Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Decrypting Invention, Innovation, and Discovery

When we learn of an innovation, often enough our reaction is “Wow, it's so obvious, why didn't I think of that?” and we get the “I could kick myself” sort of feeling, and we begin our own search for the secrets of inventiveness.

Humanity as a whole is fascinated by inventors and their startling discoveries. I'm thinking of inventions that have succeeded so well that we are all aware of them. But not all inventions are commercially successful! With a little introspection, we realize that the main thing that makes some discoveries turn into commercial successes is their ability to solve real problems that folks face. The business world needs innovations that will pay-off.

In order to filter out everything noncommercial, and to funnel our discovery process towards finding stuff that can sell, we try to zero in on delineating and solving pain points. We observe processes with focus to see if we can't hit on some solutions for ourselves. We are selectively observant, seeking discoveries and innovations that solve real problems that folks face. Ideas come boiling out and that's how many of today's startups have sprung their share of innovations. Seeing startups hit success, established industry becomes more responsive and more committed to processes favoring innovation.

Pinning down how innovation happens, that discovery process itself, has proved to be difficult. We teach our people how to break everyday processes down step by step, to do walk-throughs, with an eye on improving the effectiveness and acuteness of our observation. In the process we can also generate data that can be studied for clues. A major key to innovation is focussed observation.

Much has been written about the importance of observation, and observation itself has been turned into something of a science. But just saying 'let's observe' has not in itself driven us to more innovation (that's my feeling at any rate). While observation can and should be taught, there are many to whom observation comes naturally, and for some of these 'naturally observant' there 'naturally' follows a creative process, which does result in new applications.

Observation on its own is a bit like keeping lots of stuff in storage. The inventor is not just an excellent searcher, but also has the ability after noticing (and storing away) to manipulate that stuff, rearranging and bringing together disparate bits of information, inferring connections, and reassembling them into something new. For the sake of simplicity, we'll dub this as lateral thinking (clue #2).

A man walked his dog through the woods and when they got home... A well known discovery starts with the casual observation of hard to remove plant burrs on his clothes and his dog's fur. Further examination revealed the tiny hooks on the burrs, and 10 years of work later it became VELCRO. De Mestral was laughed at, but he persevered. Nowadays we talk of biomimesis (copying nature) and it's become something of a necessity to study the natural world for clues to useful inventions! At its broadest, anything and everything from nanotech to astronomy is a potential source of new inventions, and we even have rather unhelpful names for each of these styles of observation. Breadth of knowledge IS important, giving us our third clue – eclecticism. Commercially successful innovations are often found by those creative persons who pursue broad interests.

The rewards for success are potentially huge. Downline of any good discovery come the myriads of different potential uses and all the spinoffs that can be created that put resulting inventions and innovations to work.

As we gear up to make discovery a scientific process, we try out many things. Discoveries don't always happen only to individuals! Brainstorming can be brilliantly creative, so group approaches are being tried. Work patterns and cultures at many R&D sections are also in a state of flux as we look for the right environments and working conditions to foster innovation. Right now, flexi vs office, is hotly debated. Many companies are leaving it to their employees and teams to manage their own work environments/schedules etc., and hybrid suggestions are also being experimented with (e.g. 2 days in + 3 days out of the office).

From what I've seen, even the high profile (and closely watched) inventor and originator does not show us any obvious 'process of observation-creation' at work. We usually find out about the keen observation only in retrospect. High profile inventors do have a bent for observation, and in addition there are large dollops of curiosity. Does it seem obvious that curiosity is what drives observation? We find our inventors to be avid questioners, fascinated with the whys and hows, and willing to dig deep to find answers.

To summarize, we do have some clues, but I don't believe that we've got to the heart of discovering how discovery can always be made to happen. What we have in hand so far, are focussed observation, curiosity, eclecticism, lateral thinking, and shaking things up to see what results. In practice, our approach seems to be more of an extension of the life hack. We're asking “Is there a shortcut, a less painful way of getting to discovery?”

Even if an invention isn't on the cards, remember that almost anything can be improved upon and even improvised upon, and therein lies a very valuable source for both startups and more established industries. In market terms, a good improvement is just as valuable and may be more easily marketable than creating a whole new niche! Keep in mind that surrounding business trends also impinge on the process of discovery including concepts like #lean and #agile that are emerging environments for businesses to explore.

Discovery-Invention-Innovation puts together at least these components:
Eclectic interests
Lateral thinking - Creativity
Changes in business culture/environment - disruption

Let's jump ahead a bit. Okay, so we created something really innovative. If it is not to be one of the zillions of discoveries that just sink out of sight, then the inventor must put it together and put it to use. Is there a ready demand for what you've got? If not, then can the demand be created? Is it patentable or otherwise protectable from easy copying? Have you put it together as well as it needs to be – Remember: Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.” (Brian Reed). New stuff has to be thoroughly tested, the kinks worked out, and reliability ascertained. Great Idea + Poor execution = (costly) Suicide!

Now, let's briefly consider some major risks:

Risk 1 - That old conundrum of challenging the status quo. This is The Establishment! It's a big and very well oiled machine with few kinks, the technology is sound, branding is well established, and channels and pipelines are solidly in place. Into that deep end, you are readying yourself to dive. Competition is a great thing if it is allowed to flourish. When battling giants, getting yourself off to a good start is tough. However, when your innovation is likely to rock someone's boat, stifling it before it gets a toehold is an effective (responding or preemptive) strategy. It's no a joke, so take it seriously, for serious innovations can constitute 'dangerous' challenges to established industry, and so can be bought out and buried - to the detriment of humanity. Perhaps those established players think that they're 'too big to fail', and so the death and burial of any potential irritants is justifiable. In today's Darwinian world of business, let the unwary inventor beware!

Risk 2 – Perhaps what you have discovered is so far ahead of everything else that there's no easy way to fit it into today's market. On a more mundane level, perhaps it will take time for the technology to become available either for manufacturing or for using your idea. We know that for all intents and purposes, Babbage had put together all the building blocks theoretically needed for a computer way back in the 1870s, but it took most of a century for computers to be made. Check for a good #fit, as it so very often happens that when there is no immediate fit (market fit, making fit, culture fit), further development may have to stop. If you noticed in the Velcro tale, it took 20 years to get from discovery to market acceptance - but our world of inventions is moving faster and faster, so you may not have to wait that long for your time to come!

Risk 3 – The world of innovation is accelerating. While you may be thinking that you are the newest entrant and readying for the newtech vs oldtech battle outlined in Risk 1, there might be alternative technology that makes your effort redundant just after or even before you launch - I'm reminded of England's Clive Sinclair somewhere in the early 1980s coming off his hugely successful ZX80 microcomputer, developing a truly exceptional 'bent tube' flat screen pocket TV (that had a tiny 2” display but had all 625 lines and deployed a Fresnel lens no less). He launched his remarkable invention just before LCDs took over the small display market.

Having really discovered something – pause and think it through:
  • What does it do? How will people find it useful?
  • How and where will it fit in, in today's market?
  • Will it scale?
  • What spin-offs will it support?
  • Can we handle the competition?

Unless (and even if!) you are a genius on multiple fronts, here's a good time to deploy a close think tank to properly think it through. Please do all the basics including SWOTs and viewing from different perspectives (change hats) including gaming, and study what lies ahead... You have begun, but till you launch and succeed, all you've done is to make a discovery!

A final thought. If you value innovation, then surround yourself with innovators. There are of course plenty of inventors out there, but a surprising truth is that many of the folks around us are nascent inventors, yet unaware that they could be nurturing ideas that might change the world! Let's say that your company has a couple of hundred carefully selected people, I'd say there's a good chance that quite a few of them already have the seeds of discovery within themselves, seeds that are just awaiting your discovery and nurture to sprout and burst into bloom. It's frankly unlikely (but not impossible) to find them in your own R&D section. Clues can be as simple as noting the persons who do their own research (love to learn), or suggest process improvements that increase quality, reduce wastage, tweak alignment, or improve reliability, so do keep your eyes wide open for those sparks of creativity.

A personal note – I have a strong sense of deja vu when looking over modern debates on the ingredients and processes of creativity – and what it reminds me of are the 16C (in England) debate on mimesis vs poesis.
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