Creating a climate for innovation

David Leatherbarrow
DAVID LEATHERBARROW believes that true innovation is not something that can be cultivated but needs freedom to grow.The Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers and its president for 2006/07, David Hughes, have always probably had a common agenda — the development of engineers and the fostering of innovation. My involvement in the building-services industry has been in the supply of products, systems and components since leaving the University of Manchester in 1971 — almost 35 years ago. It has never been what you would call a boring or mundane industry to be a part of. It has been exciting, rewarding and frequently challenging. Reward Ignoring the fact that we all work in any industry to pay the bills, there is also a greater level of reward in the building-services industry than most — due to the high level of engineering creativity and innovation necessary. We have in the UK several factors that when combined make our industry a world leader. • The most sophisticated clients in the world, with demanding services requirements. • High architectural standards and world-renowned originality. • A genuine concern for the environment. • Building Regulations with rigorous policing of standards. • A large existing building stock. • rapid changes in technology. • Construction cost objectives. Continuous innovation Responding to all these factors means that we all need to think creatively when coming together so as to solve clients’ problems effectively. This requires continuous innovation from designers, manufacturers and installers. What is the essence of innovation? How do you get it? How do you nurture it? Ultimately, how do you exploit it? The key for me has been the collision of two things — a problem and a creative engineering resource. In my case as a manufacturer, it is useless to design a widget that does not solve a problem for someone. There is also no benefit in solving yesterday’s problems. Everyone talks about being market driven, customer led or problem solving. In real-world terms, this means understanding the needs of clients as much as you understand your own competencies. Relate to your clients’ problems not your own preferences. Get to the real issues and anticipate future needs by gaining this greater level of understanding. All this sounds like a course in meditation from the 1960s. Tool Engineering knowledge is a tool not an end result. From the creative use of this resource comes innovation. However, I always find it difficult to understand the meaning of ‘structured innovation’, and I do not believe that such a thing is possible. You can have an environment or an attitude that allows innovation but innovation is not like a stick of rhubarb that can be put under a bucket and force grown. Innovation is something that needs freedom to flourish, not a rigid structure. However, in some cases it does need secrecy, a hands-off approach by management, and most essential of all, a trust in people. Take for example the SR-71 Blackbird developed by the Kelly Johnson ‘Skunk Works’. [It was a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft capable of flying at speeds over Mach 3.2 and at 26 000 m. It entered service in 1966] The development team saw a future problem, thought they could solve it — but wanted to avoid interference from ‘idea killers’. Working in secret and for a significant part in their own time, the developers were doing their paid job and their secret project in parallel. For those who remember their A-Level physics, the behaviour of innovation follows the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Interpreted in this context, this principle says that the minute you apply detailed scrutiny, you get something other than innovation. Measurement influences unduly the output. I am definitely back in the 1960s again with free love and freedom and strange smelling smoke. People I suppose that period does have something to do with my attitude and my belief that the people in the process are more important to its success than anything else. You have to allow other people the same freedom of expression as you would wish for yourself, and you have to trust them to use their freedom wisely. My experience is that most people actually understand their limitations and are risk averse. This usually means that the challenge is to get them to accept the responsibility of greater freedom. That brings me to my key point, which is that we need to attract the brightest minds and support original thinking — both financially and mentally. This country has a long history of engineering innovation. However, I see two things happening in our industry. The first is the lack of success in attracting the brightest and best to join our industry as professional engineers. The second is the lack of foresight in supporting original thinking. We should be actively seeking the engineering entrepreneurs of the future and giving them the freedom and resources necessary to create future solutions. Positive face I personally feel that we are all failing to publicise the reward and satisfaction that is available from the innovative use of engineering knowledge in the building-services industry. I strongly believe that we should promote this positive face of our industry at all times, particularly when speaking to potential future engineers or when confronted by the cynics of this world who only wish to punish people for aiming high and occasionally falling slightly short. Not every idea can be, or needs to be, a winner; learning from failure is fundamental. Fear of failure is the biggest full stop in the process. This country is no longer the workshop of the world, but it can undoubtedly still be the building-services engineering centre for the world. David Leatherbarrow is managing director of Trox UK. This article is based on his presentation at the inauguration of David Hughes as president of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers for 2006/07.
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