side, not able to stay within the white lines (a texting driver perhaps?), I thought about the Google X driverless car (after backing far away from the drifting car!). It seems that this is another blue sky project decades away from any commercial value. Is it an old Bell Labs-like project? I went on to Google’s web site and found several more of these (space elevators, teleportation, hover boards and even a mosquito zapping laser to fight malaria! See: http://www.fastcompany.com/3028156/united-states-of-innovation/the-google-x-factor). Thus, is Google X the next Bell Labs and is that a good thing? Are they making up for the lack of blue sky research that went away when places like Bell Labs changed their culture? And perhaps more importantly, have they been able to do this without being part of a government lab or a regulated industry, like the old AT&T Bell Labs? I think the resounding answer to all these questions is YES!

So the point of all this is that we seem to have moved into an era of blue sky research that is built on the financial success of technology innovations and the associated billionaires (think Gates, Schmidt, Ellison, Bezos, Page, Dell). The billionaires of the world and their successful ventures are now putting money back into all kinds of crazy (in a good way) projects and basic research because they can! They have the financial strength. The ideas are born out of a deep knowledge of commercial success coupled with a passion for science and technology. These blue sky projects might be different than the old Bell Labs type and perhaps that means we need university science more than ever to build a pipeline of new research, but in any case, they are incredibly interesting and should excite any geek! What geek would not want to use lasers to zap a disease carrying insect? And for the basic science, these billionaires are teaming up with the universities (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/science/billionaires-with-big-ideas-are-privatizing-american-science.html?_r=0). It is a new, exciting era. Invention and the ensuing innovation pipeline are alive and well.

Footnote: I began to wonder if this AT&T Bell Labs-Google X comparison had already been written about and sure enough, see: http://www.wnyc.org/story/inside-google-x-bell-labs-today/!

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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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We are very fortunate to have a guest blogger today, Brandon Sights, a graduate of Duke’s Master of Engineering Management program (the distributed version – http://memp.pratt.duke.edu/distance). While having dinner with Brandon recently in Denver, he started recounting all the ways he had used his MEM degree and I could not resist asking him to write them down to share in this post! The anecdotes are very insightful and provide excellent teachings for all early career engineering professionals, not just those who have an MEM degree. There is a lot to cover so today I will post Part A and next time we will finish off with Part B. Thanks Brandon!

How I have used my MEM Degree (Part A) by Brandon Sights


I’m sitting in the cab of a tractor in the 113 degree heat of the Arizona desert, trying to figure out what just happened. A few minutes ago, my head was slammed against the pillar and my wrist was bent impossibly backwards trying to keep myself from being thrown from the cab. A few days ago, I had voluntarily slammed my own head against a table in the Chicago-Midway airport when I heard that the problem we are working on now in Arizona was going all the way to Italy, to the chairman of the conglomerate that owns our largest customer. The head of our division was flying to Italy as I was flying back to my home base Colorado. That was how I found myself today at the proving grounds of our largest customer, reeling from both physical and mental pain in a tractor nicknamed “Sweaty Betty,” because the air conditioner struggles to fight the heat outside.

A little over a year ago, I had joined Trimble Navigation as a software and control systems engineer in the precision agriculture division. Now, I am leading the effort to meet the needs of our largest auto-guidance customer. I negotiated my move to Trimble Navigation during the final residency week and graduation from the Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program at Duke. Since then I’ve tackled numerous problems, often traveling to places I’d never heard of before, and immediately being thrown into sink-or-swim situations directly in front of a customer. The last year feels like a blur. Luckily, I have been able to utilize skills learned in the MEM program to plan ahead (to plan is everything), to think on my feet (but a plan is useless), to communicate effectively with different types of stakeholders, to maintain the focus on customer needs, and to appreciate that I’ve found work that suits me.


One of the most important skills that I learned in the MEM program was discussed during the very first day of the first residency: Self-Reflection. This was also a major theme of Dr. Ryan’s Management in High Tech Industries course. It wasn’t that I completely lacked this skill before joining the MEM program; I simply didn’t put much weight into my own opinion. Luckily, many of the activities and workshops in the MEM program, such as the Strengths Finder 2.0, Myers Brigg, and team feedback exercises, such as those in Project Management, helped me to understand myself better. In the end, I placed a heavier emphasis on evaluating my choices and actions, and combined that evaluation with the new things I learned about myself to make changes in my career. The largest change I made was moving to Trimble Navigation just after graduation from the MEM program. This change was largely influenced by new insights into what made me tick that I recognized while taking Management in High Tech Industries. For example, I realized that I had two major components of my personality that were not being met before moving to Trimble: Achiever and Responsibility. The job at Trimble promised me the freedom to produce as much as I wanted, whereas my previous job was very stringent on the number of hours that a person could work in a day without violating federal contract law. Also, in my previous positions it seemed nearly impossible that I would soon find myself in a true ownership situation for something that really mattered to the company. Plus, the organization and communication structure were very hierarchical, not a great place for someone with a “just git-er-done” attitude.

In direct contrast, I can now work as hard as I want to achieve a given goal, and my efforts will be appreciated. I have directly responded to emails from the Vice President of Innovation with suggestions and even corrections to his documents, based on topics covered in Innovation Management, such as creating an effective innovation pipeline, and received responses from him encouraging more input and personal interaction. Further, I have quickly found myself responsible for making our largest customer in the Precision Agriculture division happy with one of our most important products. This is another area where I have used self-reflection to improve.

When I first started at Trimble, the auto guidance partnership with our largest customer was quite abrasive, with the rapport between the participants lacking. When I was tasked with leading the weekly auto guidance status meetings from the Trimble side, I originally continued the practice of treating the meeting as a conflict instead of a collaboration. Upon reflection, I realized that this attitude was only harming progress, and so I made an effort to change not only the tone of the meetings, but the whole collaboration, into an open discussion with the focus being a joint effort to make progress and solve problems. I put together a list for the director in charge of collaboration between the two companies of the common reasons why joint efforts between companies have poor results and also made recommendations as to how we could improve the effectiveness of the collaboration, all based on the curriculum in Innovation Management. Communication and effectiveness improved immediately. The Director of Quality at Trimble, who sits in on most of the weekly status meetings between the companies, commented to me that the meetings were the only ones that felt like a team working to resolve issues together. Clearly, self-reflection has made a big difference in my happiness and effectiveness at work.

[In the next installment Brandon will share his thoughts on Communication and Intellectual Property. Stay tuned for Part B next week.]

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The renowned author Malcolm Gladwell has a book titled “What the Dog Saw” which is a compilation of his New Yorker Magazine articles. One of these articles (Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information, The New Yorker, January 8, 2007) intrigues me with how it applies to engineering management. In this piece he describes, based on Gregory Treverton’s work, Puzzles vs. Mysteries. He applies these terms to various situations such as analyzing information on the location of a terrorist or the collapse of Enron. A puzzle has a specific solution that we are trying to “find”. With more data or the right data, one can solve a puzzle. A mystery on the other hand is unsolvable. We can only make educated guesses as to what is behind a mystery. For example, the future cannot be definitively determined no matter how much data we gather. Our predictions may become better with more data but it is still a probabilistic issue whereas a puzzle, with enough data, can be definitively solved.

From an engineering perspective I would say Gladwell’s argument is similar to saying that a puzzle is deterministic whereas a mystery is stochastic.

The search for an individual is a puzzle. They exist in a specific location but you do not know where that is. The more data you collect about the individual (think Osama Bin Laden or a fugitive) the closer you are to determining their location. The data collected electronically attempts to narrow down their whereabouts to a particular region, making the search much more tractable. This vastly limits the data needed and the search can move into a different type of data collection; direct surveillance for example.

Gladwell argues that Enron may have been more of a mystery than a puzzle but we have treated it like a puzzle. That is, Enron’s activities had many open-ended and uncertain outcomes. The leadership did not attempt to hide information that would have solved a puzzle for the investors and thereby would have uncovered a house of cards. There is no doubt that the leadership pushed boundaries but it seems they were not illegally hiding information that would help solve the Enron puzzle. Rather, perhaps the financial situation was so complex that it was a mystery – the outcome was uncertain regardless of how much information was available. Predicting the future of Enron would have been probabilistic, even if you had all the information that came out in the trials.

Regardless of what you feel about Enron or the words “Puzzle” vs. “Mystery”, there are some learnings for us here in the context of engineering management. As managers or as educators, our goal is to take the mindset of the early career engineer and move it from a classroom orientation to a leadership and customer orientation. Doing this includes moving:

– from closed-ended problems to open-ended problems
– from solving problems to defining problems
– from gathering more data to working with imperfect data
– from technical solutions to customer solutions

I think this is similar to moving from a puzzle mindset to a mystery mindset. This is exactly what is needed as we move from a classroom problem-solving orientation to a real-world leadership and customer orientation. People are complex and messy. There’s no deterministic solution to most problems that require or involve employees. Even customers are known to misunderstand what they need. I think it’s fair to say we are moving from a deterministic to a stochastic mindset as we become more adept at working with people and real world engineering issues. Perhaps the trick is to do that while simultaneously treating the people as real, important, feeling individuals; not a set of probabilities. That is called empathy and is a major part of leadership. But that’s a discussion for another day.

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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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Self-awareness is critical in any organization. It has been determined to be a key attribute for great leadership. This is also true for “leading yourself” which is a critical step in becoming a leader of others. For example, when you are trying to maximize productivity it is important to understand how you work best. In particular for the theme of this post, how do you react to deadlines? Do they increase or decrease your productivity? I was reminded of this over the holidays when there are no real work-related deadlines. Is this good or bad for your work style? I noticed how I managed this and thought I would share it in this post.

So how do you react to deadlines? Some people lose focus and judgment when under excessive stress with a looming deadline and their productivity drops dramatically. They are less able to prioritize tasks and solve problems that arise. They need to constantly monitor deadlines to ensure that their tasks are done far in advance to manage their stress and maintain their productivity. I have worked with many excellent people who fall into this category. On the other hand, I have also seen many who ONLY work well when a deadline is upon them. They support the old cliché, “if it were not for the last minute, nothing would get done.” Admittedly, I fall into this category. I work best with a deadline. Fortunately, I have also always wanted to accomplish as much as possible, as quickly as possible. In fact, I really beat myself up if I procrastinate. These two traits are somewhat orthogonal. Thus, over the years it has been critical for me to develop strategies whereby I can accomplish as much as possible every day even when I do not have a significant looming deadline. It turns out this isn’t so hard. It requires a little self-deception or brainwashing but it is all for the good of your work and career! I simply give myself a series of deadlines every day. In fact, I work from one deadline to the next constantly. Usually I work best with at least two deadlines in the morning and two in the afternoon!

So what kinds of deadlines am I referring to? The deadline can be simple and even artificial: “I need to finish replying to all my emails by 10:00 a.m. when I have a conference call” or “my course syllabus needs to be completed before lunch” or “I am going to finish this report before I leave work.” The point is, deadlines that are somewhat artificial and fairly short-term still work extremely well at keeping me motivated. They work almost as well as a “real” external deadline. Meetings, phone calls, etc. can act as great time barriers for me to queue on; working hard to complete some other task before I am required to begin that next activity. Of course, when a report is due to your boss by a particular time then there is nothing artificial or simple about it. In that case, the trick is not to start on the report too early or too late. Too early and you will procrastinate or unnecessarily refine the report and too late will create too much stress or a low quality report.

Another interesting and important aspect of how you respond to deadlines is understanding how your colleagues respond. When people who respond in opposite ways to deadlines are on the same team, it can be problematic. Don’t misunderstand; it can be very good for the accomplishments of the team if managed well but if not, it can waste time and cause interpersonal conflict. The person who does not want to ever be caught near a deadline manages tasks and priorities well ahead of the deadline to ensure everything is done early. The other type of person is wondering why their teammate is wasting time when the deadline is days (or even hours!) away. They are not motivated to work on the project until the pressure begins to build as the deadline approaches. If the team mates know themselves and can articulate their needs, a work flow can be developed that takes advantage of both styles. Early efforts can ensure that no surprises catch the team at the last minute and efforts near the deadline can be used to polish and refine the work product so it is an A+ effort. Diversity is good.

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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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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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We are fortunate to have a guest post by MEM alumnus Somana Konganda who works for Amazon.com Inc.  He shares some important experiences and thoughts about intellectual property.  This is particularly important because MEM students many times do not realize how critical this part of their training is.

Post by Somana Konganda

Having after dinner drinks with some Dukies and Jeff in Seattle, we had the following discussion –

Me:  Jeff, I filed two patents with my company recently.

Jeff:  That is cool! What did you think about the experience?

Me:  It was far more exciting than I expected. I have to say, the core IP and Business Law Course I took during the MEMP came back to me!

Jeff:  That is great. Would you write about this? I know future students will want to hear about it

Me:  Alright! I would need some time though…..

So here I am writing about my experience and also trying to pull together anecdotal information that will be useful for those of you in similar situations.  I have also tried to include information on both how you file your patent individually or through your company.

Most of us innovate at our jobs quite often –in large and small ways. We might be working individually or in a team.  But either way, many times these innovations contribute to something much bigger than solving an immediate and specific problem. As Engineering Managers, it is very important to keep an eye out for such opportunities – that you or your teams are solving a problem much larger than what you originally expected. It is our responsibility to ensure that we capture the value of the innovation for our organizations by protecting it. In my experience, the MEMP core IP and Business Law course is designed to provide you with the knowledge and judgment you need to do this.

Protecting an innovation with patents has very high stakes. In the corporate world, a strong patent can equate to billions of dollars of revenue or loss, depending on which side of the patent you represent. I once met an entrepreneur who was forced to ramp-down his $300 million company because he lost a patent lawsuit related to his company’s core technology. It was particularly unfortunate because he was the first to bring the technology to market, but did not file a patent on it. The competitor copied and patented the technology and sued his company. The silver lining is that this guy is smart and he took this as a learning opportunity and is now successful in a different venture. Not all of us will have such a second chance.

As clear signs of how high the stakes are, in the recent past we have seen:

  • Google’s purchase of Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion driven by Google’s perceived need to establish a strong portfolio of patent rights in an attempt to ward-off patent attacks by competitors in the fiercely competitive and growing smart-phone market.
  • Microsoft, along with a consortium of other companies including Apple, Research In Motion and Sony, agreed to pay $4.5 billion to buy 6,000 patents from bankrupt Nortel Networks, thereby keeping them out of the hands of rivals, including Google.
  • Microsoft is seeking double-digit royalties from other Android makers. One report suggests Microsoft wants $15 per device from Samsung, though the company might take less per Android device if Samsung is willing to commit to a solid Windows Phone road map.
  • Or currently being unveiled, the love-hate relationship with the patent battles between Apple and Samsung

So where do you start?  First, you need to discover if your idea is patentable. The best way to do the initial research is to go through the US Patent and Trade Office’s site (www.uspto.gov). It can be time consuming depending on the type of invention. Next, find yourself a lawyer who deals with your type of invention. Typically in larger companies you will have internal lawyers to help with the process.

I started to research copyrights and patents and thought it would be easy. I proceeded to do my own search trying to see if there was anything like what I was thinking of out there already. This was important not only for my adventure in applying for a patent, but also to protect against infringement. I came up with nothing. By this point the thoughts were racing through my head about how neat this opportunity could be. Make no mistake though – just because nothing is found does not mean you will be granted a patent. Actually, it doesn’t even guarantee that the invention has not already been patented. Sounds like a crazy waste of effort, but you need to give your patent attorney as much information as possible about the most closely related inventions you can find.

After much reading and careful consideration, I decided to contact the lawyers for a patent search. So, why did I go to a lawyer? Courses in the MEM made me pretty savvy in technical writing so why not write the patent application myself? The application written by the attorney was completely different than the one I had drafted.  You can try it yourself, but if you make a mistake, a resubmission could potentially cost you a substantial delay, a loss of rights, or a lot more money than you would have spent had you gone to a patent attorney in the first place.  Even with an attorney, you will probably get involved in the patentability study and helping to determine what was “known prior art” related to your invention.  You should also be prepared to wait. It may take your lawyer a while to complete your application and there is a backlog in the USPTO so it may take quite a long time to get a ruling on your application. But if the invention is successful, it will be worth it.

Editorial Note:  To conclude, I would like to emphasize the importance of intellectual property.  The value of a firm today is all about the knowledge the firm has.  Understanding the basics about how to protect that knowledge is critical.  This is true for everyone; from those who are developing products to those who are conducting due diligence on a firm.  See https://jtglass.wordpress.com/2011/12/30/top-5-misperceptions-of-engineering-management-students/ for more info about why this is an important topic.

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Happy New Year! For my post this month, I want to discuss the top 5 misperceptions that I think our Engineering Management Students have when they first start in the program and even when they graduate and begin their careers. Engineering managers who are very early in their careers may also find this of interest as they probably have some of the same misperceptions. Interestingly, when I talk with alumni who have been out for a few years, these misperceptions have generally evaporated. This is one reason we struggle with parts of the MEM curriculum; our data shows that they are needed based on feedback from our Industrial Advisory Board and Alumni but as a student, it is hard to understand why (and I felt the same way when I was a student!). Thus, for some courses and activities, we simply need to say “trust us” – in five years you are likely to agree that it was a good idea to spend time on this while in the MEM Program. So here they are:

Misperception #1: I do not need a course in Intellectual Property and Business Law because I am going into [fill in the blank: banking, IT, architecture, etc.] – Every year students ask if they can be relieved from attending the core course involving Intellectual Property, Business Law and Entrepreneurship. The argument generally centers around the fact they will never need to understand patents or intellectual property because their career paths diverge from such mundane matters. Please reconsider! Think about it – the most durable competitive advantage that any company has in today’s global economy is their knowledge. You should be familiar with the common phrase that “We now work in a knowledge economy.” Intellectual Property is simply another way to say a firm’s knowledge! You are just as likely to need intellectual property and business law as you are to need marketing and finance fundamentals. It is part of the general understanding of what creates competitive advantage in businesses. To understand how firms create value it is critical for you to understand intellectual property, including but not limited to, patents. I mentioned, banking, IT and architecture above as examples because I have spoken with alumni in all three of those areas within the last year who have told me that they thought the Intellectual Property and Business Law course was going to be the least useful course they took and in reality, it turned out to be one of the most useful. It is probably clear how important this topic is if you are developing new products but consider the following. If you are a business analyst trying to evaluate the value of a firm, how will you determine the value of its processes and know-how without understanding what type of intellectual property it holds and how it has protected it? Or if you are a consultant trying to advise a company on how it should improve its position in the market or enhance its operations, doesn’t that require a basic knowledge about how to assess value of its true competitive advantage; i.e., its intellectual property? This may not be the most glamorous course you will take but it’s important; trust me!

Misperception #2: We do too much networking – I can empathize with students who feel this way because it does not necessarily come naturally and it is not like an engineering or science course where you learn a set of equations or concepts and then you do some assignments and get tested on them. On the other hand, too many people excel in their area of study or expertise but never really grasp the importance of the relationships that they will need throughout their careers. They feel; If I do a good job I will get noticed and just rewards will come to me naturally. I wish it were so. In reality, it is not even logical to think that is the way it works. What I mean is; why should we think that relationships take a back seat to competence? Trusting those you work with and believing they will do a good job in the future when you hire them for a particular job or ask them to join an important project can only be judged based on the relationship you have with them. On paper they may have all the skills in the world but if they can’t work with others on the team or if they alienate themselves from the rest of the organization, it does not generally matter how smart or competent they are in their field.

Misperception #3: The career center will get me a job when I graduate – If we could all have a job placement specialist follow us throughout our career and make sure we were doing the right things to find our next position, then it might be best to simply hire a placement officer in our career center and ask them to put you in a new job upon graduation. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately in many ways, you will likely change jobs every 3 to 5 years and even organizations in many cases, and there will not be someone there to hold our hand through those changes. We are all responsible for those changes ourselves so it is MUCH more effective for your long term career if we teach you the skills you need to manage your career and find your next position rather than spending our time just trying to place you in a job. The career center does great work and is more focused on specific job opportunities than many other programs I am aware of but it is the student’s responsibility to learn the skills, and make the significant effort, needed to find a job. It is an important life-long skill.

Misperception #4: I performed better than my team said I did so I should get a higher grade – Teamwork is hard. And companies continue to tell us that there is no such thing as too much team training. I was ready to dial back the team training a couple of years ago until our Industrial Advisory Board gave us a strong and unified argument (from their personal experiences with students) in favor of more, not less, team training. The thing students dislike the most is the team grading. Every year we hear, “I worked very hard and contributed a lot to the team so the score they gave me is not fair.” In reality, you probably need to develop your self-awareness and awareness of others (i.e., Emotional Intelligence). Your contributions probably were not of the quality you think they were. But actually that does not matter. The most valuable thing about your team grade is that it tells you how your team perceived your contribution. Thus, the team score is, more or less by definition, correct. It is how they perceived your contribution. If you make an exceptional individual contribution to the tasks you are assigned in a team at your company but simultaneously disenfranchise, distract, or otherwise derail the other members, do you expect to be rewarded? I hope not! From the perspective of the organization, your net contribution is negative in that case. Call it what you will (politics, subjectivity, favoritism), organizations are about people and people are about relationships and relationships are about feelings and emotions so you need to start paying attention to how you are perceived as much as about how you think you contributed.

Misperception #5: The MEM program spends too much time teaching me writing skills – I will keep this short because I have already written an entire post about it: https://jtglass.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/the-importance-of-the-written-word/. Writing skills are nearly as important as presentation skills. Quite often students think that we mean spelling and vocabulary when we say writing but we actually mean much more. Please see my previous post but in short, it is all about communicating effectively, which means that flow, conciseness, knowing the audience, etc. are all important parts of the quality of your writing. Even those of you who write constantly can improve through continued structured writing activities. It is like the layers in an onion. As you improve you can understand the more subtle points and develop a style that changes with your goal and your audience. In many situations, how you write will determine how you are perceived by your peers and your supervisors – make it an asset not a liability.

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