What makes a design engineer innovative? After all, most colleges do not have course in innovation. Instead, colleges teach engineers how to solve problems. The engineer’s mind-set has a tendency to use the appropriate formula or equation to solve a particular problem. That doesn’t sound very innovative, so what can an engineer do to become innovative? The answer goes beyond a design engineer’s traditional thinking.

The December 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review provides answers to innovation success. The article, “The Innovator’s DNA,” authored by Jeffrey H. Dyer, of Brigham Young University; Hal Gregersen, of Insead; and Clayton M. Christensen, of Harvard Business School, revealed how innovative people have succeeded.

In searching for answers, the authors undertook a six-year study to uncover the origins of creative—and often disruptive—business strategies in particularly innovative companies. Their goal was to put innovative entrepreneurs under the microscope, examining when and how they came up with the ideas on which their businesses were built. They especially wanted to examine how they differ from other executives and entrepreneurs. Someone who buys a McDonald’s franchise may be an entrepreneur, but building an Amazon requires different skills altogether. They studied the habits of 25 innovative entrepreneurs and surveyed more than 3,000 executives and 500 individuals who had started innovative companies or invented new products.

The authors were looking for answers to how innovative people come up with groundbreaking new ideas. The article points out that “if it were possible to discover the inner workings of the masters’ minds, what could the rest of us learn about how innovation really happens?” The authors explained that someone can become more innovative by employing five “discovery skills” that distinguish the most creative people:

  • Associating helps them discover new directions by making connections among seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas.
  • Questioning allows innovators to break out of the status quo and consider new ideas.
  • Observing allows innovators to carefully and consistently look out for small behavioral details—in the activities of customers, suppliers, and other companies—to gain insights about new ways of doing things.
  • Experimenting identifies new ways to perform specific tasks.
  • Networking with diverse individuals from an array of backgrounds allows them to gain radically different perspectives.

The article points out that “associating,” or the ability to successfully connect seemingly unrelated questions, problems, or ideas from different fields, is central to the innovator’s DNA. To grasp how associating works, it is important to understand how the brain operates. The brain doesn’t store information like a dictionary, where you can find the word “theater” under the letter “T.” Instead, it associates the word “theater” with any number of experiences from our lives. Some of these are logical (“West End” or “intermission”), while others may be less obvious (perhaps “anxiety,” from a botched performance in high school). The more diverse our experience and knowledge, the more connections the brain can make. Fresh inputs trigger new associations; for some, these lead to novel ideas. As Steve Jobs frequently observed, “Creativity is connecting things.”

The article notes that Peter Drucker described the power of provocative questions. “The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question,” he wrote. Innovators constantly ask questions that challenge common wisdom or “question the unquestionable.”

Most of the innovative entrepreneurs they interviewed could remember the specific questions they were asking at the time they had the inspiration for a new venture:

“Michael Dell, for instance, told us that his idea for founding Dell Computer sprang from his asking why a computer cost five times as much as the sum of its parts.‘I would take computers apart…and would observe that $600 worth of parts sold for $3,000.’ In chewing over the question, he hit on his revolutionary business model.”

To question effectively, innovative entrepreneurs ask:

  • Why?
  • Why not?
  • What if?

Observing allows innovators to carefully, intentionally, and consistently look out for small behavioral details—in the activities of customers, suppliers, and other companies—in order to gain insights about new ways of doing things. Observers try all sorts of techniques to see the world in a different light.

Experimenting brings up a vision of great inventors like Thomas Edison. Innovative engineers actively try out new ideas by creating prototypes and launching pilots. (As Edison said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve simply found 10,000 ways that do not work.”) The world is their laboratory. Unlike observers, who intensely watch the world, experimenters construct interactive experiences and try to provoke unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge.

Devoting time and energy to finding and testing ideas through a network of diverse individuals gives innovators a radically different perspective. Innovative engineers go out of their way to meet people with different kinds of ideas and perspectives to extend their own knowledge domains. To this end, they make a conscious effort to visit other countries and meet people from other walks of life.

Why do innovators question, observe, experiment, and network more than typical engineers? The authors discovered two common themes:

  • They actively desire to change the status quo
  • They regularly take risks to make that change happen

The article points out that “embracing a mission for change makes it much easier to take risks and make mistakes. For most of the innovative entrepreneurs we studied, mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, they are expected as a cost of doing business. ’If the people running Amazon.com don’t make some significant mistakes,’ explained Jeff Bezos of Amazon, ‘then we won’t be doing a good job for our shareholders because we won’t be swinging for the fences.’ In short, innovators rely on their ‘courage to innovate’—an active bias against the status quo and an unflinching willingness to take risks—to transform ideas into powerful impact.”

Aiding Innovation

Today, engineers have many computer-aided design tools at their disposal to aid the innovation process. Tony Glockler, president of SolidProfessor, San Diego, says his company provides instructions on how CAD tools can benefit innovative engineers:

  • Robust assessments allow them to quickly identify knowledge gaps and create appropriate learning paths.
  • Quick search capabilities provide instant answers so that they can stay focused on designing groundbreaking products.
  • Intuitive reports allow them to measure their progress and knowledge retention.

Among the CAD courses SolidProfessor provides are:

  • Autodesk Autocad
  • Autodesk Revit
  • Autodesk Navisworks
  • Autodesk Civil 3D
  • Autodesk Inventor
  • SolidWorks
  • SketchUp
  • CAMWorks
  • MasterCAM

Glockler says they have a guided skills development platform that uses concept-based tutorials and concise tools to help engineers confidently and efficiently create innovative designs. Targeted update guides ensure that engineers will always be at the forefront of their software’s capabilities.