Inspired by the launch of our Big Ideas Take Shape video, I’ve recently found myself contemplating the meaning of innovation. The question I keep coming back to is “Why do we need to innovate?” One answer certainly is aspiration – the desire to progress from where we are today and build something better for tomorrow. But as CTO of a technology innovator like Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, I also have to take a real-world stance. Innovation is a key driver of market success for us and for our customers – many of whom use our technologies to develop and bring to market their own innovations.
When you look at the most financially successful technology companies of our age, every one of them has a track record for innovation. Now, we’re not talking about incremental improvements of existing ideas here. Whether it was a smartphone, an electric car or even an online service or app, the big players built their success on a real groundbreaking concept – something that challenged the norm or transformed the way we live and work. These are disruptive technologies, the game changers. These are the things that drive value.
As one Bloomberg business blogger observed in 2013, innovation has become a genuine commodity, and the process of turning concepts into reality is critical to success. So what can organisations do to improve their ability to deliver big innovations?
The engineer in me knows very well the feeling of pride when you see something you drew on a blank sheet of paper come to life and make a difference in the world. But as a manager, I also see how much time, money and sheer hard work go into bringing an innovation to market successfully. To bridge the gap from idea to reality, you need a really robust process. And, mundane as it sounds, this really is how creativity and practicality combine in the perfect storm to create those disruptive technologies.
In the six years since I joined Hexagon, innovation processes have been a huge focus. We wanted to design a strong stage gate system that guarantees the visibility we need to control our current projects, but ensures that we retain the room for creativity that is essential to success. Planning an innovation is the most exciting thing. Input comes from so many different sources. On the market side, we listen to our customers of course, but also look at the expertise of industry experts, business analysts, university researchers and other consultants. Internally, we form cross-functional teams including engineers, operations people, software developers and marketers – everyone should have the opportunity to bring ideas to the table at this point. I know some companies like to kick off projects in different environments, perhaps treating people to some time out of the office to help them maximise their productivity in this crucial phase.
Doesn’t sound much like a strict method so far, right? But where the process comes in is helping you to group ideas and find natural synergies between them. We tend to present and discuss ideas and make a first selection during a feasibility workshop. The top few ideas are then investigated further before making a final decision. Ultimately, the process is there to enable you to choose the correct idea to develop into a business plan and hopefully follow through to a successful launch. I’m really pleased to say we’ve brought some outstanding products to market in the last few years – the Leica Absolute Tracker AT960 immediately springs to mind as a true innovation that redefined the standard in the laser tracker market. But even as we work through a project, we know that we have to continually review our processes to keep improving.
I guess the main thing about innovation is that there are no shortcuts. Bringing a product to market can be a lengthy process. But with a solid process, you can increase your chances of success. The benchmark is customer response. If customers decide to buy our products, we are doing something right.
Bringing big ideas that transform the world to life – that’s shaping smart change.