1660343448228 Bobniemiec4

Walking a mile in manufacturers’ shoes

May 13, 2019

Gaining a new perspective on the innovation process by, well, innovating.

If you are a manufacturer, maker or seller of tangible products or services, it’s becoming increasingly rare to have a conversation with existing, new or prospective customers and not get questions about innovation. It can either be what’s new or next in your product assortment or, worse, why you haven’t applied innovative ideas like your competitors yet.

Conversations like these are what spur leaders to scan their internal team’s capabilities to see where new ideas will come from, and then begin to search outside their walls for fresh perspectives.

While there are a lot of companies and consultants who want to help manufacturers address their innovation challenges, there is something lacking that most innovation partners don’t have: perspective and real empathy.

Gaining perspective

Twisthink's Bob Niemiec

More than a decade ago, I felt compelled to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”—in this case, the shoes that many of our own clients wear when it comes to developing a breakthrough technology product. With no prior experience in the lighting industry, I compiled a cross-functional team that saw an opportunity to develop an outdoor wireless lighting-control system that we called “Limelight”—essentially a product that we could develop and own to complement our expertise as a service provider.

At the time, we had been faithfully encouraging our clients to pursue innovation excellence by looking not only at their core products and services, but also adjacent and transformative market opportunities. This is what we typically do to help them innovate, accelerate and grow; Limelight was our opportunity to “walk the talk.”

From day one, we believed that if we practiced what we preached and built something from scratch, we would not only grow as a firm, but we would enhance our ability to serve companies, having gone through the same challenges that arise when launching a transformative technology product.

In that respect we were right. It does help with credibility—and that’s been further validated now that Limelight has recently been acquired by Lutron, the industry leader in lighting controls.

However, what has proven to be invaluable was the hands-on education of imagining and developing something never before created in the industry and commercializing that innovation from a manufacturer’s perspective. I can empathize with the reluctant leader who has to make hundreds of difficult decisions on whether or not to keep leaning in and not give up.

These are things that—if you don’t own and authorize it—you don’t experience. Period.

Innovation from the manufacturing mindset

With a healthy perspective and empathy on what it takes to innovate, I want to share a few things our team has learned about innovation from the manufacturer’s side of the table, and what you need to know as you walk along the challenging and rewarding journey to innovate. 

  • Lead. Don’t chase. Perhaps the hardest thing to do is resist the desire to follow an industry leader and attempt to do what they are doing. To be clear, this is not innovation. We started Limelight because of the challenges we recognized in the outdoor-lighting industry, in places like parking garages where concrete and rebar make wiring nearly impossible. We knew if we could develop a solution that could wirelessly control lights via the internet in these types of environments, billions of kilowatts and millions of dollars could be saved.
  • Pivoting isn’t defeat, it’s a strategic move toward the end goal. With innovation, fail fast and expect to pivot. In fact, thrive on it and the lessons learned rather than lamenting over the failure. Technology is always changing and evolving, and you’ll need to change with it. When we began working on Limelight, IoT wasn’t what it is today. In fact, we launched Limelight before the “Internet of Things” was a recognized mega-trend. We started Limelight as a fixture company first, working with fluorescents that had electronic controls integrated into them. Then LED lighting came into play. Our initial designs—and roadmap on how to get to our goal—changed rapidly. The ability to recognize forks in the road and figure out which path to take has make-or-break consequences to it, which leads to this: don’t be married to your initial idea of how you envision it working.  
  • Prepare for the long haul. If it were quick and easy, everyone would be doing it. But lots of companies aren’t innovating and taking risks; that becomes your competitive advantage if you have the stamina to keep going. None of us involved with Limelight at the beginning expected that we’d still be working on it a decade later to find new uses, interfaces and features that clients wanted. There’s the cost to build the solution, and then it requires ongoing capital to remain operational, functional and provide useful data. It’s critical to understand as you embark on any endeavor to innovate: you’ll need to feed the beast if you expect it to perform.
  • Know when to stop tinkering but never quit innovating. We all know that striving for perfection is the enemy of good enough, and second-guessing yourself is human nature when you’re in unchartered territory. But there comes a time when you need to let go and stop tinkering. There’s no clear and fast rule of when that is, but you’ll know it when it arrives.
  • There is no substitute for team and talent. As a leader, your bandwidth gets narrower just as your knowledge gap on how to execute innovation seems to get increasingly wider. I cannot stress enough the importance of assembling teams with specific talents in strategy, design, engineering and technology. Talent that is hungry to learn, willing to fail, empowered to ask difficult questions, and encouraged to push hard for the purpose of innovating. I know that leaders often get more credit than they deserve when things go well. But they only go well when leaders empower people, stay engaged and know when to get out of the way and allow the expertise to shine. Innovation is brought to life by talented people.
  • Align your allies for when things get hard. Things will get hard. When they do you’ll be reminded why manufacturers fail to innovate despite knowing they need to be in the game. As you push past the fear of innovating and take action, know this: innovation is not for the faint of heart. There will be times when you want to throw in the towel or feel sick about infusing more capital into your idea. I certainly did.

Today, I also know this: there is so much we wouldn’t have learned, skills we wouldn’t have grown into or acquired, and joy of bringing an idea to life that we would have forfeited had we quit. I owe the success of innovating an idea from scratch to the team around me who believed in the vision. If you build that kind of team with those types of allies, your resolve to innovative will be hard to contain. 

Bob Niemiec is a managing partner with Twisthink.

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