This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
Dyson is an engineering led company and the problem-solving approach of an engineer pervades all our departments, whether or not they are directly involved in the development of our technology.
None of us are entrepreneurs, we are engineers – and there are some sharp business minds, too. I don't like to tell others how to do their jobs, but if I had to draw some themes they would probably be as follows:
Mistrust experts – do it differently
I've always put faith in youth and inexperience – I started Dyson with a small group of recent graduates. We've grown since then and now have more than 2,000 engineers and scientists – but we still recruit about half directly from university.
Don't underestimate the power of inexperience – the average age of our research team is 26. We insert a few seasoned professionals who bring in external expertise but we give young people genuine responsibility from day one. We expect them to question why something works and to solve problems.
I'm not interested in how a problem was solved last time; I want to find the best way to solve it this time. For an engineer, that means sketching, prototyping, and testing. It's not a linear process, but a cycle of failure which means that problems are solved properly (even if it takes longer).
This mind-set is not limited to technology-led companies like ours, anyone can benefit from it. Don't just blindly do things the way they have always been done – take a new approach, and take a risk. It leads to better, more interesting, outcomes.
Take a long term view – don't always be commercial
Dyson is a family business. We haven't cashed in our chips as many have. That allows us to take a long-term view. We take risks every day. By extending your timescales, the problems of today fade in significance; you can get through them by seeing the (far greater) opportunity of the future.
As a private family company, we have the freedom to think differently. We are not always commercial but our business has to make money, so we can grow and develop new ideas and technologies. We plow millions each week into our research and development and have partnerships with the most exciting universities in the world. We're ambitious, investing approximately $2.7 billion in our future technology, and will launch 100 new products around the world in the next four years.
We don't study the likely return on investment, but invest in unproven ideas that show even a distant glimmer of genius. The sure bets and easy wins are just that – and dull, to boot. Take the Dyson Airblade hand dryer, which came into being by accident. We were experimenting with air knives for a different project, and saw how effective the high velocity air was at drying hands – we quickly changed course. While the original plan lay by the wayside (and is still there for a quiet day), moving on to Airblade was a better course of action – it's the fastest way to dry hands hygienically. It's also more environmentally friendly than the alternatives.
Learn from others
It's important to have heroes. For me, Frank Whittle is just that. He was an intuitive engineer who amazingly got things right the first time, and had extraordinary foresight. He was dogged in the pursuit of a better aircraft engine, despite lack of interest from the air ministry. The Merlin engine had something like 13,000 moving parts; his jet engine had only one. There are few examples of such leaps to work first time, and it gave Britain a huge advantage over the Germans. We have just bought the oldest working example of Whittle's engine, as a symbol of perseverance for our engineers – it sits in the heart of our research and development hall in England.
But it's young engineers who inspire me most. The Canadian winner of the 2015 James Dyson Award is a young industrial designer from the Ontario College of Art and Design who designed Drumi, a sustainable foot-powered washing machine that requires no electricity and emits zero carbon emissions. As with all the best problem-solving designs, it will be simple to use, but effective.
Fuelled by technology and long-term thinking, we'll continue to live by behaviours which encourage us to develop better machines and supercharge our global growth.
Special to The Globe and Mail