March 2013

Innovation and the creative engineer

Innovation is the act of turning creative ideas into successful products and services, says James Lamb of Lamb Industries

Innovation Innovation Innovation. We hear that word a lot but what does it actually mean?
Let’s start with creativity. If creativity is the ability to generate ideas that fulfil the unmet needs of the consumer, then innovation is the act of turning these ideas into successful products or services.

Creativity? That’s dangerous isn’t it?
It’s easy to think of creative people as eccentric, loners, dependant on inspiration, impossible to manage and undisciplined. The creative engineer is none of these things. Designers and creative engineers are process thinkers — they know when to be divergent and when to focus. The key to having great ideas is open mindedness, an understanding of human behaviour and a willingness to ignore what has gone before.

Successful implementation comes down to tenacity, the ability to communicate with diverse teams and having the confidence to learn from experts.

Embrace uncertainty. There is no such thing as failure.
To truly innovate we have to take risks. A safe approach is to take incremental steps, building on what is known and inch towards a solution. However, sometimes it is better to take a leap into the unknown — to frame the ultimate solution, the best possible outcome for the end user — and then work back to what is possible. The latter technique usually results in a far more innovative outcome than the safe approach.

The creative engineer is tolerant of ambiguity and willing to move forward, keeping an eye on the big picture not obsessed with detail – that can come later.

If an idea does not work it is not a ‘failure’. Thomas Edison is credited with saying ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways it won’t work’.

If it was easy the competitors would have done it. Creative thinking means finding many ways to solve a problem, to always be ready with another idea.

That’s great but where do these ideas come from?
Innovative ideas come from many places. It could be a ‘technology-push’ – a new technology looking for a profitable application — or from observing frustrations with current solutions – a ‘consumer pull’. New behaviours and cultural shifts require new products and services. Ultimately, we need to find ways of solving problems that exist or even that people do not know they have.

Lateral thinking is essential in making novel connections between human needs and engineering. Very often the answers are there but not where everybody else is looking.

Ideas are cheap, they are the germ of an innovation conversion. We need to test them and move on, keep them for another project, try them again when the world has caught up, borrow them and share them. The creative engineer will have tools and techniques for generating new ideas and fresh approaches.

Innovation requires a clear vision
In the end innovation requires the vision to see an opportunity. Innovation requires the vision to use knowledge and fresh thinking to bring about a solution.

Vision will sustain the team through the many false starts and unsuccessful ideas along the way.

James Lamb was one of the very first design engineers at Dyson, starting with the company when it was still based in the legendary garden shed in 1992. He runs Lamb Industries, an industrial design consultancy and is the Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Innovation at Brunel University.

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