Restart Creativity, Innovation in Your Company

Curiosity, persistence are keys to breakthroughs

By Larry Kilham

Bette Nesmith Graham, a single mother and secretary in Dallas, thought there would be a better way to cover up mistakes made in typing. During a recession in the 1950s, Ms. Graham founded the Mistake Out company, later well-known as Liquid Paper.

Creativity is possible at all levels from the kitchen chemistry lab to the killer app (application) corporate development project or to the multinational research initiative. Whatever the era or product, the successful project or company starts with a creative visionary. Somebody who is persistent and has a multifaceted mind. Bette Nesmith sold her company for $47.5 million. Even if taxes and transaction expenses took over half, she cleared about $1 million a year.

Would an American corporation in the early 1800s (or now) hire as their chief designer a financially failing artist with radical political views and an itchy foot for world travel? There was such a person. He had a vision to develop a communication system that could send messages faster than the best steam trains and ships and unhindered by rain, sleet or snow. He was Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who invented the telegraph.

Both Bette Nesmith Graham and Samuel F. B. Morse were iconic American inventors who illustrate traits in common that will be valuable to anyone interested in creating new designs and products:

• Unleash your curiosity, quest for knowledge and propensity for noticing things. No lesser minds than Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein were noted for being passionately curious, using their imagination as their prime lens to see ahead and their creativity to solve problems. Einstein wrote: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” You should also notice all kinds of things, however unrelated to your quest they may seem. When Will Carrier noticed the apparently odd behavior of water droplets in fog, he had stumbled into the basics of the novel technology of the Carrier Corporation, world leader in air conditioning.

• Project your mind into imagination space, focusing on all the interrelated aspects of what you are creating or inventing. To create your Eureka moment, you must forcefully move your mind beyond the existing thinking about the subject. You must move out of your conscious world and focus your mind in a new place occupied only by the new creation. This is your glorious imagination space. Some people, very few, keep this imaginative ability through adulthood. Their imaginings lead to inventions, art, designs and explorations of many frontiers never seen before. To start, try to be a child with the almost naïve capability of unfettered imagination. Emotion is part of this creative formula, and that has not been replicated in any advanced computer.

• Bring in experts and specialists whenever and wherever appropriate. A common mistake is to be overly protective about your novel idea. At the earliest possible time you should have your design or composition reviewed by an associate, faculty member, consultant or other trustworthy knowledgeable advisor. Usually you do not have to disclose important details to protect from copying, and very often a reviewer can give you surprisingly good guidance on design or composition improvement.

• Focus on the practical, useful, needed and beautiful. Very often inventions and other creations start out answering to a major need or a broad interest. Then the project morphs into a personal passion with little or no market value. Whether you’re a garage tinkerer or Thomas Edison, ultimately your commercial success depends on developing something which economically fills a real need and which looks attractive to potential buyers. As you develop prototypes, theories or compositions, show them to people in the market for overall attractiveness feedback.

• Be persistent. Don’t give up. In one famous incident, an associate found Thomas Edison at his lab bench surrounded by a sea of experimental storage battery test cells. 9,000 experiments had been carried out with no promising developments. His associate offered condolence, “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done, you haven’t been able to get any results?” “Results!” Edison replied. “Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won’t work!” For a major invention like the light bulb, this is what’s involved. Even minor inventions seem to take more time than imagined to get to the production prototype stage.

Fast forward to 2005. Steve Jobs, the legendary leader at Apple, is initiating a great leap forward. He has directed about 200 of his best engineers to create what we now know as the iPhone. Like Morse, he is not the first with some version of his product. And like Morse, Jobs can focus on a product vision that combines needs satisfaction, functionality, apparent simplicity, and, in addition, design beauty. In short, it is a bold act of creativity.

Where the telegraph initiated the era of wired communications, the iPhone has started the era of the computer clouds (almost infinitely large bundles of data and services available by Internet) in the palm of your hand. The telephone is not obsolete, music radio won’t go away, computers of all sizes will always be here, video games will always have their consoles, and data transmission will always be available through specialty equipment; but now all of these modalities are available together through a personal portable device.

Samuel F. B. Morse of course did not have the technology and resources available to Jobs for his design project. Still, even in the Age of Google, a visionary leader is required, and Steve Jobs is reported to have mercilessly driven his design group, never taking “no” for an answer. There were screaming matches in the hallways, doors slamming and completely burned out engineers.

But there are many challenges for imaginative and analytical minds. These include finding drugs against microorganisms which have evolved resistance against everything and finding true understanding about all the mechanisms of climate change so that our children won’t be living in an infinite desert. As Thomas L. Friedman has concluded, “The era we are entering will be one of enormous social, political and economic change … things will have to change around here, and fast.”

Larry Kilham is a speaker and consultant specializing in new product development for high-tech companies. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “MegaMinds: Inventing in the Age of Google.” He and his family are successful inventors and entrepreneurs with many patents and awards. He has a master’s degree from MIT and has founded three companies. He can be reached at lkilham@gmail.com or 505-310-7600.