Are Engineers Really That Good For Innovation?
This is a slightly updated version of one of my first posts on this blog and when I published it in September 2009, it generated lots of comments as you can see below.
Innovation has definitely developed since then as open innovation and business model innovation keep gaining momentum so I wonder how relevant the question is today.
Are engineers really that good for innovation?
I asked myself this question because of comments on my The Faces Of Open Innovation post where I expressed some concern that most of the profiles working with open innovation had an engineering background.
In the blog post, I mentioned that engineers do add value to innovation, but we need to get a broader focus in the overall innovation process by giving room to other functions and competences as well. Innovation should be about much more than just technology and products for which many engineers have a tendency to over-focus on.
Two comments in particular caught my interest. The first one went like this:
“Why so surprised at the preponderance of engineers in the open innovation community? Good engineers are, by necessity, innovative. This is not so obvious with other professions. Engineers are prone to share, to seek out other engineers when they face a mental block.”
Wow! Are good engineers by necessity innovative? My response is whether you really can be innovative when the next sentence mentions this is not so obvious with other professions. This is borderline arrogance and to some extent hubris.
In today’s innovation environment, I believe you need a T-shape in which you bring strong depth to the table. Engineers often do this, but to me this is worthless unless you also have an understanding and empathy for how other business functions and competences work and add value to the products and services to be created.
You could also raise the question whether the limited thinking displayed in the comment is not exactly the reason that have caused so many products to be brought to market that were filled with all sorts of doodads and capabilities that the engineers thought were just fantastic, but that real consumers had no use for. I think it is fair to say that how this guy defines innovation is skewed toward the ability to solve technical challenges, which is only part of innovation.
The second comment went like this:
“The natural place for open innovation to start is in the technical function, in my view because it can be neatly defined and encapsulated without excessive risk.
What is actually being said here is that open innovation should be defined from an engineer’s perspective. Hmm, I would argue that we should define and embrace innovation from the customer’s and/or end-user’s perspective as they will end up paying for what we do. It is important we understand this and it is my experience that engineers as a profession often do not get this. Other professions and business functions better understand this making them just as important and valuable – if not more – in the innovation process.
Engineers, of course most of you are good for innovation. You should be proud of what you bring to the table, but you also need to wake up. The way we innovate is changing fast and engineers need to adapt to this just as everyone else. This is especially true as we open up our innovation processes to external partners rather than doing almost everything internally.
Perhaps you should try one simple approach next time you face a mental block; seek out non-engineers. This might broaden your horizon which I am sure will benefit all of us.
I look forward to your comments on this.