‘Efficient’ invention

Research and Development… they’re essentially the same thing, aren’t they (“Arrandee”)? Well, no…and failing to make the distinction is costing a fortune.

1. Research is about investigating nature by thinking up and actually doing experiments (disproving and improving theories). You can’t plan scientific research any farther than the next experiment. It’s literally like playing a game in which imagination guides your next move. Werner Von Braun said research was what he was doing when he didn’t know what he was doing. Invention has essentially the same character. As companies like 3M have begun to discover, you can’t necessarily generate a brilliant idea today just because it appears on some project plan. The more pressure you put on people, the more they generate only derivative results.

2. Development (a.k.a. Technology, Engineering) is about applying research results in a highly controlled way to deliver some benefit to people. This can and should be planned. You can apply your Six Sigma methodology or whatever to Development and it can reap huge benefits in terms of heightened efficiencies and quality.

These two activities are fundamentally different, even if the world is full of people who can’t be bothered to understand that. My working definition is that if a solution to your current problem is known to exist and you seek an improvement or efficiency increase, then you are doing engineering or development work. If no solution is known to exist, then it’s research.

The reason that this matters is that it is possible to invest a massive amount of money in a development project only to discover that it contains a research question hidden within it. At that point, the plan is derailed, because you have to start doing experiments -a haphazard, stumbling process with many blind alleys. The good news is that research is the only known process for gaining really big advances.

People who demand budgetary estimates or deliverables in connection with a research project (or an inventive task) are unaware of the true nature of the endeavour.

There are, however, some ways in which the mysterious process of invention can be improved and supported. Here are some techniques I seem to use.

  • introduce asymmetry e.g. everyone is not the same, so why should we all have the same seats provided?
  • look at stuff that’s “always” true (people walk forward) and challenge that
  • concentrate on real problems. They are sometimes hard to find because we just take it for granted that certain things are always going to be with us
  • as you wake up, pause and relax into a state of semiconscious reflection: it seems to disable that internal voice which usually says, “that’s a stupid idea”…invention seems to start as a right-brain, holistic thing.
  • look at things from a different perspective eg underneath or from space
  • improve on a good idea, eg velcro (what if it could also generate static sparks for illumination purposes?)
  • combine old and new approaches…sometimes reversion to paper and clockwork can yield a great idea
  • sometimes, just changing quantity can have a qualitative effect (eg twin-engine planes are safer than single-engine ones by a factor >>2)
  • spot ‘metaphors‘ eg a laptop is superficially like a book, so why can’t we have a multiscreen laptop, analogous to pages?
  • go to new places, experience new things…it seems to make useful connections, behind the scenes
  • only a small fraction of ideas will ever be any use: so have lots.

Actually, it was Linus Pauling, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in chemistry and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, who said, “The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.”

I’ll be attempting to add to this list as I become more aware of how the mechanisms of inventiveness may work.

Here are some techniques for better ideas generation.

This NYT article talks about how epiphanies occur only after prolongued grinding away at hard problems. Personally, I think that somehow conscious work on a problem activates the unconscious mechanisms that actually deliver valuable results. It’s certainly true that many ideas will be crazy, but if you overrule the crazy ones internally, the good ones get suppressed too.

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