Manage Major Changes with Incremental Innovation

12 Nov, 2019 By: Robert Green

In CAD management, the only thing that doesn’t change … is that things change! When coping with radical changes in software, hardware, or workflows, choose an approach that minimizes risk and cost.

Two things have always been true in CAD management. The first is that change is a constant: We CAD managers are always being confronted with major changes, such as new software, new hardware, and new workflows for storing data. And the second truth is that we must find innovative ways to get through all those changes; we are expected to figure out how our companies will absorb the new tools and processes to become more efficient while still getting work done.

Here, I’ll explain why the best way to deal with change is to innovate incrementally — not radically — and I’ll provide strategies to assist you along the way. Here goes.

Radical = Costly and Unpredictable

When we hear about “innovation,” the implied meaning is usually “big changes brought on by radical new tools or technologies.” This version of innovation gets all the attention, yet radical change is rarely something a CAD manager should implement. Radical changes, such as moving to entirely new tools, generate downstream effects that most companies don’t tolerate well — and no CAD manager can accomplish that kind of change on his or her own anyway. Consider these complications of radical changes:

  • Big costs. Radical changes in tools cost lots of money, which requires extensive upper management research and support.
  • Extensive workflow changes. Radical changes in tools cause changes in workflows, which require lots of training and staff adaptation.
  • Unforeseen disruptions. Radical changes in workflows always lead to unknown problems that have to be fixed. These problems delay project execution and drive up costs. Even worse, the magnitude of the delays and costs can’t be known until you’re knee-deep in them.

The conclusion is obvious to me: CAD managers will never be able to drive radical innovation on their own, because it requires total support and big investment from senior management. Want to know why it has taken decades for 3D and building information modeling (BIM) to displace 2D work methods? Because the change to the organization is radical.

What CAD managers can execute is a more modest process I like to call incremental innovation, which allows for smaller changes to workflows that keep risks and costs under control. Let’s investigate.


Incremental = Affordable and Doable

If I consider how I can innovate to make my company’s CAD environment work better, I realize that I must operate within the core constraints of my job responsibilities. Those being:

  • Keep the tools running
  • Keep the users efficient
  • Keep projects on track
  • Keep labor costs down.

So my question now becomes, Which new tools, techniques, training topics, and workflows that I have the authority to implement can help me meet these objectives? And as my previous articles on CAD manager authority have pointed out, you can only innovate when you have the authority to do so. Otherwise you’ll be stuck waiting for managerial approval.

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

Your Incremental Innovation Game Plan

Here’s my three-step process to mapping out a workable innovation plan that you can actually put into action in the near term:

  1. List your problems. What problems vex your users, your projects, and your customers? Knowing what your problems are tells you what to work on and where your incremental innovation should be focused.
  2. Propose solutions that simplify and save time. How can you solve those problems? What types of workflows, new software tools, training topics, and process changes can you put in place to make your problems go away? Don’t be afraid to propose new ideas that save time, because that’s what innovation should be about in the first place.
  3. Prioritize easy, low-cost solutions. 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 faster you do so, 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 list, proposing and prioritizing the 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 — before you go to the boss. Share your vision and evangelize for improvement. The goal is to have users say, “That will save me a ton of time!”

There’s no one right way to sell your innovation plan; there are many. And since you’re essentially marketing your ideas at this point, it makes sense to deliver your message using every method and opportunity you have. Here are a few ideas:

  • E-mail blasts. This is an easy and cheap approach. Just keep your message short so people will read it!
  • Training meetings. Are you doing a lunch-and-learn on a specific topic? Why not drop a few innovation ideas at the same time and get people talking about them?
  • Project kickoffs and standards. When a new project kicks off, you have the perfect chance to put new work methods in place for the duration of the project. Float your new innovations at the start of a job, and you’ll have a much better chance of them becoming standard.
  • Management conversations. If you bump into your boss at the coffee pot, why not mention your innovation plan — or at least a few of your ideas? If you can capture management’s attention, they may embrace the concept.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Most great innovations happen over the course of time, and depend on equal measures of evangelism, training, and communication. It is rare that organizations change radically all at once, so it stands to reason that your innovation plan must be a never-ending quest. But how can you best manage that quest?

Consider the following plan:

  • Focus on a problem that needs fixing
  • Propose an effective, incremental, cost-saving solution
  • Sell the solution to users via evangelism
  • Help users adopt the solution
  • Show management the savings you generated
  • Now repeat the cycle … forever!

Much like a continual improvement cycle in a factory, incremental innovation tends to keep improving workflows little by little — pushing the existing CAD technology to a state of optimal production. But as a CAD manager, you also have the latitude to change more than workflows (think software tools), as long as the cost can be justified by the savings.

Of course, at some point a radical innovation (such as CAD replacing drafting tables or BIM replacing CAD) will reach a tipping point and totally change the CAD landscape, which will create an entirely new set of problems. But after the shock of these radical changes subsides, we’ll be right back to incremental innovation again. So it seems that we’ll always be innovating and searching for the optimal way to perform our work.

Summing Up

I hope you’ve found these principles of managing innovation helpful, and that you feel invigorated to make changes in your workflows that create efficiency for your users. I’ve always believed that the core value of a CAD manager is to look beyond the current state of affairs to provide innovative solutions that solve problems. By using the process of incremental innovation over the long haul, I think you’ll find you will achieve more, struggle less, and win the respect of your users and management alike. Until next time.


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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