I recently visited Peoria, Illinois, the global headquarters of Caterpillar. Caterpillar is the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines and diesel-electric locomotives. They make a lot of really big things and innovation has been important to their 90 year history.
However, we know being an innovator is not all roses – at times you feel like a square peg in a round hole. This is especially true of serial innovators, a term popularized by the book of the same name written by Abbie Griffin and two co-authors. A serial innovator is often on the cutting-edge if not the bleeding-edge, in mature organizations. They are the problem-solvers that substantially contribute to their company’s financial value.
I found just such a serial innovator to interview at Caterpillar, Steve Pierz.
Practices and Ideas for Product Managers, Developers, and Innovators
Highlights from the discussion include…
- Innovation is looking at things differently and questioning traditional wisdom.
- Innovators can be irritating to experts in the organization who do not welcome having the way things work being questioned.
- Serial innovators’ reputations for discarding old ideas and promoting new ideas can create uncomfortable first meetings. Steve often receives an “Oh, I have heard about you” when meeting people in the organization for the first time.
- Innovators fail – just don’t fail spectacularly. Quickly run experiments and learn.
- There are many types of innovation beyond product innovation, and process as well as business model innovation are key opportunities to consider.
- An example of process innovation was creating a database of common part failures that was expected to reduce material testing cost by at least 50%.
- However, as serial innovators know, not all good ideas move forward and a recession stopped the development for creating the system.
- The core idea for process innovation has been repeated many times – applying technology to dramatically improve a process. Recognizing trends and executing at the right time is important to success – the timing must be right for the organization to embrace innovation.
- Employee performance reviews must be structured to recognize contributions innovations make to the organization.
- The paradox of innovation is that we ask incumbents to innovate, yet their basis of knowledge only supports incremental innovation, not radical innovation. It takes new ways of thinking for radical innovation. External influences are needed.
- Steve started a weekly webinar for anyone at Caterpillar to learn more about innovation, called Friday Morning Coffee and Disruptive Technologies. Each week attendance has dramatically grown. Participants are from a wide variety of functions, not just engineering. Frequently, external experts join the webinar to present ideas and processes.
- While Steve has always had the mindset of a serial innovator at Caterpillar, it took 24 years before Steve was given the freedom to control the innovation efforts he gets involved in. He encourages serial innovators to not give up!
- A key to innovation is simply observing people and asking if there is a better way to solve the problems they deal with.
- Best advice for product managers – embrace ideas and never turn someone away who brings you an idea. The answer may be “not yet” but never say “no.”
Steve’s favorite quotes come from the Google X video titled “Moonshot Thinking.”
“Choose to be bothered.” – Astro Teller
“Our ambitions are a glass ceiling to what we can accomplish.” –Astro Teller
“Once you find your passion, you are unstoppable.” – Megan Smith
Listen Now to the Interview
Thank you for being an Everyday Innovator and learning with me from the successes and failures of product innovators, managers, and developers. If you enjoyed the discussion, help out a fellow product manager by sharing it using the social media buttons you see below.