Bill Ruh is Vice President of Software at GE. I know, you’re probably wondering when GE got into the software business. Technically, the company is doing the same thing it’s been doing for the past 130 years: Innovating, not for the sake of innovation, but for the benefits that innovation brings to the world. And as we all know, many of GE’s innovations have also enjoyed spectacular commercial success.
A 30-year tech veteran and former Cisco executive, Bill now leads GE’s new $1 billion technology “nerve center” in San Ramon. In his role, he leads a staff of 400 software engineers dedicated to accelerating GE’s advance into what some observers are already calling “The Age of the Industrial Internet.” The industrial Internet is all about smart machines, big data analytics and continuous innovation.
Bill and his team are into so much cool stuff that it’s hard to single out any one area for a quick discussion. That’s why, for the purpose of this column, I’m just going to focus on Bill’s perspective on innovation itself. I asked Bill if he believes that true innovation results from a culture or a process. Here’s a brief summary of his response:
“Innovation occurs at many levels. You need a culture of innovation to generate ideas, but you also need a process that will help the company manage those ideas. So innovation is initially about leadership, and then about management. You need the management piece to make your innovation successful in the market. There’s definitely a yin and yang – you really need both leadership and management.”
Bill’s articulation of the innovation dilemma is spot on. It really got me thinking, and over the weekend I realized that you can look at innovation as a cycle with three distinct phases.
Phase I is top-down leadership support for a culture of innovation. If you don’t have that, I don’t see how you can call yourself an innovative company.
Phase II is bottom-up, grass-roots innovation – people in the trenches and on the frontlines generating great ideas.
Phase III is innovation management. This is the phase that most people would label as “the process,” and it’s absolutely crucial to keeping the cycle moving forward. Phase III is where the ideas meet reality. Some ideas will be judged more worthy than others. A handful of ideas will survive, many will die.
In its totality, the three-part cycle becomes your culture of innovation. It combines top-down leadership, grass roots passion and the business savvy of experienced managers.
In a very real sense, Bill and his team at GE are creating more than new products for the world – they are creating a new worldview.