December 15, 2016

Q & A With Ramtin Attar

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As a Senior Principal Research Scientist and Head of Design & Social Impact at Autodesk Research, Ramtin focuses on projects that build strategic partnerships and bolster growth through collaborations of agencies, divisions, and sectors. A passionate city-builder, Ramtin is also a DiverseCity Fellow with deep interest in innovation ecosystems and future of cities. We asked him for insights on how the Autodesk team manages to run so many projects at such a brisk pace.

What does intrapreneurship mean to you? How would you define it?

Intrapreneurship is vital to the long-term performance of companies. I look at it from the perspective of someone working for a large organization; it’s a set of traits that enable organizational transformation as well as a capacity to spur new ventures either related or unrelated to company’s core business.

Tell me about your day job: how do you do what you do? What motivates you to keep moving forward

Autodesk Research is a unique team dedicated to innovation; we tackle a wide range of technical topics and focus on the future of making things. We work with a long-term view of how key technology trends could impact our business and customers. In short, research team provides deep expertise, thought leadership and advancement outside of product development cycles. Hence, research team is organizationally situated outside of individual product groups because that gives us the agility to explore and assume risk. On the other hand, not being embedded in the machinery of product development limits access to key resources and business processes that are key to bringing larger innovations to the market. Naturally there’s always a gap to bridge between research and product that I refer to as the hot zone of intrapreneurship; as researchers, we need to be highly entrepreneurial and be able to take risk, generate support for our ideas, influence others, and solve problems along the way.

Autodesk’s mission is to help people Imagine, Design, and Create a Better world. This starts with us as the toolmakers that support millions of creative professionals around the world making anything from a high performance car to products, media and sustainable infrastructures and buildings. Then, there is my immediate environment; a team that has grown over the years to house an incredible collection of talents. You can just walk around our lab where is a great energy of amazing ideas in motion. My biggest motivator is being part of a team that feels comfortable to continuously exercise big thinking.

Describe the latest most interesting project you have worked on. What happened? What are the results of your work?

We’re moving our entire office to MaRSDD in 2017, and this is a project that truly touches on different aspects of intrapreneurship. It’s about transforming organizational capacity by embedding ourselves in a thriving global innovation hub, and working closely with internal and external actors to build the massive support system required to bring this forward. We are also using this project as an opportunity in technology innovation. Our office layout will be the first of its scale to use generative-design technology; a process of defining architectural goals and constraints and using the power of computation to generate and evolve thousands of design options. We’re applying technology in real time to the project in progress. It’s super compelling!

Which company / large organization in your mind is doing innovation well? Who do you look up to and feel inspired by?

Interestingly Intrapreneurship is one of the fastest growing topics in the academic field of management and innovation, and a good body of literature is starting to emerge that provides interesting insights and inspiration on the topic. In the current research, there are two camps of study. One that looks at individual traits, and the other that looks at the big picture of what it even means for a company to have intrapreneurship orientation. But there’s still the lack of great metrics on how to measure intrapreneurship across a large knowledge-intensive company.

Aside from episodic instances of innovation in various large-scale companies, I can’t put a finger on a poster-child just yet. To draw inspiration, I often try to develop a bigger picture by connecting dots between instances. For instance, when looking back at Autodesk, there is a great history of successfully riding the waves disruption from early mainframe computers to today’s cloud computing and business model transition.

What’s your best advice for the intrapreneurs and companies interested in nurturing the culture of innovation? How do you spot – and overcome – the barriers to move things forward?

Culture is both the biggest driver of change and the hardest thing to change due to having a slow cycle. Culture is practiced at both individual and organizational level entailing a reciprocal effect. Organisations exert a level of control over social relationships, and also act as a reference in risk-taking and setting clear objectives.

Ultimately, Innovation is about channeling thoughts into action. It starts with creative process that requires tremendous support to pass through all the steps in the innovation continuum. However, to enable innovation, you don’t necessarily need to be an idea generator, but to have the capacity to turn good ideas into significant results, which means you should be able find ideas anywhere within your work and make them “happen.”

Every intrapreneurial activity entails an inherent underlying conflict between a group of people and the organisation as a whole–the more radical the innovation, the harder it becomes to surmount hierarchies, rigid immune systems, and conflicts. To combat that, it’s critical to hone your communication, collaboration, and ability to rally support to make your ideas a reality.

Ramtin Attar

Senior Principal Research Scientist

Autodesk Research

Ramtin Attar is a Senior Principal Research Scientist at Autodesk Research and Head of Design & Social Impact.

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