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Innovation

[Editor’s note: For those of you who are sensitive or dislike controversy, read no further. I suspect that Ken Coffman is the type of guy who used to whack a hornet’s nest with a stick when he was young. He revels in controversy and is not shy. But you always know where you stand with him, and his opinions are very clear; plus he’s a bright and talented engineer. If you are not afraid of open and honest discussion about a controversial blog, then please do read on. I like his bold brashness and the way he fires up the audience. I think we need that sometimes in the midst of our daily routine. So go ahead and comment, and let Coffman know how you feel and what your opinions are — and enjoy the ride.]

Our last conversation about lab facilities was a fun diversion. (If you have anything to add, then wander over to The Plight of the Working Electronics Lab and comment.) The Internet is forever, it will wait patiently for you. I intend this blog to cover dryer, technical subjects, but again, let’s chat about another hot topic that’s on my mind: innovation.

Everyone wants innovation — the word is tossed around like confetti. But what does it mean? Regardless of your precise definition, it boils down to creating something new. North America is an innovative place where half the world’s original design work is done. That said, anyone who believes other cultures can’t be creative and entrepreneurial are kidding themselves. We’re in an increasingly competitive business, and it will take our best efforts to succeed.

It surprises me about how people talk about innovation. If we could commoditize it, the MBAs would have done it by now, and instead of anthropology majors, it would be old power-supply engineers like me asking if you want whipped, non-dairy goo on your flatulencino. Shockingly large sums of money are spread around to teach people how to innovate, but to what end? If you ask me, creativity can be taught, but only when you’re six, not thirty-six.

The creative spirit is based on youthful experience with failure. If you were punished for making a mess, tearing something apart or expressing a contentious viewpoint, then you’re not going to be inclined to experiment or try crazy things as an adult. Creativity is a way of life, and the idea it can be taught to an adult seems silly, but I suppose if you paid me six-figures to run a week-long workshop, I’d think of something that looks good on paper.

If we want assured success, then we should do the same things over and over with the same methods and only make small, incremental, and constructive changes. That’s a great way to make slow progress, but it’s not going to be very profitable or create a barrier to competition, because anyone can do things the slow, iterative, steady way.

Innovation is smothered by office politics, bureaucracy, and enforced, groupthink conformity. I can’t package and sell creativity, but I can tell you what it looks like. It looks like chaos, mad clutter, and whimsical thinking. It looks like a tousled lady with a weird sense of humor wearing neon socks and an inside-out, cross-buttoned blouse.

Eminent, disciplined denizens of Planet Analog will disagree with me. That’s great, let’s hear your eloquent outrage expressed in the comment section below, where you’ll teach me yet another valuable lesson in humility. There will be a fabulous prize for the most colorful insult.

— Ken Coffman is a Field Applications Engineer and Member of the Technical Staff at Fairchild Semiconductor. His postings are his own and don’t necessarily represent the opinions or positions of Fairchild Semiconductor.

31 comments on “Innovation

  1. sanjaya_m
    November 3, 2014

    Ken, this is a great post from you. Innovation is dear to my heart too. Unfortunately, it has been also turned into something indescribable by certain companies, I hear. For example, a person I know well once worked for several years at a huge networking company that catered to innovation in the following dubious manner: They had formed a “patent committee” consisting wholly of “the brightest minds” reporting into the powerful CTO cum founder himself. This was a very secretive group that met every 2 weeks or so to go over the disclosures from BU's across the company to decide their fates. To cut a long story short, each of them also had an obvious conflict of interest which the company never seemed to notice: a) they were being goaled (bonuses etc) in terms of the number (not quality) of patents they filed. Besides that, b) the company, in an effort to present itself as the top innovator (numerically) in semiconductors/networking, was also offering RSU's that yielded about $15000 for each patent filed. So what really happened was that one single person on this committee had soon enough “mutual friends” within the club to thumb down every genuine discosure from the BUs. Because HE wanted to be the one to monopolize the generous cash rewards — so, this one guy had personally amassed at last count 265 approved US patents, and 250 more in the pipeline as we speak. Think about it: 500 patents at $10,000 each, after tax! On some of his inventions, he was smart enough to name as “coinventors”, his boss, his VP/GM, even the company patent attorney in one case (anyone who could help him within sniffing distance). One of his bosses has, as of today, 515 approved patents and 424 in the pipeline. That is $10 million dollars — just do the math. Most of these patents are completely unworkable, or one simple idea written in ten different ways, also exploiting the fact that technology is so rapidly evolving and few in the patent office may fully understand the “innovation” content. Now  imagine what happens when anyone with a  sincere effort to genuinely innovate and thereby protect the company's genuine interests, eventually blows the whistle? He WILL take on a bunch of very rich and powerful people, with tainted lawyers at their command. Since “offense is the best form of defense”,  they either either pass brazen racist remarks on the face (protected by the CTO of course), or spread slander/innuendo to damage careers. So, what do you think of this modern form of “innovation” Ken? How do you think this needs to be stopped? Or should it even be?

  2. Paul L. Schimel PE
    November 3, 2014

    As a lifelong innovator, I think this is a wonderful discussion. Did you notice that most every company adopted a huge multimillion dollar tool that squeezed all surplus to none? Yet, for all of the things that the tool is supposed to do, it doesn't capture innovation, nor carry it forward. Can't codify that stuff!

    I've had some barf bag discussions with marketors of zeal years ago as they stared down their nose at me. “so tell me in thirty seconds what you do” as though the creativity, ingenuity and experience required to design the doo dad or solve the problem were remedial and transferrable in an elevator ride? Same people forecast 10% growth knowing they can scream loud enough to do it (I covered that in whuh? 10 words?). That's the slow, trudgy, path you mentioned above. Easy to forsee, easy to catch, easy to pass. Like tripping over dead wood.

    Innovation is above all risky. yes, we temper it with experience, but the path to the end can be damned tough. The largest challenge is often communicating the path. “well you see doctor super marketor, we've had a technological setback, the permeability tensor for the new material was somewhat exagerated and the stuff flops 90 deg out of phase (resistive) at a much lower frequency than we'd thought”. Uh, so it's not done yet? When will it be done? Answer given was never heard, question remains the same.

    My well pump failed the other day. 270 feet down. I don't have a well rig, but I set up some scaffolding with a block and tackle and my ATV as the mule. Had it fixed in three hours. 270' of pipe! new pipe, new pump, new wire of appropriate jacket rating and ampacity. Used a pipe vise with some longitudinal slots milled into it on the bridgeport welded to an elevator weight for a temporary flange vise. All the neighbors said “that can't be done…it's impossible”. That's where I turn on….like a fireman runs to a fire when all the others run from it.

    Now if actuarial folks were present, and a legal staff, I'd likely have been systematically choked as a matter of policy in that culture of “efficacy”. The risk was pretty straightforward. Shut off the breaker, lock the panel, start the lift….DONT DROP ANYTHING. Easily managed with caution and deterministic movement and the experience of having dropped LOTS OF STUFF. In a risk averse culture, I'd have spent three hours putting on PPE to weld the vise to the plate.

    I've been accused of wrongdoing in past lives because I own and maintain a wood shop, machine shop, welding shop, audio lab, power lab, and an RF lab and 40K pounds of parts and tooling. Yet when it's impossible, and I show up and get it done, the overhead seems ok.

    I've done the impossible with power electronics, analog electronics, high voltage, high current, rotating and linear machines, transformers……

    I wholeheartedly agree that innovation is something you either have or you don't. If you got A's in math and science having never built anything, tested or proved a concept, gotten dirty, or suffered the pain of a failure…..you are not an innovator regardless of what your advisor may tell you. and if he's telling you, it's too late.

    Now here's a question…….If a “mortal” can solve a problem that a room full of PHD's can't, is the “mortal” worth more? I believe that the answer is yes, but the key is in the marketing and communication. “neener, neener” probably isn't the best closer in that context–professionalism rules the day.

    and on the thought of the multimillion dollar tool that manages everything at all times…….for every one of these sold, there is rise of a parallel underworld that maintains enough parts, surplus and “stuff” to keep it all going, by innovators that continually dodge the system…..just like every JIT operation had a JIC warehouse nearby.

    typos are free and plenty above, but you get the idea. Thanks Ken for the great thread or blog or whatever it's called. I sure do miss those discussions I used to have with Gus Mellick. They were intense….the kind of thing that non-innovators would run away from screaming, but it was like a cosmic “worked all states” excersise for the brain cells. Oh, so much fun.

  3. Steve Taranovich
    November 3, 2014

    True and honest, talented innovators will not be offended by Coffman's blog as we can see from Paul Schimel and Sanjaya—both fit the description of true innovators!

  4. antedeluvian
    November 3, 2014

    Steve

    For those of you who are sensitive or dislike controversy, read no further. I suspect that Ken Coffman is the type of guy who used to whack a hornet's nest with a stick when he was young. He revels in controversy and is not shy. But you always know where you stand with him, and his opinions are very clear; plus he's a bright and talented engineer. If you are not afraid of open and honest discussion about a controversial blog, then please do read on.


    No need to apologise or warn us- let's have some more!

  5. antedeluvian
    November 3, 2014

    Ken

    Marvellous blog!

    I am not sure how much of your blog is tongue in cheek and how much is serious. Let me start out by being serious.

    If you ask me, creativity can be taught, but only when you're six, not thirty-six.

    Neither creativity or innovation are binary qualities. There is a spectrum of people and often it is not the fact that they are lacking in either, but rather do not have the ability to recognise when they are being creative and how to express and/or realize the ideas. Perhaps its not the creativity per-se that has to be taught, but the ability to recognize it when it occurs.

    Innovation is smothered by office politics, bureaucracy, and enforced, groupthink conformity. I can't package and sell creativity, but I can tell you what it looks like. It looks like chaos, mad clutter, and whimsical thinking. It looks like a tousled lady with a weird sense of humor wearing neon socks and an inside-out, cross-buttoned blouse .

    Few people are continuously creative. To me it seems to come in bursts, more frequently with some than with others. But a straight-laced person can come up with a brilliant idea as well as an eccentric. Keep in mind that there is also a spectrum of eccentricity and who knows what is beneath the surface of anyone.

    And you are talking to analog electrical engineers- pretty much evey one of us (although I an not really analog) is eccentric, almost by definition.

     

  6. antedeluvian
    November 3, 2014

    Ken

    Innovation is smothered by office politics, bureaucracy, and enforced, groupthink conformity.

     

     I can't package and sell creativity, but I can tell you what it looks like. It looks like chaos, mad clutter, and whimsical thinking. It looks like a tousled lady with a weird sense of humor wearing neon socks and an inside-out, cross-buttoned blouse.


    As far as I am concerned

    1. Chaos, mad clutter- you have seen photos of part of my workspace

    2. Tousled lady- sorry I don't qualify

    3. Weird sense of humour- that's what my kids say I have

    4. inside out, cross-buttoned blouse- sorry, not here

    5. neon socks- try these on for size (pun intended- there's the weird humour I was talking about)

    3 out of 5- I guess I am 60% creative.

    There will be a fabulous prize for the most colorful insult.

    Well if you don't get any- how about a prize for the most colourful socks?

     

  7. antedeluvian
    November 5, 2014

    Ken

    The Internet is forever, it will wait patiently for you.

    You're wrong, you know. The privacy guys will tell you this, but I have plenty of evidence to the contrary. For instance Circuit Cellar used to publish an on-line edition with different content to the print version, called imaginitively “Circuit Cellar Online”. It and its content disappeared a while back and although you can get an archive of all the back issues, the Online isssues aren't included.

    Then there were a bunch of EE Times forums: Microcontroller Central, Scope Junction, All Programmable Planet and The Connecting Edge. All had solid information published on them, but when the sponsorship dried up they were shut down with promises after the fact  that the data would re-appear. It never did. And now I see the EE Times forum IoT World is also shutting down, this time with a promise of maintaining the data- time will tell.

     

  8. bjcoppa
    November 5, 2014

    The cost of innovation has risen dramatically over the last decade as more companies outsource design and production of high-performance electronics. Consolidation across the electronics supply chain ultimately stifles creativity and slows the progress of innovation since there is less competition and few players that control the release of new products. It is also less beneficial for job creation as a few top companies centralize control and production.

  9. goafrit2
    November 5, 2014

    Do not waste time in the noise about INNOVATION.

     

    Innovation = Invention + Commercialization

     

    When an idea has not done very WELL in the market, it cannot be called Innovative. A patent is not innovative until it becomes a product that has done well in the market. The challenge we have is that people confuse ideas with innovation. Most of what we call innovations are inventions.

  10. nasimson
    November 8, 2014

    @ Ken:

    I gather from your blog that innovation is messy and unstructured. Is it that it is usually so? Or deos it always have to be that way? I wonder how companies like Google, Facebook and Apple mantain their innovative culture within rigid coroporate dynamics: hierarchies, approvals, timelines, result-driven culture etc.

    It seems that these companies have mastered corporate innovation – both within and outside through acquisition & partnerships. Any thoughts on this Ken?

  11. kencoffman
    November 9, 2014

    A long time ago, I read a quote that said we're lucky big companies don't innovate well, otherwise there would not be any small companies. I think bureaucracy is the death of innovation, so the less bureaucratic the organization, the more innovative it is capable of being. To me, innovation requires breaking rules and an innovative person will bristle at overhead and nonsense and busywork and paying respect to the unworthy. It's also true that ideas are cheap and easy and a certain compulsive tenacity and obsessive drive is a necessary part of the mix to turn innovation into something useful. I don't intend my comments to be wholly self-serving because I'm not particularly innovative, but I know people who are and from afar, I admire the way their brains work. If there is no chance an idea will fail, then it's not innovative, it's just turning the iterative crank. So, any company claiming to embrace and value innovation without taking risks and letting their oddballs try crazy things is kidding themselves. But, what do I know? Nothing, that's what.

  12. kencoffman
    November 9, 2014

    I'm surprised and honored by the responses below from people I admire. Sanjaya has been courageously and selflessy fighting against poor management practices and everyone I've talked to appreciates his battles on the front lines as recounted in his books. One quick way to test the loop response of a system is to hit it hard and see what resonates. You folks are great resonators, thank you.

  13. ue2014
    November 11, 2014

    @goafrit2 >>>>>>>> Innovation = Invention + Commercialization

     

    Could not agree with you more. I am also impressed by your quote “When an idea has not done very WELL in the market, it cannot be called Innovative.”. Its a true fact. 

    There is no use in an Invention if it could not be commercialized and being used by the customers is in Large. Any Invention should add value to the market and human beings as well where it could be usable in society. 

    Any invention that could not be used in large will not help or benefit the society. 

  14. fasmicro
    December 4, 2014

    >> I wonder how companies like Google, Facebook and Apple mantain their innovative culture within rigid coroporate dynamics

    Those companies have core technologies that make them look good. I do not think it has to do with the people. Sure the people made the core technologies. You can be very smart and yet not have success in the marketplace.

  15. fasmicro
    December 4, 2014

    >>  I don't intend my comments to be wholly self-serving because I'm not particularly innovative, but I know people who are and from afar, I admire the way their brains work

    Great comment – that is my own way of thinking. I wish I have that gift, say a small piece of Elon Musk. The fact is this – I know where there are needs in this world and huge opportunities but making them happen is another thing. Imagine the developing world where people cannot have electricity. Is there a better way of providing electricity? The people that have these innovative talents are special and that is why they rule the world.

  16. ue2014
    December 19, 2014

    @ kencoffman – >>>> A long time ago, I read a quote that said we're lucky big companies don't innovate well, otherwise there would not be any small companies. >>>> 

    This concept has changed now I feel. If you wanna be in the market; whether you are small or big, the innovation is required. On the other hand, many big organizations now try to utilize their resources and try to intrduce innovatives to the market to show that they are real leaders in the market and also to maintain the gap between their close competitors too. 

  17. etnapowers
    December 19, 2014

    ue2014: I fully agree with you. The innovation is the only factor that guarantee the long term success of a company, whatever it is big or small. the difference between big and small companies is that big companies have the possibility to invest massively in the Research and Development activity to maintain their leadership in a particular sector.

  18. ue2014
    December 25, 2014

    Totally agree with you. While some companies really feel the necessity for Innovation and rich with ideas but held back due to financial ability, some large organizations use their financial abilities and bring innovative products to the market. The other Side of the story is that some companies just do not do any innovations and comfortable in duplicating what others does to remain in the market.

  19. nasimson
    December 27, 2014

    @ goafrit2: 

    > When an idea has not done very WELL in the market, it cannot be called Innovative. 

    But what is the idea is ahead of its time. It would be innovative still despite unsuccessful commercials just beacuse the demand side or eco system was not ready.

  20. nasimson
    December 27, 2014

    @fasmicro:

    > Those companies have core technologies that make them
    > look good. I do not think it has to do with the people. Sure
    > the people made the core technologies. 

    Not just that they have the core technologies. They are also contuning to ADD more innovative stuff to their core technology despite the corporate structures. Innovators there have a harder time than the innovators in the startups.

  21. SunitaT
    December 31, 2014

    @nasimson: I agree. Innovating an already updated technology can be frustratingly difficult because ideas do not flow at a point of time. In that aspect innovating for startups are easy because the ideas are flowing and there is no general direction where the innovation can go. Think about a house automation system. A startup that makes house automation systems can also design smart shower systems so that you can receive calls even in the shower.

  22. SunitaT
    December 31, 2014

    @UE2014: Just like Xiaomi copying the iOS 7 and putting it as MIUI in their smartphones. Everyone knows it is copied from iOS but everyone keeps mum. Moreover some companies want to be subsidiaries of bigger companies because they do not have the financial aid to carry out their innovations independently, and therefore they become part of bigger companies.

  23. SunitaT
    December 31, 2014

    “But what is the idea is ahead of its time. It would be innovative still despite unsuccessful commercials just beacuse the demand side or eco system was not ready.”

    @nasimson: Making a product market ready depends on how it is marketed. Think about the Android phones. People bought them out of sheer curiosity at first and then they figured out how much of a necessity it is in the day to day activities.

  24. nasimson
    December 31, 2014

    > Think about the Android phones. People bought them out of
    > sheer curiosity at first and then they figured out how much of
    > a necessity it is in the day to day activities.

    At least in my part of the world, South Asia, Andoird was introduced AFTER two years of iOS rule. People bought it because they were looking for a low-cost iphone. A smart phone that does almost the same thing but half the price.

  25. nasimson
    December 31, 2014

    @ Sunita:

    > Just like Xiaomi copying the iOS 7 and putting it as MIUI in their smartphones.
    > Everyone knows it is copied from iOS but everyone keeps mum.

    MIUI copied from iOS? Isnt it the stripped down, simplified and colored/styled version of Android?

  26. nasimson
    December 31, 2014

    > A startup that makes house automation systems can also design
    > smart shower systems so that you can receive calls even in the shower

    Smart shower systems allowing to take calls in the shower! Thats awesome. Should get good uptake. Are there systems out there already offering it?

    I have ruined my phones in bathroom steam and would love to put my hands on such a system.

  27. Davidled
    January 7, 2015

    Company innovation could be driven by customer trend, working environment, collaboration and company product goal. Also, in the few cases, while worker is at company or school, they are getting started-up their own company such as Google, Facebook and etc.

  28. goafrit2
    January 8, 2015

    >> I wonder how companies like Google, Facebook and Apple mantain their innovative culture within rigid coroporate dynamics: hierarchies, approvals, timelines, result-driven culture etc.

    They are not rightly rigid as we think from outside. Google has money to buy whatever they want. That is innovation. Never think they are always innovative; sure they are but not supreme. What happens is they are more positioned to use money to remain innovative. Nest, DropCam etc are Google acquisitions. Also, they hire bright people and bring their technology in-house.

  29. fasmicro
    January 8, 2015

    >> But what is the idea is ahead of its time. It would be innovative still despite unsuccessful commercials just beacuse the demand side or eco system was not ready.

    That is an invention which can be in the Patent office for ages. It is nothing but an invention.

  30. etnapowers
    January 16, 2015

    “The other Side of the story is that some companies just do not do any innovations and comfortable in duplicating what others does to remain in the market. “

     

    This second side of the history shows an example of short term strategy that cannot pay big dividends on a long term time basis.

  31. ue2014
    January 19, 2015

    Yes, agreed with you. These kind of some companies sometimes just comes to the market, earn profits and makes their brands die. Later, some other company will come with the same brand in a different name or a larger company will take over these companies.

    As you said, this of course is a short term strategy. 

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