Inventors as Heroes

Stephen DeAngelis

September 17, 2009

Luke Johnson, who runs a private equity firm called Risk Capital Partners, recently published an op-ed piece in the Financial Times in which he claims “Inventors are our greatest heroes” [2 September 2009]. He explicitly makes the claim because he believes that society under-appreciates the people who spend their time inventing the things that make our lives better. He writes:

“Society has a curious attitude towards inventors. Their brilliance over the centuries touches all of our lives in countless ways, yet we mostly take their efforts for granted. Indeed, more often than not in Britain we caricature them as eccentric boffins, like Caractacus Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This ambivalence is a mistake; to me, they are perhaps the greatest heroes of all.”

Johnson also regrets that most “inventions” now seem to come from corporate teams rather than individual giants of invention like Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. He looks back wistfully on the days when progress had personalities with which it could be associated. “There are too few such inspirational figures around today to dazzle and excite,” he writes. “Perhaps the solitary ideas of one man (or woman) are not enough to produce real technological progress in the 21st century.” I don’t agree that we don’t have personalities today that can excite us. I think of men like Dean Kamen (inventor of the Segway and numerous medical devices) and Ray Kurzweil (who has invented things in fields as diverse as optical character recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology, and electronic keyboard instruments). Anyone who has ever heard these gentlemen speak knows they can stir the soul. Where I do agree with Johnson is that inventors don’t achieve the recognition and celebrity they probably deserve. The chipmaker Intel is running a commercial in which a scientist is shown receiving the kind of attention generally reserved for Hollywood celebrities. The tagline of the commercial is something like, “Our heroes are different than your heroes.” The government seems to do public service announcements on every other subject; perhaps it should run a series on inventors as heroes.

Johnson writes about some of the challenges that inventors face from corporate giants that appear ready, willing, and able to engage in patent infringement. “Knowledge of patent law and persistence bordering on the obsessive,” he writes, “seem useful attributes if you want to be a successful inventor.” He continues:

“The subject of intellectual property and its protection is a contentious one. Industries like the pharmaceutical trade exist thanks to laws that allow them to enjoy temporary monopolies for original drugs. Vast, long-term research and development expenditure can only be recouped because of this complex system. But some would argue that charging high prices (which often bear no relation to the cost of production) for life-saving treatments is immoral. Certainly, the juicy profits enjoyed by big pharma in the US are part of the reason that healthcare costs there are so high. Yet we are all beneficiaries of their discoveries and formulations. I believe in freedom for enterprise, but I also think entrepreneurs must be allowed to reap the just rewards for their efforts.”

Although he admits that innovators seek to be rewarded for their efforts, they are also motivated by a desire to see an idea actualized. He writes:

“Inventors I have met are fundamentally motivated by a desire to see their creations become appreciated and recognised, rather than an urge to accumulate wealth. Tim Berners-Lee, the man responsible more than any other for the initiation of the world wide web, is a classic example of this attitude. He is a modest academic who has, I am sure, resisted countless overtures to make huge fortunes from the web, in order to carry on his role as one of its custodians.”

Johnson notes that “inventors must have a deeply practical streak: they need to think of ways to fabricate new things. They should be a combination of artist and engineer: with the vision to imagine a new device and the ability to make it come to life.” It’s the ability to make something “come to life” that differentiates an inventor from dreamer. He concludes:

“We need inventors more than ever if we are to improve the world. From a cure to Alzheimer’s to better car batteries, there are thousands of urgent problems that need solving. History suggests the magical combination of technology, capitalism and brains is capable of meeting every challenge – despite the doubts of the pessimists.”

Individual inventors are heroic because the great ones are rare. Perhaps the world has become too specialized to create another Thomas Edison. Nevertheless, people come up with good ideas all of the time. Unfortunately, many of those ideas are never acted upon. Although I don’t believe that pedestrian thinkers can change into innovative thinkers, even the most pedestrian thinker comes up with an occasional insight. The challenge for businesses is how to capture that insight and build upon it. Kathy Gurchiek, an associate editor for HR News, believes that companies can help stimulate eureka moments in their employees [“Motivating Innovation, HR Magazine, September 2009 — membership required to view]. This is not as simple as putting up a suggestion box next to the boss’ office. Most suggestion boxes collect more cobwebs than ideas. Gurchiek says that an organization needs to foster curiosity in their employees. Innovators are naturally curious people and want to know why things work — or just as importantly, why they don’t. If employees aren’t free to ask questions, they won’t be free to offer suggestions.

She also restates what every book, article, and speech about innovative organizations states — you must be willing to take risks. If an organization isn’t experiencing failures, it’s not an innovative company. To substantiate her case, she reports the observations of someone who has studied innovation: “Failure is ‘100 percent intrinsic to successful innovation,’ notes Tom Kuczmarski, author of Innovation: Leadership Strategies for the Competitive Edge (McGraw-Hill, 1996), who suggests throwing failure parties so people learn from their mistakes.” She also points out good advice from Mike Taylor, president of Innovative-e Inc., a technology consulting and services company in Atlanta, who notes it would be “foolhardy to blindly allow change without considering the possible scope of failure.”

She applauds what Johnson laments, that “teams are considered the engines of innovation and creativity that lead to future products and services.” When teams are creative it’s generally because they have been assembled to deal with a specific challenge and the team contains members from divergent backgrounds. The divergent backgrounds create what Frans Johansson calls “the Medici Effect.” Gurchiek agrees that “diversity helps.” Here’s what she writes on the subject of diversity:

“Cross-functional innovation teams ease buy-in from various departments, which is vital when it’s time to create a prototype, says Tom Kuczmarski, author of Innovation: Leadership Strategies for the Competitive Edge (McGraw-Hill, 1996). Sharon Flank, who holds six patents and has another six pending, assembles unlikely teams to stimulate innovation. Flank is CEO of InfraTrac, a Silver Spring, Md., company that tracks and detects counterfeit drugs. ‘Here’s what has worked with my teams,’ she says:

  • Select people with different perspectives, backgrounds and expertise.
  • Make sure the team does not solely consist of people who work together regularly.
  • Bring teams up-to-date on the challenge, the state of the art
    and the options to date. E-mail is good for this purpose.
  • Give team members the time and an informal atmosphere to incubate ideas.

‘Once they’re prepared, put them together for a while. After an hour or two, feed them,’ she says. ‘The conversation will continue informally, and you may get better results. Creativity will continue after this session, so don’t despair if you don’t get anything right away.'”

Gurchiek believes this last point is important — “don’t despair if you don’t get anything right away.” Patience and tenacity, she notes, are key characteristics of innovative organizations. Tenacity is important because a it helps overcome the “shiny penny syndrome.” She explains:

“To truly value innovation, leaders must empower workers. They must be explicit in what they mean by innovation and why it’s important to survival—and they should share examples of ideas. It’s important, too, to question the company’s basic operating assumptions, he adds. There is more to innovation, though, than identifying possible ideas, says Mitchell Gooze, who spent 20 years in the high-technology industry and managed four companies for Teledyne. One of the biggest problems companies have, he says, is deciding from among many ideas which ones to implement—and sticking with those ideas. Often there is a disconnect between what the CEO thinks can be done and what is possible with the resources available, says Gooze. Alternatively, leaders of some companies keep changing their minds about what they want to do. ‘They have the “shiny penny” syndrome where they keep chasing after the next shiny penny,’ Gooze notes.”

Of course, organizations can face exactly the opposite problem as well. They stick too tenaciously to an idea whose time is past. Isabelle Royer, discussed this problem in an article entitled, “Why Bad Projects Are So Hard to Kill” [Harvard Business Review, February 2003]. She wrote:

“The failures I’ve examined resulted, ironically, from a fervent and widespread belief among managers in the inevitably of their projects’ ultimate success. … The result is what I call collective belief, and it can lead an otherwise rational organization into some very irrational behavior.”

She recommends assigning an “exit champion” who has the right temperament and enough credibility to pull the plug on failing pet projects. An organization requires a culture that breeds trust in its employees in order to foster an environment in which both innovators and exit champions can work. Gruchiek concludes her article on that topic. She writes, “An environment where employees feel safe broaching ideas, trying new things, taking risks and failing is imperative to fostering a culture of innovation, and trust is key for such a culture to take root.” Fostering an innovative environment is not easy. Creating an environment that stifles innovation unfortunately is. In a sidebar, she lists some “Innovation Busters”:

“‘Not everyone will adore and support you’ for trying to be innovative, observes Joni Daniels of Daniels & Associates, a Baltimore-based organizational development and management training company. Be prepared to address the following factors that Daniels says inhibit innovation:

  • A hectic environment where there is no time for reflection.
  • A sterile environment where creativity is not stimulated.
  • Rigid rules and barriers that prevent people from connecting.
  • Stress that saps creative energy.
  • Routines that limit responses.
  • Egos that keep organizations stuck.
  • Fear of self-expression.
  • Negative self-thinking.

I’ve written before about most of the things discussed in this post about innovation. It’s always good to remind ourselves, however, about some of the do’s and don’ts of innovation. My advice is to give truly innovative thinkers a free rein to explore ideas and provide an institutionalized way to capture good ideas generated by more pedestrian thinkers. Good ideas need to appreciated and explored before the naysayers get a chance to knock them down.