Answering the call to innovate


As technology developers, we often realize innovations through a combination of multiple factors, including market research, internal idea generation, and even by chance. We all know that developing an innovative solution can be a challenging endeavor. There is no formula to follow. However, when the call to innovate originates from a customer inquiry, developers should follow a few best practices that will stack the odds in favor of success.

Gather all the facts. First, obtain a clear picture of the customer's real needs ??? not just the stated needs. Do not simply respond to a request; ask in-depth questions to gain a full understanding of the inquiry, including market needs, application parameters, and customer challenges. Gaining comprehensive insight may reveal a more complete solution for the opportunity rather than one that simply fulfills the customer's initial request.

Get the right parties together. Assemble a collaborative, integrated team that will work to create the best possible solution for customer-centric development challenges. Whether a customer initiates a call to innovate with a sales contact or an engineer, technical groups on all sides need to team up and encourage engineer-to-engineer communication. Bringing people together who speak the same technical language encourages information sharing, brainstorming, and efficiency. It also helps everyone gain an in-depth understanding of the project.

Stay ahead of the curve. Proactively explore potential market opportunities and applications. Keep up with technology developments in areas like system designs, material compatibilities, and production processes. Engage in internal development efforts with emerging technologies and apply those technologies to meet application requirements. In doing so, you will be able to respond more quickly and effectively to customer needs.

Let innovation breed innovation. Consider how one innovative solution can spur development of another. Look at your current product portfolio. Determine if you can make a minor modification to an existing product to meet the customer's request. If not, consider using design principles from current products to create a new solution. By adapting existing solutions to new applications, developers expand opportunities to capitalize on their innovations. Best of all, the customer gets a proven solution ??? and often in record time.

Prototype early and often. Test and refine parts before moving too far down the product development path. Early prototypes let you test concepts and engage in continuous feasibility studies throughout a project to determine the potential for success or failure. As development proceeds, you can make adjustments without requiring major overhauls. Test parts that present high risks or big challenges first to determine if any barriers are insurmountable before investing heavily in time, energy, or dollars.

Know when to say 'when.' Be willing to recognize ??? and accept ??? that not every customer request will result in a desired outcome. The potential solution may not be technically or economically feasible. You may not be able to meet the request with existing resources. It's best to recognize that a project is not going to yield the desired outcome as soon as possible to minimize the expenditure of time and resources. Even if a project does not meet its initial goals, it can still be considered a success. The collaboration process strengthens customer-developer relationships, which can help facilitate future projects.

The next time the phone rings and your customer asks you to innovate, don't worry. Recognize that, while developing new solutions is not an exact science, following a disciplined process that references the above steps can help you respond successfully to customer inquiries.

Greg Shaw, PhD, is director, technology development for Swagelok Company, 31500 Aurora Road, Solon, OH 44139; email:

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