Career Path,The Engineering Management of Innovation

If there is one buzzword in the discourse in management and technology alike, it is innovation. For starters, just glance over the recent titles of HBR articles or those published in the MIT Technology Review, two of the most definitive outlets on the subject. Notwithstanding the use, overuse, and even abuse of the word, there remains limited clarity on the semantics, let alone its usage.

Innovation is often confused with creativity. While there exist an untraceable link between creativity and innovation, they are not the same.

Creativity is the ability of an individual or a team to generate ‘novel and useful ideas,’ whereas, innovation is the ability of a firm to ‘commercialize novel concepts.’

Do note the imperative of commercialization, or execution, in the realm of innovation, whereas creativity has no such obligation. That’s what makes very few organizations stand atop the list of world’s most innovative companies.

Having clarified the distinction between creativity and innovation, now it is time to identify the roles played by engineers and managers in innovation. This is a very pertinent question to India, where a large proportion of engineers end by doing a management education, or at least, being in supervisory or managerial roles.

With innovation being an imperative for the nation, and with its working population well-tuned with a robust number and a reasonably good quality of engineers and managers, the role identification merits a brief.

In a classic sense, managers define problems, whereas engineers solve problems.

The problem happens mostly when managers, without defining the real problem, jumps into solving it, whereas engineers mostly remain elusive of the big picture. The importance of defining a problem comes from the realization that mostly we confuse symptoms with a problem.

For instance, what is attrition– a problem or a symptom? I reckon attrition is a symptom. People leave because of bad bosses, poor work environment, fewer job-related aspiration. Now if one were to address the so-called problem of attrition, it’s important to get into the root cause, and then think of solutions. That’s what managers are meant to do.

Innovation starts with a problem or an opportunity, and ends with a commercial concept. The journey of innovation, let alone the technological content, necessitates the managers and engineers to work together. Managers set the big picture, and then double up as engineers to chisel out the components of the architecture.

Similarly, the engineers need to acquaint themselves with the big picture, or the ‘true north’, else it would be a good solution waiting for an elegant problem.

There are a few programs in management education clubbing management and engineering, in structure and content, and that’s where, I believe, lies the maximum likelihood of innovation. This is needed for your career success.

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Dr. PavanSoni

Pavan Soni is an Innovation Evangelist by profession and a teacher by passion. He is a Gold Medalist from MBM Engineering College Jodhpur, and did his PGDIE from NITIE Mumbai. Pavan has completed his Doctoral Studies from IIM Bangalore in the domain of innovation management.