By Mike Santori
National Instruments
Business & Technology Fellow
National Instruments
Austin, TX

High-tech companies live and die by their ability to innovate. Creating new products and technologies is essential to gaining new customers as well as keeping current customers. We often associate innovation with visionary individuals who have a great idea and make it successful. But is innovation to be done only by a few visionary figures? National Instruments has certainly benefited from the visionary leadership of our company founders. Under the tutelage of those leaders, we strive to create a culture of innovation, encouraging all employees to think creatively.

By this, we’re not talking about the employee suggestion box in the cafeteria. We stress the importance of innovation in many ways; some very formally, others quite informally. We celebrate successes at company meetings and at NIWeek, our annual user conference. We encourage everyday behaviors that help people think creatively.

A good example of such everyday behavior is the way we encourage employees to do research. Dr. James Truchard, our president, CEO, and co-founder, has always stressed the importance of constant research on technologies that might relate to the NI vision and strategy. In the pre-Internet era, Dr. Truchard frequently disappeared in the afternoon and returned the next morning with a stack of books and magazines from the University of Texas at Austin library.

Today, of course, you can access vast amounts of information on the Internet without leaving your desk. We’ve coined the phrase “deep Googling” to describe how we use the Internet. The Googling part is obvious, but the more important concept is going “deep.” Very often, you don’t discover the creative twist on a technology in the first few pages of a Google search. It’s often only after reading a few thousand links that you come across slightly different perspectives that spark your creativity.

“Deep Googling” requires that you dig through a high percentage of irrelevant information to find the real nuggets. Keeping track of the nuggets is not so simple. In this high-tech age, we still find it effective to simply print out the pages you find interesting and put these pages in a binder. The binder is a record of the meandering you did on the Internet that can spark others to build on your idea or branch out in a totally new direction.

One very important formal part of our culture is our leadership development training. NI could have outsourced development of this training, but decided to cultivate it internally to ensure that the training fully reflects the core philosophies of our culture.

A key part of this culture is the role of innovation and how to balance that innovation with the continuous improvement that’s essential to keep customers happy and successful. The course covers topics such as the NI core ideology and vision, platform and product strategy, operating business model, marketing and sales, manufacturing, and the people advantage. The result is that NI has developed a rich vocabulary for innovation.

There are a couple of other interesting new activities that we’re using to inspire creative thinking. The Idea Market is a prediction market where NI employees can trade ideas like stocks. An employee can propose any idea relevant to NI business. Employees trade these ideas, buying and selling shares based on whether they believe the ideas will be successful. Over time, the share price becomes an indicator of interest in an idea and a possible predictor of its success. Senior management watches the market to see which ideas are generating interest and which we may want to implement. We may “buy” the idea and all the shares, in which case the employees whose ideas are “bought out,” as well as employees who “invested” in that idea, receive compensation.

Another activity we have created to foster innovation is the Edison Lunch. Thomas Edison, one of the great innovators in history, frequently gets mentioned within NI as a source of inspiration. Every other week, the group holds a 90-minute brown-bag lunch to discuss ideas that engineers have submitted. Engineers explain their ideas and answer questions from the audience. After every two lunches, a panel of senior engineering leaders chooses five presenters whose ideas have particular merit. These five receive a financial reward. More importantly, individuals then set goals to more fully develop the idea, leading to further research, a prototype, or even a full research grant.

These are just a few examples of how NI seeks to actively engage employees in innovative and creative thinking. Regardless of the specific activity, however, the core philosophy of NI is that innovation is essential to our longterm success.

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