Practice Incremental Innovation

25 Jun, 2014 By: Robert Green

Try this three-step process and map out a workable innovation plan that you can implement now.

I've been thinking and reading a lot about innovation, and recently something struck me: Innovation has become the buzzword du jour in the software industry, much like paradigm shift and collaboration were in the past. Innovation is now bandied about so much that the word is starting to lose its meaning.

Yet as CAD managers, it is our job to implement new work processes, technology, and tools to achieve ever better results for our companies — and isn't that what innovation is truly about? In this edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I argue that a purposeful program of incremental innovation is one of the best things you can do for your company — and your career. Here goes.

Radical vs. Incremental Innovation

When we hear about innovation, the implication is that big changes brought on by radical new tools or technologies are at hand. This "radical innovation" concept gets all the attention, yet if you think about it, there's no way a CAD manager can make a radical change to company processes. That type of change — such as ditching 2D CAD in favor of building information modeling (BIM) — inevitably entails the following:

  • Big costs. Radical changes in tools cost a lot of money, and therefore require extensive upper management research and support.
  • Extensive workflow changes. Radical changes in tools also cause changes in workflows that necessitate training and staff adaptation.
  • Surprise disruptions. Radical changes in workflows always spawn problems that were unforeseen, but nonetheless must be fixed. These problems can delay project execution and drive up costs. Often the magnitude of the delays and costs can't be known until the change is well under way.

The conclusion is obvious to me: No CAD manager can drive radical innovation on his or her own. Radical innovation requires total support and big investment from senior management staff!

There is a more modest process, however, that CAD managers can execute on their own. It's called incremental innovation, and it allows for smaller changes to workflows that keep risk and costs under control. Let's investigate.

Defining Incremental Innovation

As a CAD manager, your management team expects you to accomplish the following key objectives:

  • Keep the tools running smoothly.
  • Keep the users working efficiently.
  • Keep projects on track.
  • Keep labor costs down.

So, my question for you now becomes, What new tools, techniques, training sessions, and workflows do you have the authority to implement that can help you meet these objectives? Please note my emphasis on what innovations you have the authority to implement — otherwise you'll be stuck waiting for managerial approval.

The answer to the questions I posed above will form the basis of your incremental innovation plan. The plan will use innovative solutions to known problems applied incrementally, as time permits.

Your Incremental Innovation Plan

Here's my three-step process to mapping out a workable innovation plan that you can quickly put into action:

List your problems. What problems vex your users, bog down your projects, or annoy your customers? Knowing what your problems are tells you what to work on and where to focus your incremental innovation.

Propose solutions. How can you solve those problems? What types of utilities, new tools, training sessions, and process changes can you put in place to eliminate them? Don't be afraid to think outside the box, because that's what innovation is all about.

Prioritize easy, low-cost options. It stands to reason that the cheaper and easier it is to implement your solutions, the faster you can get them in place and reap their benefits — and the sooner you'll start to look like a hero. I would also submit that truly innovative solutions make things easier and cheaper, not harder and more expensive!

You'll want to go back through the listing, proposing, and prioritizing steps several times so you don't miss anything. There's no substitute for doing your homework as you build your innovation plan, so take some time and really think it through.


Sell the Innovation

Now that you've got your innovation plan laid out, it is time to sell your ideas to your user community. Your job is to share your vision for improvement in a way that makes the CAD users around you say, "That's a great idea that'll save me time and effort!"

There's no one right way to sell your innovation plan; there are many. And, since you're essentially marketing your ideas, it pays to use a variety of messaging techniques to make your point. Here are several I use regularly:

  • E-mail blasts. This tried and true form of communication is easily circulated.
  • Training meetings. If you're already hosting a Lunch and Learn session on a specific topic, why not drop in a few innovation ideas to get people talking about them?
  • Project kickoffs. When a new project gets started, you've got a great opportunity to push your innovation ideas into practice. Make your innovation plan align with your project standards.
  • Management conversations. If you bump into your boss at the coffeepot, why not mention your innovation plan — or at least a few of your ideas? Maybe you could hold management's attention long enough for them to embrace the concept.

Repeat the Loop

One of the hallmarks of great incremental innovation is that it never stops — it's always evolving:

  • A problem requires a solution.
  • Incremental innovation solves the problem.
  • Users adopt innovation as you sell the benefits.
  • Solving one problem exposes the next problem.
  • The cycle now repeats.

Much like a continual improvement cycle, incremental innovation tends to keep improving workflows little by little — pushing the existing CAD technology to a state of optimal production. Of course, at some point a radical innovation (such as CAD replacing drafting tables or BIM replacing CAD) will totally reshape the landscape and force us to focus on an entirely new set of problems. But after the shock of the radical change subsides, we'll be right back to incremental innovation again. So, it seems that we'll always be innovating!

Summing Up

Plato supposedly said, "Necessity is the mother of invention." Perhaps he should have said, "Necessity is the mother of innovation." The need to solve problems leads us to discover new and innovative ways to use CAD technology — much more than marketing buzzwords.

As CAD managers it is our job to sort through technology, tools, and methods to arrive at the best processes so our users can be successful. By using a process of incremental innovation over the long haul I think you'll find you achieve more, struggle less, and will win the respect of your users and management alike. I hope you've found the steps I've outlined constructive in forming your incremental innovation plan. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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Re: Practice Incremental Innovation
by: jmaeding
June 25, 2014 - 12:19pm
Good points Robert. I would argue that you must innovate incrementally, just to avoid the problems caused by Autodesk's evolution of software. The management of acad's startup is an example of small change that can really help. I use the acaddoc.lsp to do it, there are other ways too. I would be curious to get numbers on how many places have the startup controlled, or just set up a profile and let the user hack away at any settings they want.
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