Dan Bull, Innovation Program Lead at Rockwell Automation, hasn’t always worked in innovation.
Prior to assuming his current role in mid-2022, Bull worked in sales, and participated in innovation challenges at the company. But through those experiences, Bull said he found a passion for innovation. He now oversees the innovation challenges he once participated in.
Rockwell Automation is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but Bull is based in Wales. The $7.76 billion company works on industrial automation and information technology.
As part of our member spotlight series, we caught up with Bull to hear about his team’s projects, moving from sales into the innovation arena, and advice he has for new innovators.
Could you tell me how your role is defined, what your day-to-day work looks like, and who you report to?
My official title at Rockwell is Innovation Program Leader, so I look after internal innovation programs at Rockwell. I report to Gwenn Peters, who is Director of Innovation here at Rockwell. While her work is wider reaching with some external focus, I’m predominantly focused on internal aspects.
We have our flagship innovation program, called Innovation Challenge. A lot of organizations say, “We have an innovation challenge, so therefore, we’re innovative.” But [their idea challenge] is often a one-day thing where people can come up with their best ideas.
For us, it’s much more of a process; it happens over the course of four or five months. We take the teams through various stages as part of the challenge. We offer coaching and guidance; we offer workshops on design thinking; we offer pitch coaching. A big part of my role is to mentor and coach teams along the way. I’ll have check-ins with teams, just to make sure that they’re really getting their ideas and their innovations into the best shape possible, so when they present them to senior leadership, they’re going to impress. As part of the competition, we get sponsorship right up front from our senior leadership, to sponsor at least one idea in their category to follow through.
What is a big project that you’ve helped shepherd a team through in the past couple of months?
We have seven sponsor teams from last year’s Innovation Challenge. They’re across a number of different parts of the organization [because] we don’t want to have innovation in just one particular area. We have innovation that’s focused on sustainability; innovation that’s focused on product; on our customer experience; all these different categories.
One [project] that we recently worked on is a team [focused on] creating a brand-new role at Rockwell that’s focused on helping our people navigate their careers internally. That’s one that we are particularly proud of.
The role is a talent navigator. In America, the Great Resignation is real, particularly post-pandemic. People are looking at their careers differently, and they’re open to exploring new ventures. People aren’t as cautious as they used to be, and we want to retain our best talent here at Rockwell.
Many times, when people leave an organization… there could well be opportunities… inside the organization that they’ve just left. We want to make sure that our best talent and our high performers understand what opportunities are available to them at Rockwell. We help them navigate those internal options before they turn to looking for those opportunities externally.
Tell me about your career path up to this point. What led you to the role that you’re in now?
By nature, I’m probably not the typical Rockwell employee. I’m not an engineer by trade. My background is in business IT. I was always passionate about how IT solutions can make an impact in the business world.
I was always interested in wide-reaching impact, but most of my career, I’ve been in commercial roles… I’ve always been in sales, but equally, I’ve always been an innovator. Even in my everyday roles, I was always looking for avenues and paths to improve processes… Once upon a time, I was a participant in some of [Rockwell’s] innovation programs. Now I run them.
What would you say is the biggest learning you’ve had in the past year working as a leader in the innovation space, rather than as a participant?
I think you get much more of an insight to the barriers to innovation when you’re running the program. When you’re a participant, you just get all the good stuff — you get to just innovate and work on your creative solutions, and others are there kind of helping you push that rock uphill. When you’re in charge, it’s [up] to you to remove those barriers…
One thing that was very different for me was the amount of whitespace that you have to work in. In sales, everything’s really well defined — there’s a number you’ve got to hit; you know how you’ve got to go and do it; you know what products you’ve got to sell… Innovation processes are not [as well] defined. There is often no known route forwards. You’ve got to figure all that out as you go along, and with that comes a lot of whitespace. So it’s very difficult; it’s hard to measure. That was quite a big adjustment for me coming from that background of sales, where everything is so clearly defined.
When you look back on your career, both including sales and innovation, what is something that you wish you knew that you would tell someone who’s starting in innovation now?
I wish I had known sooner what getting involved in innovation could do for my career. So much of what I’ve learned over the past years with Rockwell hasn’t necessarily been learned in my day job. It’s been those stretch activities, and it’s been getting involved in things that you might not normally get involved in — just putting your hand in the air and saying, “I’m going to get involved with that.”
I’ve met people in other parts of the organization, other parts of the world, that I would never have met otherwise. I wish I’d known sooner what the power [of] getting involved in innovation can do for you, because you just don’t know where it’s going to lead. You can end up falling in love with something completely new; it could change your career path; it could bring new skills… I think innovation as a vehicle for professional development is a wonderful thing.
Innovators are always learning. Are there some specific websites, newsletters, podcasts, or books that you feel like you’ve learned a lot from and would recommend to others?
I love Simon Sinek’s [book] “Start With Why.” I think there’s so much power in that, and… that’s a book I recommend to a lot of innovators to go and read.
Clayton Christensen is somebody who, for me, is arguably one of the fathers of innovation. His disruptive innovation thought leadership is definitely worth reading up on.