Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Don’t invest in ideas, invest in people with ideas 15 – rethinking innovation and innovators 1

Posted in HR and personnel, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on October 19, 2015

This is my fifteenth installment in a series on cultivating and supporting innovation and its potential in a business, by cultivating and supporting the creative and innovative potential and the innovative drive of your employees and managers, and throughout your organization (see HR and Personnel – 2, postings 215 and loosely following for Parts 1-14.)

I focused in Part 13 of this series on finding and hiring innovative employees, and on hiring them away from current employers where that would be necessary. Then I turned to consider the issues of employee retention for these key personnel in Part 14, and keeping them from being drawn away by other potential employers. I turn here to consider these innovators themselves.

In anticipation of this discussion to come and to help orient where I am headed with it, I begin by noting that I will discuss innovators per se as falling into two porously overlapping categories. First you have those who serve as initial catalysts for change, who come up with initial disruptively novel ideas and approaches, and who in many cases act to galvanize others into action in helping to pursue and develop them. I refer to these people as initial catalyst innovators. And then you have innovators who follow-through on initial innovation concepts, in developing and refining them. They are often just as creative, but at least when working in this capacity they primarily serve to refine and improve, facilitating the turning of initial ideas with their potential, into realized marketable, profitable sources of value. These are the follow-through development innovators. And individual innovators often switch roles in this, sometimes coming up with these initial ideas themselves, and sometimes primarily just participating in the follow-through.

I will start this overall discussion with initial catalyst innovators (noting that several of the ones who I consider here also participated in and even actively led at least early follow-through development for their ideas and insights too.) And I will pursue this discussion by way of a brief series of case study examples of what a series of specific innovators have done, here focusing on what can perhaps best be seen as famous working examples. But I do so with a key idea in mind that I have already developed in a previous series, which I make note of by highlighting the key wording of one of its installment’s titles: Everything Was an Innovation Once. So the line of discussion that I offer here, applies to disruptive innovation and its innovators in general and not just to the occasional strikingly notable example.

I will focus here on a select group of well-known innovators or at least well-known innovations, and on some of the perhaps defining qualities and attributes of initial catalyst innovators. Then after that, I will turn to explicitly discuss follow-through development innovators, and team and long-term innovative development.

I begin all of this with Thomas Alva Edison and the invention of the long-lasting, low-cost practical electric light bulb, or rather with the invention of one crucially important component to that: the light bulb filament, and the challenge of its developmental context.

Edison did not discover that a filament could be made to glow, producing even significant amounts of light when an electrical current is passed through it. He began working on the technical challenge of developing a practical electrically powered light source using this basic approach in 1878, after others had already observed this phenomenon as much as several generations earlier. Alessandro Volta, for example, had both observed and written about this phenomenon in 1800 and had even tried, if unsuccessfully, to develop a reliable light source from it, and by electrically heating filaments to do so. What Edison did was to systematically address both the challenge of producing an electrical light that would be both long-lasting and economical enough to be publically affordable, and the challenge of producing and publically distributing electrical power as would be needed to power it.

Volta and I add others who tried this earlier, did not persist in their efforts to refine this type of light source into a commercially viable product and they did not address the need for widely available electrical power if this type of product were to be publically usable. Napoléon Bonaparte praised and admired Volta for his achievement in producing light in such a novel way and invited him to visit the Institut de France in Paris to demonstrate his invention to its scholars. But until Edison, electrical lighting was and would remain just an impractical curiosity.

Edison single mindedly experimented with filaments as made from a great many different materials and as processed and prepared in different ways until he found a cost-effective model for a commercially viable light producing filament that would last. And he systematically tested and refined the bulbs that these filaments would function in, and how the necessary wiring for powering these filaments would best be designed for mass production. And in that second and equally important direction of actually powering these new light sources, he single mindedly worked to both design and develop an electrical power grid, and to get one built and running.

All of this demonstrates focus and persistence. It also demonstrates an ability to think and act in terms of a big picture that is filled with unknowns and with needs that would have to be coordinately met, and while focusing in on the little details. And this is the image that most of us carry when thinking about Edison and about inventors in general.

Referring back to my above-offered innovator classification terminology, Edison himself was both an initial catalyst innovator and a follow-through development innovator. And he led what amounted to an innovation and invention factory of other follow-through development innovators, encouraging their own initial catalyst innovator potential as well – provided that they focus entirely on inventing and developing toward public-facing practical, and at least realistically potentially profitable goals.

I turn in my next example to consider a very different view of invention and of inventors that is equally valid, with the discovery of the potential that can be found in polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), or Teflon as it is more popularly known.

Teflon, as a registered trademark product and not just as an obscure chemical compound, was first discovered by accident in 1938, by a New Jersey based DuPont chemist: Roy Plunkett.

Plunkett was trying to develop a new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant. When he emptied the pressurized canister that he had put one of his test compounds into, with that determined by the pressure gauge on it having reached zero, it seemed to weigh too much. So he cut that canister open to see what was left inside, and he found a very curious, extremely slippery white waxy material coating its interior.

What happened next is crucially important here, as are the facts that Plunkett noticed the weight discrepancy and that he took the trouble to cut open that container to in any way follow upon that observation. He was trying to find a new refrigerant and that was his assigned job, and this test sample did not meet that need. But it presented him with a mystery and he was willing to set aside the problem he was explicitly working on to at least briefly explore that. It turned out that this waxy solid was a polymerized version of the compound that he was testing and that the iron in the interior wall of the canister that it was in, acted as a polymerizing catalyst on it, when it was held there under pressure. This new fluorinated plastic was patented by DuPont, the company that Plunkett worked for, in 1945 and more and more products of value and more and more fundamentally distinct uses for this material began to flow out of his initial discovery. The whole world knows of Teflon coated non-stick cookware. Teflon was also adapted to the construction of reentry heat shields for space capsules for early United States-based manned space flight, to cite a very different application of this material and its potential for widespread use. Teflon based compounds are used as lubricants for what should be smoothly moving parts such as hinges. Teflon and its refined derivatives have found use in an incredible range and diversity of products since then. And this all began with one initial catalyst innovator and continued with a large and systematic follow-through development innovator initiative.

Turning back to the first critical step in that process, Roy Plunkett was very focused and systematic in what he was doing in his research, and he was intent on developing a new and better fluorocarbon refrigerant out of his work. But he did not have tunnel vision so when he saw a test result, or rather a test consequence that was far enough out of the expected and the readily explicable as to suggest new science, he pursued it – and he created a tremendous source of value for DuPont as a result.

But at the same time that I write of Plunkett himself in this, I am also writing about the corporate culture and the management culture in place at DuPont, and particularly in the arm of that business that employed him, that he was allowed to pursue this anomaly when he was at least initially, certainly, expected to devote his full time and effort in a very different and pre-established direction. So as I add to my summary notes of lessons learnable from the examples cited here in this posting, I add that along with persistence and focus, innovation comes from an open mind and open eyes, that can grab onto the novel and unexpected and follow-up on it, and even when that means going in what quickly become completely unexpected directions. And this can and often does depend on business and workplace support and encouragement too.

Plunkett was highly organized and systematic when he set out to study and to seek to develop new refrigerants. He was just as organized and systematic when he saw and pursued this unexpected unknown, to see where it would lead and what new and unexpected sources of value he could create from it. And he was working in a context and in a management system that was quite willing to support him in this, even as his manager and their manager and the business that they all worked for also wanted to find those next-generation refrigerants that they could gain and hold patent right control over.

With that example in mind, I turn to consider the development of chocolate as a smooth popularly enjoyable product, where it had always offered a gritty eating experience that had traditionally only been appreciated by a select few. And I turn to the development of one of the key processing steps for making that possible: conching.

Chocolate as an initially processed product, consists of a high viscosity (when cooled to solidity), complex of substances that holds within it vast numbers of microcrystalline inclusions as a part of its essential material. And these crystals, while too small to see with the naked eye, can be readily discerned by touch in the mouth, giving it a less than pleasant gritty quality. Conching is a process of in-effect grinding molten chocolate to break down that suspended microcrystalline structure, and ideally until those micro-crystals have been sufficiently reduced in size that they can no longer be felt by the tongue. And modern conching is generally carried out for extended periods of time on any given batch – often up to 72 consecutive hours and even more, to break down its embedded small crystalline structure so it does not come across as gritty when eaten. And this is usually the penultimate processing step for rendering crude chocolate into fine chocolate that is pleasing, and to both for its taste and for its texture. To complete this description, the final process that fine chocolate undergoes to ensure this end result is called tempering and it is used to both finish what conching largely accomplishes and to determine the hardness of the final product produced, as found at room temperature. After that, processing chocolate is all a matter of shaping it in molds, and packaging it.

Very few people ate chocolate except perhaps when included in cooked or baked goods, until effective conching processes were developed for rendering it smooth and creamy to the tongue and to the mouth in general. And this is where I cite the role of innovation in this story. When chocolatiers first began using a conching step in the processing of chocolate, in making candies and confections, they only did this for relatively brief periods of time, and usually for a few hours at most. The first lengthy conching process was initially carried out by accident, when machinery that was supposed to be turned off after a routine run, was left on overnight. And rather than simply discarding that batch as an improperly processed mistake, it was taste tested – and found to be smoother and more pleasing to the palate than any previous batch ever tested. It was found that conching did a great deal more than simple mixing and blending. Lengthy conching followed by carefully timed temperature controlled tempering, made fine chocolate possible. And that made chocolate itself popular.

Innovation can mean seeing and exploring the positive potential in the unexpected and even when that means examining the results of what starts as overt mistakes and errors. And the history of chocolate is in many respects a history of accidental discoveries and trial by error development – with all of that leading to the development and refinement of products that are known and loved worldwide today.

And the last example that I would cite here is another well-known story, with the discovery of penicillin as a disease curing wonder drug. But I will offer that narrative with a twist, as I will discuss its story to a significant degree, in terms of largely unknown scholars and physician scientists who in some cases just missed being the first to develop this antibiotic as an infectious disease fighter. I will certainly discuss Alexander Fleming and his role in this, but I will put his story in a larger competitive and historical context.

I am going to at least briefly explore that case study example in my next series installment, and will then as promised above, turn to explicitly discuss follow-through development innovators, and team and long-term innovative development. And after that I will step back to consider the issues and challenges that businesses face when looking for new potential employees who hold significant innovative potential, and the challenge of identifying employees they already have onboard who do too, where that capacity and drive is being wasted in them.

Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 3 and also at Page 1 and Page 2 of that directory. Also see HR and Personnel and HR and Personnel – 2.

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