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Are Engineers, Scientists And Mathematicians Enemies of Innovation?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on June 16, 2009

I know it sounds preposterous, but it is increasingly clear to me that the professionals who generate invention—engineers, scientists and mathematicians—are often the enemies of innovation. Yes, I realize that Google and other great companies are the products of mathematical minds, but I would argue that unless Google becomes more social sciency and less science sciency, it will ossify and be replaced. Perhaps that has already begun.

Which is my point. Innovation is about social applications of inventions, not about the inventions themselves. Engineers, scientists and mathematicians don’t get this. It’s not part of their culture. We see time and again, engineeering-driven corporate cultures failing because they don’t address the social needs of their customers and they don’t address the social ramifications of invention.

Motorola, for example, has working touch-screen cell phones in China years before the iPhone (works great with complex Chinese writing system) but wouldn’t bring it to the US because the engineering-dominant company leaders focussed on technology and features, not use.

P&G got into serious trouble before A.G. Lafley took over as CEO because it was a chemistry-driven culture that insisted on its scientists doing everything. Lafley turned it into a consumer-driven company and opened it to innovation from all over the globe. Lafley redesigned the corporate model for faster innovation.

There are a million examples of this. It is turning out that the US is great at invention but not so great at innovation. We need more anthropologists and sociologists working with our engineers and scientists to develop services, products and experiences that people need and want. And we need managers in companies to understand what they do and enable this doing.

Check out InnoCentive’s CEO, Dwayne Spradlin, on building an innovation culture. Culture is not something engineers, scientists or mathematicians know much about. Where’s Margaret Mead when we need her?

Reader Comments

Chris Loughnane

June 16, 2009 7:19 PM

Imagine a world without a single scientist, mathematician, or engineer. Innovative?

I think you're aiming in the right direction, but miss the mark. Engineers, scientists, etc. are often the ones who turn innovative (there's that word again) ideas into reality. Also, considering the amount of primarily logic-based education these three disciplines possess, it is ignorant to proclaim that they "don't get" that an invention without a practical application is useless. On the contrary, most engineer's understand the basic premise that an invention should have an application, just as most social scientists understand that you don't want to put a square peg in a round hole. We understand each other at a basic level, but need to cooperate in order to leverage the depth of each other's knowledge.

The problem is not with the engineers and scientists, but with companies such as Motorola & P&G. Their employee makeup shades them more as an engineering services firm than a consumer product company. Even once the decision to change a company's direction/culture has been made, it is a titanic effort. This is why everyone (correctly) lauds A.G. Lafley.

This post is doing it's part to widen gap between science and social science. True "innovation" or "transformation" or __________ comes from cooperation between disciplines. Product/Service development is a spectrum. If you ignore research, design, OR engineering, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage.

Lay some truth on them Joel Barker...

"Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time."

Gregg McPherson

June 16, 2009 9:15 PM

I understand the frustration you are feeling but I think blaming the engineers and scientists is too simplistic. I worked for 3M for 30 years, most of those years in R&D management. The culture of company was based on innovative products. The big successes came about as often from a bright idea out of the labs are an application suggested by a customer.

Every business discipline, whether it is engineers or marketers has a spectrum of personalities from conservative to those who are willing to try anything at least once. In my experience, it was often the financial and marketing functions that most often were unwilling to invest in a new product unless they had a high degree of assurance that it would enhance sales.

I agree with your comment, though, that it all comes back to the culture. 3M's culture of innovation started to mature even in the late 1980's as the size of the corporation naturally brought about a more conservative attitude. That conservatism was accelerated by Jim McNerney and his mantra of efficiency rather than innovation.

In any event, engineers, scientists, and mathematicians are NOT the enemy. The enemy is the incessant demand for short-term profit.

Alexis Madrigal

June 17, 2009 5:27 AM

The real issue is that the vast majority of scientists and engineers are not inventors or even innovators. They make processes more efficient or run cost analyses. They maintain. They supervise. That's an entirely different business from coming up with new ideas.

If we stop conflating engineering and science with innovation, we'd see that innovation comes from all over the place, not just from the authorities on the inner workings of a particular system of machines. Because sometimes the answer lies in a completely different system or man/machine production mode.

Sean Sauber

June 17, 2009 2:18 PM

I agree with the comments that it is a bit narrow to put the blame on the left side of the brain - the scientists, engineers and so forth.
As I learned while on the staff of the Clay Street Project at P&G - the creation of an environment that allows for each person to bring forth what they uniquely have to offer is the key to innovation. That may show up as a finance manager that is a poet, or an engineer that is a dancer - but it is the unique lens that each individual views the task at hand that is most relevant. As shown in "Group Genius" by Keith Sawyer - innovation is not the result of a single creative spark from some free-thinking right brained genius - it is usually the culmination of many technical breakthroughs and series of insights that are somehow brought together through group intelligence.
Call it culture because that is easy to embrace - but a set of initial conditions that allow for authenticity to flourish, an environment that accepts and builds on weakly connected ideas, and a group that is both challenged and empowered by the task at hand will yield innovation in almost any problem space - regardless of the disciplines on the team.
We DO need more anthropologists and social scientists in our corporations. But not so much for the design process that generates products - but the design process that generates teams. It is not that the engineers do not know as much about culture - it is that almost NONE of us know about what it takes to transform culture. The sacred cows of how each function is rewarded is a huge impediment to innovation. And to ask someone who is evaluated and rewarded for "delivering today's cases" to deliver new cases with breakthrough is set to fail from the start.
We need the engineers, the scientists and the so called "bean counters" - we just need to let them contribute fully and learn to enjoy the chaotic ride that is breakthrough innovation.


June 17, 2009 5:02 PM

I guess we have to let lawyers, business types, and accountants do the innovations. Motorola was not ruined by scientists and engineers but by the business types at the top.


June 17, 2009 5:24 PM

Yes and no. Tech companies often become this way as they age. Just look at the job ads most of them post, laundry lists of technical skills to fill their preconceived conception of what needs to be done with almost no reason why they are doing so or why anyone should care. Innovation is reserved to someone who probably should have moved on else. Few are interested in new ideas, only generating revenue. This is probably the reason so many leave their companies and the field, being cogs in the machine isn't very rewarding.


June 17, 2009 9:17 PM

That Motorola slam? You're beating a dead horse. Motorola decided long ago that being run by engineering types was a mistake and took "steps" -- it has never been a winner since.

munidas pereira

June 18, 2009 12:47 AM

Strongly disagree.
One of the major reasons for the decline of the three US automakers is their reliability/technology being behind that of the Japanese automakers.(as documented by independant sources such as consumer reports) Even today you can purchase a car from the US manufacturers with push rod engines. toyota and honda went to overhead cam engines over a decade ago as these are smoother and offer better fuel economy.
I get the impression that there was no funding to address these problems and this is certainly not the fault of the Engineers.

David Locke

June 18, 2009 3:50 AM

Your formula is wrong. As we stop investing in engineering, science, and mathematicians, the further business will fall behind.

Technical innovation is the source of weath creation. The best that managment can do is capture cash. OK, focus on consumer, so you can capture more cash, but that doesn't create wealth. It simply allocates the wealth that was already there.

Google has a problem, because their technology is under the hood, they don't seem to evolve technologically. Further, they are trying to do everything and compete everywhere. This latter problem is one of management.

For a technology based company to be successful, they must push successive waves of technology. Usually, their management doesn't do that.

Further, it is management that drives successful commercialization. Management does a bad job at it, so they hand the goat around the necks of the tech innovators.

History showes that technical innovation created the wealth.


June 18, 2009 7:20 PM

Does everybody on this earth have their own specific definition of the word innovation?

You (the author) seem to be using the word in the context of solving the right problems to make you money.

We suffer two particular challenges in that area:
1. Focus on measurable accomplishment. If we can't measure it, it's not real. Survey measurements of fuzzy things like "design coolness" often don't capture the "wow" factor of a design in a competitive world. How many % cooler is the iMac than Dell really? How does that translate into sales? Now feed that kind of thing into design rather than marketing and you will begin to see why American design is always focused at the least common denominator: it's too hard to measure, and we won't put a dime into something that doesn't have a measurable ROI.

2. The customer doesn't know what they want.
Seriously. You know the right thing when you see it. Maybe. If most of your friends agree with you opinion after you've fielded your first impressions with them. Again, American scientists and engineers, like American managers, are very data driven., and design for themselves, not the general public. The purpose of the artist, the poet, the sculptor, the enthusiast designer, in society is to feel what everybody else feels, but stronger, thus becoming a good leading indicator of trends.

You want your kind of "I want $10 more for my product" innovation, hire more artists. Don't tell me scientists aren't doing their job, but it is correct that your particular brand of innovation is not really their job.

Simon D.

June 18, 2009 7:23 PM

Bruce, I know you wanted to create conversation based on this post but you can always refer to many good articles in Businessweek Innovation section such as the book written by Judy Estrin which basically answers your question.


June 26, 2009 10:04 PM

Sometimes it also happens that managers are blocking engineers and scientists innovation. -- where technology innovation counts.


June 26, 2009 10:04 PM

Sometimes it also happens that managers are blocking engineers' and scientists' innovation. -- where technology innovation counts.

Bob Volk

July 11, 2009 4:57 PM

Innovation is taking inventions and streamlining them into the market place. Inventions are new developments and products/processes entirely. I think we have become very innovative centric, but industries that have been successful on past inventions do not pursue those radically different from their own original ones.
Take the auto industry- if the US auto makers were "INVENTIVE" instead of continually refining their innovations, they would not be needing billions of dollars in bail out money. There are far more fuel efficient engines that have been invented recently, yet the big three don't want invention - they just want to innovate the same old tired Otto cycle engine from a hundred years ago.
Their closed loop computer systems make it difficult for hybrid fuels such as hydrogen generators to affect the mileage like they could if the industry was open to breakthroughs.
Inventors have responded with new inventions and the HHO industry continues to break wide open, even though it is fought with disinformation and lies form industries that don't WANT invention, they only want to add little innovations.
Our mindsets MUST change if we are to transition into a better, more enrgy efficient society.
Bob Volk,CEO
Transitional Technologies, LLC


January 24, 2011 3:37 AM

I blame narrow job descriptions and the broadly accepted notions passed down by the management and bean counter types that say that employee with x background cannot do y function. Even worse, this mentality is ingrained into the educational system. I studied electrical engineering but took many classes in programming and felt very comfortable not only laying out a PCB but also programming the chips to perform their various functions, which
would be driven by the product requirements, such as an interactive
thermostat for instance. But when looking for a job I was constantly asked if I was a hardware guy or a software guy. The hiring managers just could not understand how I could be competant in both or how to place me into their narrowly defined positions.

As for the design and development of products, most of the creative, innovative ideas these days tend to come from industrial designers, who by virue of their artistic nature, are given free reign to "come up" with ideas for new or improved products. These types are given just enough technical training to communicate with
the engineers and to understand the basic limitations of
developmenet cost, production and distribution costs, marketability, and manufacturability, so they are restricted only to aesthetic but most often they define the functionality and
usability of the product. Even though I am an engineer I would love to have more involvement in the conceptual, aesthetic, functional, marketing, and economic elements of product development, but I am stopped at the door and refused entry.

"That's not in your job description. Now please edit the engineering specifications to fit within the design, marketing, and business requirements we have provided you. No, you may not comment upon or change any of these requirements - you are not
qualified and we pay these industrial designers, marketing managers, and business analysts to do that. We are only interested in making changes to the design if the changes make the product easier and cheaper to manufacture, lighter to transport, last
longer, or safer to operate. You think we could sell more if we added an x feature and if we changed the appearance to blend seemlessly into the operating environment and to appeal to the researched and documented aesthetic preferences of the targeted users rather than the aesthetic tastes of the typical purchasing managers? That's nice - you can talk it over with the industrial designer, if you speak Swedish. But even so, he's a tempermental SOB and doesn't like people telling him how to do his job."

It's a shame that in an age where functional and industrial design plays an ever increasing role that "techies" are not invited to participate. While the majority still may desire or ought to limit themselves to the published standards within their respective
industries and churn out requested calculations on demand, there
are some of us who have broader capabilities but no freedom to use
those capabilities. Engineers and scientists might even get through college without studying any fine art, but even when they do so to fulfill their elective requirements they presume that the coursework will be solely for personal enrichment and have no application to their anticipated careers. While there are many
industries were aesthetics play a very small role, in the relm of consumer products aesthetics, creative/innovative/functional
designs, and marketing/economic considerations define product
success as much as safety, reliability, efficiency, and performance. It's no wonder that some of the most innovative
products today are conceived and designed by entrepreneurs who have
developed their technical, business, and artistic skills more by informal than formal studies. It is this spirit of no limits entrepreneurialism that needs to be encouraged and nurtured, not only within industry but in every level of education as well.

Rather than narrowly defined job titles and duties organizations might find they can acheive greater returns by replacing "job title" with "core strengths" and "job duties" with more open ended "entrepreneurial objectives". I believe a smaller design and development team with overlapping capabilities can acheive more with less in contrast to the isolated "over the wall" approach still so adored by our organized and orderly, bonus and perk driven management class.

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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