Thursday, August 20, 2009

Inventing for the “Next Bench”

If necessity is the mother of invention, then this period we are all going through could prove to be a golden age of invention.

The value of the “gold” in this golden age may derive more from the quality than the quantity of the inventions created during this period. By quality, we mean the invention’s impact, its breadth and duration of influence on society. While there are an enormous number of inventions clogging global patent and trademark offices, the substance, value and societal significance of many of these inventions may improve the patent holder’s competitive interests more than advance society’s intrinsic interests.

Several years ago client work took me to Cleveland, Ohio, and so I scheduled an extra day to visit the Inventors’ Hall of Fame in nearby Akron. The building itself is an interesting monument to invention and design as the architecture creates a pathway that guides the visitor through a history of invention in the U.S. and winds its way to the inventors’ wall of honor.

Hanging on this wall are over 200 photos of the inductees. As my eyes went from one portrait to the next I began to ask what all these inventors may have had in common. I also noticed some inventors were “absent,” like Buckminster Fuller, who I would have expected to see, but did not. The surprise at these omissions caused me to inquire about the selection process. What criteria did they use to select these particular inventors?

The lasting and widespread impact that the invention had on society was the answer. If the inventor’s invention had made a significant impression on society—both in its breadth and duration—the inventor became a viable candidate for the hall of fame. It was not the number of his or her inventions, nor even the admiration, money or worldly success enjoyed by the inventors as a result of their inventions. Rather, it was the sustained value to society of their contributions.

Now with the banks’ plumbing clogged with mistrust, the precipitous decline in home values, and the fear based cuts being made by so many of our companies in response to what appears to be a protracted recession, mother necessity should be very fertile with invention. However, it may be a very different kind of invention—the kind not driven solely by the interests of competitors.

While our own companies suffer from their own necessity during these times, it is important not to lose sight of the necessities affecting our customers. Inventing with their interests in mind may be more important to them and to us, than keeping our competitor at bay. The challenge is to see empathetically beyond our own necessities—those that often blind us to the needs of others—so that we can make the contributions that need to be made.

In Hewlett-Packard Company’s go-go years, there was a lot of “inventing for the next bench over.” Engineers would rub shoulders with future business opportunities by merely seeing a problem lying there on the next bench over that could be inventively solved. Their proximity to the problems enabled their empathy, imagination and knowledge to create a rich ground for invention to occur naturally.

Perhaps these times of necessity will bring us closer to those “next benches over,” giving urgency, relevance and necessity to our creative focus and efforts.

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in March 2009. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at or call (415) 460-1313.

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