INVENTology: A book review by Bob Morris

INVENTologyINVENTology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World
Pagan Kennedy
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (February 2016)

Mother Nature: The ultimate mentor for both invention and innovation

The last time I checked, Amazon US was offering 31,976 books for sale in the “creativity” category. I have read and reviewed more than one hundred of them and learned a great deal about a subject that has fascinated me since childhood. Why another? As with the residential real estate mantra that for every house there is a buyer, for every book there is a reader and I think many readers will share my high regard and deep appreciation for the wealth of valuable information, insights, and counsel that Pagan Kennedy provides.

In the Introduction, she offers working definitions of invention and innovation by Art Fry — the originator of the Post-it Note — who developed his own way of distinguishing invention from innovation, “and his definitions are so illuminating that I will borrow them and use them throughout this book. Invention, according to Fry, is what happens when you translate a thought into a thing. More specifically, Fry points out that an invention usually involves creating a prototype that lets you test your concept and demonstrate that it works. Once you’ve created that model, ’the creation becomes an invention,’ according to Fry. The process may require dreaming, drawing, observation, idea generation, discovery, tinkering, and engineering. But it should end with the proof.

“Innovation is what happens afterwards. It ‘is the act of working through all of the obstacles and problems in the path of turning a creative idea into a business,’ according to Fry. Indeed, the term innovation is often used as a catchall word to describe the challenges companies must overcome in order to mass-produce a product. — like streamlining, shaving costs, managing supply chains, and assembling teams of collaborators.”

Few people will create something entirely new but all people can — and many will — improve something. Those who do are inclined to ask questions that begin “What if…” and “Why not…” That’s what Art Fry did when he needed to keep track of selections in his hymnal when singing in his church choir. He cut and inserted slips of paper but they kept falling out. Fortunately, he knew about a glue developed by his company (3M) that “wasn’t sticky enough” but it stuck well enough to remain attached to the hymnal’s pages. Problem solved.

Kennedy shares dozens of such stories in her lively as well as eloquent and informative book. She explains how some people rely on reverse invention: they come up with an end product and then back up from it to determine how to produce it. She explains how other people converted “nothing” into something very special (e.g. penicillin). She also offers several examples of other situations in which someone asked (perhaps only to herself), “Why hasn’t anyone figured out a way to….” A tennis instructor asked that because his knees ached from constantly bending over to pick up a thousand practice balls. He devised a solution (a “ball hopper”) that someone else later modified (in the shape of a plastic tube) to pick up golf balls during practice sessions.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Kennedy’s coverage in Parts I and II:

o Five Paths to Great Ideas (Pages xiv-xvi)
o Lead User Theory (5-8)
o The Bucket Brigade (10-11)
o The Dark Matter of Invention (14-22)
o Inventor as Ethnographer (29-30)
o The Pre-Mortem (34-36)
o Crowd-Whispering (37-40)
o Low-Cost Failure, Lots of Feedback (40-42)
o Super-Encounterers (47-51)
o The Art of Luck (56-58)
o Tinkering (58-62)
o Engineered Serendipity (70-73)
o Dr. Yogen Saunthazrarajah/Cleveland Clinic (76-78)
o A Fortune Built on One Piece of Paper (80-85)
o Everyday MacGyvers (85-86)
o Building 20: Tim Anderson and “Techno Garbage” (87-92
o The Power of Nothing (92-94)

Kennedy explores “the first steps, the embryos, origins, and private visions that give birth to new [and/or better] things.” And I repeat, almost anyone can improve something they do, often by improving how they do it. She also acknowledges the importance of environment such as a culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to flourish. “This book is a testament to just how powerful our situations can be in shaping our ideas. To achieve the most valuable kind of breakthrough, you often need to be in the right place at the right time, performing the odd or unusual activity that allows you to open a door that is closed to everyone else…And this is why opening up the doors to a diversity of people will transform nit just the power of airy ideas, but the very way that we invent.”

Pagan Kennedy concludes with an intriguing idea that I hope she develops in much greater depth in a book yet to be written: evolving another system of invention “that mimics the natural world, so that we become a more robust species, better able to survive and adapt. We need an R&D system like the system that protects our own bodies — open, obstreperous, and resilient. It should gain strength from every attack on it.”

Presumably she agrees with me that before we can dream up whatever can “change the world,” however, we must first change the way we think about change. Those who read this book will be well-prepared to embrace that challenge.

Posted in

Leave a Comment