The Managerial Challenge
Fostering Engineering Creativity

Talk by Prof Ralph Benjamin
CB, PhD, DSc, DEng, FIEE, FCGI, FREng.


I had a varied career through three consecutive grades of working-level engineer to project leader, Head of Division, Head of Research Admiralty Surface Weapons, Director, Underwater Weapons Establishment, Director of Science & Technology, GCHQ, R&D co-ordinator for the Intelligence Services, then, after "retirement", Research Co-ordinator and Head of Communications Techniques and Networks for NATO and, following my second "retirement", research professor and consultant to government and industry.
Even when in charge of thousands of staff, including hundreds of professional engineers, and of large extra-mural programmes and budgets, I also remained personally creative:
  • because my wider perspective enabled me to make some important contributions;
  • because it maintained my empathy with the working level engineers;
  • and because I enjoyed it.
This experience of R&D management combined with personal creativity, and of encouraging creativity throughout my organisation, permits some conclusions on how to foster creativity, and benefit from it.
Innovation is crucial to competitiveness. Synergy enhances the productivity of design & development, both in individual projects and in an integrated programme, and it simplifies production, logistic support, training, maintenance and upgrades.
Unfortunately, innovation entails unscheduled effort, unbudgeted expenditure & uncertain outcomes, whereas managers want to control who does what when, and accountants want all effort & expenditure to conform to a pre-established budget.
Synergy in an integrated programme requires some modules to serve multiple applications, and therefore to be developed to a more demanding specification, and time scale than that for their "home" project. But each manager likes to be in full control of his own project, and accountants want to ascribe all effort to single budget headings.
So managers' and accountants' desire for work packages and projects, with assured costs, time-scales & outcomes conflict with an innovative engineer's urge to exploit new technologies, and new ideas, and his evolving insight into his customers' needs, and his aim to maximise life-time cost-effectiveness. This problem is particularly acute in multi-year high-tech programmes, like those in defence or aerospace.
We therefore must devise an organisation where managers understand the need for a defined margin of flexibility in plans and budgets, and where the engineers appreciate the need to fit their innovative creativity into a framework of structured planning and resource management.

Illustrative examples of game-changing lateral thinking

My most significant projects were a response to "unfortunately it can't be done".
At GCHQ, at it was almost a requirement for any project that "outsiders" should regard it as "impossible". Here I reminded the audience briefly of a few innovations which I represented to the club in the past, in order to demonstrate that virtually any application and technology can offer scope for "game-changing" lateral thinking.

Comment 1:
  • The orthogonal mixer to generate the single sideband,
  • the cross-connecting strip for multiplexed sliding contacts,
  • and the telescopic arm to cancel the bow-wave.
    Are three examples of invoking an unrecognised extra degree of freedom.
Comment 2:
  • Fault-tolerant or reconfigurable design,
  • mapping objects rather than voxels in 3D X-ray imaging,
  • and post-detection synthetic microwave focusing
    All are novel approaches to overcome allegedly "prohibitive" constraints.
    All also illustrate transferring a common technology to two very
    different applications and implementations.
Comment 3:
  • Computing the transient energy, rather than the differential equation
  • Avoiding predefined routes rather than armouring the vehicles,
  • Looking for associated effects if the mine is invisible,
  • Transmitting the digitised information, rather than the raw signals,
    All invoke a totally different dimension to tackle an allegedly "impossible" problem.
    They also illustrate how lateral thinking can cover:
  • A simple pulse transformer
  • A complex systems of systems for Force- wide Command-and-Control
  • Military Strategy & Dogma in countering IEDs
Comment 4:
  • Transferring the burden of multi-path compensation,
  • from the many mobiles to the base station,
  • replacing real antennas by virtual ones,
  • switching the emphasis from clever traffic lights to cleverly guided vehicles,
  • exploiting the known radar beam shape in differential processing,

  • Are all examples of tackling problems from a different perspective.

Conclusions Regarding Lateral Thinking

In industry as in Government, it is hard to get backing for a project not based on an established requirement.
Research Councils focus on defined fields and sub-fields and expect an application to cite prior publications, but the scientific journals, too, tend to insist on prior references. These are major obstacles to ground-breaking innovation.

Most of my talk deals with creating conditions where lateral thinking can thrive. Let me also draw some conclusions for the individual engineer:
Regard a dogma that your objective is "impossible" as a challenge.
  • As the name implies, a Dog-ma is a bitch. Give it due disrespect.
  • Go back to the fundamentals:
  • What makes it "impossible"? How can I get round this?
  • What are the implicit constraints? Are they really necessary?
  • Is some feature, parameter or dimension under-used or ignored?
  • Are we tackling the right aspect of the problem?
Of course, there would be no lateral thinking if it were all covered by this check-list. into a framework of structured planning and resource management.

The Project Life Cycle

The figure illustrates a typical project life cycle of five consecutive phases, and their distinct functions and resource requirements.

Fig1: The Project Life Cycle

I shall concentrate on the first two, since these also largely determine what can happen in the later ones.
However, awareness of all five is important, so that early work can lay sound foundations for the later phases, and later work understands the reasons for earlier decisions.
This requires good documentation, and some core staff committed to the project over a long period.

Development of an Innovative Major Project or System.

The overall concept of a major project will hopefully be fundamentally innovative, but its implementation also needs lower-level innovation, to overcome unexpected problems, or to exploit unforeseen opportunities for technical or functional enhancements. In a dynamically changing environment, the progressive crystallisation of a multi-year project's design must accommodate, and ideally anticipate, the evolution of:
  • technology (for Electronics Moore's Law),
  • technical and operational options,
  • user needs (and our insight into them).
  • the competition.
A long-term project shoots at a moving target. Hence planning, organising and contracting for a pre-determined trajectory will result in uncertain, but certainly non-optimum benefit. When changes do become unavoidable, so will time and cost over-runs.
Therefore such projects should explicitly provide for mid-course guidance, to enhance the life-time cost-effectiveness of their end-product.
(But we must guard against frivolous but expensive changes of requirement.)
An assured end-cost for a long-term high-tech project sounds fine, but it is likely to combine the upper limit of cost with the lower limit of value.
It requires uncomfortable lateral thought by administrators
    to abandon fixed trajectories and budgets,
    to enable the essential lateral thought and mid-course guidance by Engineers.
We can rarely be certain of the precise eventual benefit of engineering creativity, but we can be quite certain of the serious consequences of its absence!


Multiple modules, with well-defined interfaces, are a key enabler for efficient design and development, and for synergy within and between projects. Modularity also simplifies maintenance, logistic or technology updates, and functional updates to extend the product's operational life and value.

Time Scale

A long-term innovative project swims against the current of a changing environment, and the loss of momentum and of continuity, due to staff turnover. Furthermore, it faces fixed annual costs.
Hence any expansion of its time-scale, for budgetary or other reasons, increases its overall cost and diminishes its eventual benefit.
It is better to implement fewer projects concurrently, at optimum speed, rather than dissipating resources on drawn-out and inefficient implementation of too many parallel projects, A recession, when many competitors may cut their R&D, is a good time to expand yours, to give you a head start when the economy recovers.

Factors Affecting Institutional Creativity

Short-sighted management may obstruct creativity, with restrictive T o R, inflexible resource allocation, and over-rigorous accounting.
More fundamentally, those who consider your objective "unattainable" won't grant you the latitude to validate your lateral thinking to break that dogma.
However, there is also much that we can do to enable creativity.
Obviously it needs reasonably flexible resource allocation, with a margin for self-initiated work.
It also needs an evolutionary R&D programme, where each step maximises the range of potentially relevant options for subsequent steps.
(I call this "planned serendipity").
Above all, it needs good networking, for synergy, and for interactive discussion:
  • to develop half-formed ideas,
  • to join forces to solve problems,
  • and to understand puzzling results.
To play his part in this, an engineer must maintain wide technology & application interests. When he has a radical new idea, he must still meet his assigned obligations, but then he must be persistent, determined, perhaps even "bloody-minded", to overcome institutional obstacles.

Matrix Organisation

Just as modularity is a key to synergy in project or system design, so a matrix structure fosters problem awareness, cross-fertilisation, and innovation across an R&D organisation.
As illustrated in the Figure, the matrix generates the synergies, which enhance the cost-effectiveness of a total integrated programme, whilst possibly increasing the cost or modifying the timing, of an individual project.

Fig2: Matrix Organisation

The columns represent projects, which however may be able to serve more than one application. The rows represent technologies, all of which support multiple projects. These synergies are crucial to weaving the warp of multiple projects and the weft of multiple technologies into the fabric of an integrated overall programme.

Team Structure

In a project of N work packages, the design freedom in each is restricted by the need to comply with up to N-1 interface specifications, a total of N.(N-1)/2.
Furthermore, an engineer, focused on these directly interacting sub-tasks, may fail to recognise opportunities for wider synergies.
To keep N reasonably small, each of the N section leaders, with a full view of his own work package and its external interfaces and synergies, must have a wide remit. Hence he will normally have to delegate and partition it into multiple sub-packages for detailed implementation, so creating lower-level set of internal interfaces and potential synergies, and similarly for sub-sections.
Such a multi-level hierarchy also gives all team members some prospect for advancement & so is good for morale.
At all levels of this hierarchy, a few high-calibre engineers, each covering a wide remit, are much more effective than larger but more mediocre teams.

Parental Motivation/ "Ownership"

Identifying with the task as my project, my idea my solution, my contribution, my challenge: provides powerful motivation and commitment to its success, well beyond conscientious performance or official working hours. Good management and leadership fosters such task identification.

Example from the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment

We had a good program for training apprentice craftsmen.To teach them also something of innovative design, system engineering, resource management, and team work.
I got them to form teams, to design and build go-carts, and race them competitively.

I let technicians use official stores and tools, in their own time, to build a "rabbit" (i.e. an unofficial product for personal use), provided it had useful original features and it worked as intended. (So, since I couldn't stifle their' initiative for "rabbits", I re-directed it for their professional development.)

For the engineers and scientists, I supplemented the matrix organisation with open informal project reviews, where project leaders reported:
  • The operational problem tackled,
  • The technical approach,
  • Progress achieved,
  • Current problems,
  • Issues yet to be tackled.
I then often started the discussion with a tentative suggestion, specific to this project, or possibly for synergy with other projects. The reply might be:
    that might work, I'll look into it, or
    Yes, but it might be even better if ..... or
    No, but we might .....
So it always stimulated some new ideas. Above all, it encouraged others to offer their thoughts, at the review and/or in subsequent networking.

I allowed each individual engineer, group and division to spend up to 10% of their time and resources on self-initiated work, alone or with colleagues of complementary skills. When the result was sufficiently promising to be taken up from individual to group, or group to division, the lower-level's 10% margin was released for new initiatives. However, the aggregated total of self-initiated work was limited to 10%.

I had a hard fight to maintain this 10% margin, and I fear it has long since been lost. However, I have no doubt of the value of such a margin for self-initiated work (not necessarily 10%) in many government, industrial and academic bodies.

Operational and technical RN officers were assignment to the R&D teams. This gave the engineers a deeper understanding of operational conditions and needs, and so stimulated them to produce solutions to present problems, and to visualise future operational needs or technical opportunities. For our ongoing projects, it allowed our engineers to anticipate problems otherwise revealed only in acceptance trials, and to make provision for future updates. All of this enhanced the pre-obsolescence life, and the life-time cost effectiveness, of the resulting equipments and systems.

The naval officers, in turn, gained from familiarity with current and planned projects, and awareness of R&D potentials and constraints. Thus navy training and doctrine were ready to make good use of upcoming new technical capabilities, and staff targets and requirements were better-informed and more imaginative. It also made the Admiralty staff understand the need for flexibility in funding: within projects, between projects, over time, and overall.

A newly appointed admiral, responsible for formulating our staff requirements and sponsoring our funding, was appalled to see 10% of "his" R&D funds were outside his direct control. He therefore tasked his staff to assess all projects, of the preceding two decades, as a) outstandingly successful, b) reasonably useful, or c) poor value for resources.
He was startled that the 20% of projects rated as outstandingly successful, i.e. operational "game-changers", all originated from engineers' self-initiated work, and the 20% of projects rated as poor value for resources or even total failure all originated from formal staff requirements. The remaining 60%, rated as reasonably useful, also mostly originated from staff requirements.

This illustrates that it is easier for the engineer to visualise his client's problems and potential solutions to them than for the customer " or administrator - to visualise all that technology might do for him.


I hope my talk will stimulate your further thoughts on the proper balance between engineering creativity and accounting certainty.

Ralph Benjamin