Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Collecting Habit and Innovation and The Inventor's "Junk Pile"

“We'll know it when we see it.”  That is what is often heard in response to questions about how concepts will ultimately be judged. 

Yet “I’ll know it when I see it” is maddeningly subjective, especially for less experienced innovators. Some will attempt to eliminate or reduce this subjectivity as much as possible. Experienced innovators, on the other hand, have learned to not only accept it, but also to anticipate it. 

Recently I had the privilege of talking shop with Don Toht, veteran designer and head of research and development at RC2, a leading producer and marketer of high quality innovative collectibles and toys targeted to adult collectors and children. We were comparing the similarities of playing and collecting (e.g., collection being a more “adult” kind of play). Don revealed an interviewing strategy he has cultivated over the years to assess the interviewee’s proclivities for creative work. Don asks the prospective designer to tell him about his or her collection (Don’s collection, by the way, is robots!). How one answers this question, Don suggests, has been a fairly reliable indicator not only of someone’s passionate interests, but of their creative potential as well.  

Don’s strategy has the resonance of sound, practical wisdom. The principle behind itusing collecting as an indicator or window into someone’s interest and passion, not to mention a view into their creative skills—has been gnawing at me every since. When Dick Cheverton and I were working with Bill Wilson on the book, The Maverick Way, we thought there might be some significance to collecting. Bill had a passion for collecting that included rocks and gems, tools, miniature tin soldiers, and even life-sized tractors, not to mention his collection of people.  A frequent caricature of the inventor pictures him with a junk pile nearby.  “Almost all scientists start out as collectors,” says Elaine Hoagland, executive director of the Association of Systematic Collections. “Collecting teaches us to observe similarities and differences. In fact, children are the best at observing because they don’t have preconceived notions“(from Acquiring Minds by Lisa R. Price).

While there may not be a causal relationship between collecting and discovery, a hypothesis I would offer is that the two may be strongly correlated.  In other words, collecting can increase the probability of significant discovery or as Voltaire said, “chance favors the prepared mind.”

Of all the idea generating sessions I have facilitated, I find the most productive ones (those efforts which produced something that made it into the marketplace) have been populated by people who had both mentally gained some distance from the core business and had immersed themselves in a new context or frame of reference. As a result, we typically counsel clients to not be too quick to jump to idea generation activities, until the core team has done its market discovery homework or has deep knowledge of the invention domain(s).  

Collecting—prior to any formal idea generation—may be what those of us prone to confuse action with motion need to consider more often. Some form of collecting—whether artifacts, hypotheses, opinions, facts and/or observations—can help “prepare the mind” to increase the probability that serendipity will occur. Collecting can facilitate the immersion into a new frame of reference so necessary for the discovery of some new and proprietary insight, perspective, benefit or truth. The collection itself may even develop an aesthetic sensitivity on the part of the collector to enable the ability to recognize a truly elegant and fitting idea from one that is simply new.

Larry Pillote, a master and veteran innovator at Sealed Air Corporation, uses the term “cute” with investing sponsors to describe innovations that meet or exceed their explicit and implicit criteria. I suspect that the ability to recognize and differentiate ‘cute’ from less attractive candidates may have something to do with a life long habit of curiosity, collecting and connecting that experienced innovators like Pillote and Toht so ably demonstrate.  

The Inventor's "Junk Pile"
By Lee Murrah

Johnny once told me that every inventor needs a well-stocked junk pile. He said it as if it were a requirement and not merely a strong recommendation. Before he gave up his workshop at age 80 and moved to an apartment, Johnny had an outstanding junk pile to go with the 55 or so patents he had accumulated in his career as an engineer. 

Johnny’s junk pile was out behind the shop, under a scrub tree with unkempt grass growing all around and a dead briar from last summer curling up through a rusted roll of barbed wire salvaged from a long forgotten Texas Hill Country fence. The junk pile had a little of everything—an automobile axle here, some used water pipe there, some angle iron to the side, and a piece of corrugated steel protecting a few rusty pieces of re-bar, some with small chunks of concrete still attached. Several pieces of scrap steel with odd-shaped cutouts leaned on parts of an old windmill. 

Johnny could slide open the back doors to his shop, and there was the junk pile only a few steps from his cutting torch and welding machine. Johnny could build anything from that junk pile. Had he decided to build a nuclear reactor to power his home, a visitor no doubt would soon have seen a glow arising from his shop. The reactor would without doubt have incorporated a differential from 1964 Coupe de Ville scavenged from his junk pile.

Johnny had always had an affinity for junk piles. When he was a teenager, he found dozens of wrecked Ford Model Ts at the local dump. From this jumble of car parts, he assembled a dozen or so operating vehicles. He left them parked on a hill on the family farm when he went off to World War II as an artillery officer. When he returned, he found to his chagrin that his father had donated them as scrap for the war effort. 

War, of course, is another junk pile story—war creates the ultimate junk pile. Life was better in Johnny’s company because of those things he made from salvaged parts found, or “liberated”, along the war torn European roads. After he found a DC motor and rigged it up as a generator to a gasoline engine, he regularly lighted two tents—his, and the commanding officer’s.

Johnny’s ability to work with junk led to one of the most amazing war stories I ever heard. Just after landing his artillery battery on the Italian mainland, he faced a swarm of charging panzers. When Johnny’s men attempted to load their howitzers to return fire, they found that the shell cases had been bent in the rough Mediterranean crossing and would not fit into the gun’s breech.  Facing annihilation, Johnny grabbed an axe and told his men to stand back. He used the flat face of the axe to drive the shells into the howitzer. He knew that if his blows were flat the axe would not strike the shell’s firing pin. One errant blow and Johnny was a goner! But it worked! Johnny’s men copied his desperate method, and they drove off the panzers!

Johnny’s wife, Wy, is an artist—a painter. Seemingly, their philosophies could not be more different. To Johnny it doesn’t matter what it looks like so long as it works. To Wy it doesn’t matter whether it works so long as it looks good. But look a little deeper though, and you will see that Johnny is an artist too—his brush is a cutting torch and his canvas is out there behind the shop in the junk pile.

Johnny’s junk pile was a magnificent thing. When most people look at a junk pile, they see an ugly tangle of rusty things with sharp edges to cut fingers, heavy things to smash toes, and maybe even a rattlesnake under that disordered pile of galvanized water pipe. When Johnny looked at his junk pile, though, he saw free parts for his projects. But he saw more—possibilities. Johnny’s junk pile was not just junk—it was also inspiration—an amalgam of ideas and the means to carry them out.

Creating—whether the medium is Wy’s paint and canvas or Johnny’s steel and welding rod—is about “seeing” differently.  Johnny could “see” things that others could not—just as Wy saw beauty when she painted her Hill Country landscapes. Johnny has a God-given talent for seeing, but he used his junk pile to even better focus his mind’s eye.

A junk pile is a collection of disparate parts and pieces, but it is more than that. It is a catalog of seemingly unrelated ideas embodied in shapes, structures, and mechanisms that can be harvested, modified, and re-used. Those that are fans of the "Junk Yard Wars," which appears on The Learning Channel, watch as participants race around junk yards looking for parts and mechanisms to use in building their contraptions.  As often as not they fail to find what they are looking for. Instead they find something else that works as well or that may inspire them to design and even better junkyard marvel.

 A junk pile not only provides ideas, it suggests new ones by placing unrelated ideas in unusual and random juxtaposition. In the real world a windmill gear would never be located next to an automobile steering shaft; and a home water heater would not lie atop a Chevy V-8 engine. This collision of ideas that occurs only in corroded piles of scrap spurs creativity.

Creativity in one sense is bringing disparate ideas together in new, random ways and contexts that suggest new functionality. Recall that Samuel Colt got the idea for his famous revolver by watching a ship’s paddle wheel. Nikola Tesla was inspired to invent the AC motor by watching the sun arc cross the sky while sitting in a Bucharest park. By requiring that his junk pile be well stocked, Johnny increased the number of ideas and potential random combinations.

To most observers a junk pile is an end, a graveyard for formerly useful things. But Johnny knew that under the rust and beneath the weeds were concepts waiting to be reborn. All a junk pile really needs is a Johnny to explore the possibilities.

The author, Lee Murrah, retired a few years ago as chief intellectual property counsel at ArvinMeritor. He wrote this article about his friend, John D. Bennett, who is  over 80 years old and lives in Walls Falls, Texas. He is retired from Sunoco.

These articles were originally published in Innovating Perspectives in June 2003. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.  

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