Are We Losing Our Spirit of Innovation?

Nov. 30, 2011
The recent sad passing of Steve Jobs generated a lot of good discussion about innovation.

For those of us who work in technology, Jobs is a wonderful example—not only of innovation but also of the rewarding process of translating innovation into business success. In my time in automation, I have seen wonderful examples of innovation, but I’m very worried that the pace of innovation in automation has slowed down in the last few years. Right now the world needs our innovation more than ever.

Perhaps the most innovative time in our industry was the ‘70s and ‘80s. This period gave us the PLC, the DCS, smart field instruments, new technologies such as Coriolis flow meters, and the transformation of control rooms from meters and panel boards to video displays. Our industry is conservative, and yet all of this transformation happened in a relatively short period of around 10 years. To be sure, innovation in automation continues today, but the last 10 or so years don’t seem to measure up to the past. This is not good for the industry or the world.  Our industry must have a culture of innovation. You can’t just cost-reduce your way to success.

An innovative culture takes work to establish and even more work to maintain. If you think your company’s management is Neanderthal, it is your job to wake them up. If you are the company management, understand that innovation is your ticket to success. Steve Jobs showed us the way. So do the countless examples of innovative cultures in our industry.

Innovation characteristics

What does a culture of innovation look like? The first characteristic of an innovation culture is that innovation is seen as the key to competitiveness. Innovation is not just a lofty concept—it is a way to win. Innovative companies are paranoid about some other company coming up with a disruptive innovation that will destroy their market position, so they try to be the one who finds the innovation first. There is a sense of urgency about getting and staying ahead.

The second characteristic is that there is a robust—perhaps even raucous—debate process about which projects get investment. The common wisdom is that innovation comes from a single visionary whose crystal ball is unfailingly accurate.  In truth, innovation comes from a messy process where ideas surface from anywhere. These ideas get challenged in a process that resembles a contact sport.  When I ran Emerson Process Management, we called our process to decide on technology investments “wrestlemania.”

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The next characteristic is that decisions are actually made. Priorities are spelled out clearly. Most importantly, certain projects are designated as sacred and funding for these projects is not touched, no matter what the business conditions. If you really believe that something is going to make you a much stronger competitor, why would you ever cut funding for it? To be sure, some projects reach a point where it just looks like they aren’t going to live up to expectations. Innovative companies do kill projects, but this is the result of the same vigorous debate process that put the project on the list in the first place. It gets killed because it is not going to deliver the results, not because the company needs to cut costs.

Finally, success through innovation is celebrated and rewarded. It’s fun coming to work in the morning feeling like you are part of a company that is transforming the industry. We can’t all be Steve Jobs, but we all can rededicate ourselves to innovation.

John Berra, [email protected], recently retired as Chairman of Emerson Process Management.