How to Make Your Company More Innovative

CEOs and researchers give advice on hiring decisions and fostering new ideas

20 July 2017

Tech companies must constantly anticipate the next big disruption to their industry. Several sessions during the How to face this challenge was a topic at several sessions at the IEEE Technology and Engineering Management Society Conference in June.

During his TEMSCON keynote address, IEEE Member Scott Fouse described the mind-set of tech companies bracing for the future: “We don’t know what the requirements are yet, but we have to anticipate technologies that are two generations away.” Fouse is vice president of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center, in Palo Alto, Calif.

Several other speakers at the conference, held in Santa Clara, Calif., said they faced the same dilemma. Here are suggestions they shared to help support innovation.

HIRE THE RIGHT PEOPLE

One recipe for disaster, especially among startups, is when an organization fails to hire people who share its vision and have the ability to move the company in the right direction. It’s important to hire and retain employees who take ownership and feel personally responsible for the business’ success, according to “Startup Incubators and the Role of Social Capital,” a TEMSCON session presented by Cesar Bandera. He’s a researcher at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark.

Who are the “right” people? According to Dick Levy, former CEO of Varian Medical Systems of Palo Alto, some of the most valuable employees are those with diverse experience who can communicate well with colleagues who have different backgrounds. Levy suggests having software engineers and service representatives who work directly with clients report to one manager so they can all work toward writing more user-friendly software. “Great things happen at the intersections of these different teams,” he says.

Julie Black, chief technology officer at Evidation Health, a medical data startup in San Mateo, Calif., agrees. “I look for people who are open-minded, curious, and hungry to find new solutions,” she says.

Levy also stresses that although it’s important to hire people who have work experience, organizations also should add people with skills in new areas, like big data, that might not have existed when the company was established.

Attracting talent seems to be no problem for startups, but founders often face another common pitfall: hiring their friends. “Don’t just hire people you already know,” advises Matt Price, managing director of Cyclotron Road, a renewable-energy startup in Berkeley, Calif. Instead, he suggests, look outside your network and hire people based on what they can bring to the table.

GIVE IDEAS A CHANCE

What drives people to do their best work? For a majority of workers, it’s not all about the paycheck. That’s according to “The Human Capital: Motivation in Innovation,” a paper presented by IEEE Student Member Anna Trunina. Research showed that when people are asked what inspires them to innovate, “sufficient wages” is fourth on the list. The top three answers all describe some form of opportunity: deciding how to allocate your time during the workday, applying your knowledge and experience, and feeling useful and necessary. Other nonfinancial benefits that increase workers’ satisfaction include educational opportunities, participation in company management, and the ability to spend time fully developing their ideas.

Although employees might have bright ideas, they could hesitate to share them in a group setting for fear of getting shot down by colleagues. That’s why it’s important to establish an environment in which everyone is willing to be open-minded—at least some of the time, Trunina said. One attendee suggested a “five-minute rule”: When someone presents a new idea, no one can say anything negative about it for at least five minutes.

Ideas might look great on paper, but what if a company doesn’t have the time to explore them? That is a problem for startups with small staffs that cannot handle additional projects.

Senior Member William Hurley suggests holding occasional 24-hour hackathons in which a team gets together to work on one person’s idea. Hurley is founder and CEO of Honest Dollar, a retirement planning service that was acquired last year by Wall Street investment firm Goldman Sachs. Hackathons are great for teambuilding, Hurley says, and a good indication of whether an idea is worth pursuing.

FAIL QUICKLY

When an employee is ready to try something new, it’s often best for bosses not to micromanage, according to Hurley. A manager himself, he’s familiar with both sides of the equation. “Every time someone has tried to control me while I’m trying to do something creative, it’s ended in failure,” he says.

But what if the idea doesn’t pan out? It’s important for people to fail quickly and move on, Hurley advises. He doesn’t care whether employees on his team make mistakes, he says, as long as they recognize it early, change course, and recover.

“If managers show they’re comfortable with failure, employees won’t be afraid to try things and fail,” he says. “Failure is part of innovation.”

Learn More