The Greatest Innovations Ever

Greetings. In the latest issue of The Atlantic, writer James Fallows shares a less than scientific but totally fascinating list of “The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel.” It’s a fun and energizing journey through much of human history and the moments when people have been at their innovative best.

Let me share the Top 10 list based on the recommendations of a panel of leading scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians, and others, and then suggest that the entire list is likely to spark your own innate curiosity and the genius of all of your colleagues. And let me also suggest the value of thinking about what made each invention so influential in our lives, and the value of thinking about how you might make your company or organization’s offerings more valuable and meaningful to the customers you have the privilege to serve.

Atlantic November 2013

1. The Printing Press – 1430s

2. Electricity – Late 19th Century

3. Penicillin – 1928

4. Semiconductor Electronics – Mid 20th Century

5. Optical Lenses – 13th Century

6. Paper – Second Century

7. Internal Combustion Engine – Late 19th Century

8. Vaccination – 1796

9. The Internet – 1960s

10. Steam Engine – 1712

It’s also interesting and encouraging to note that most, if not all, of the fifty innovations were created by people learning from, and building on, the ideas and insights of strangers around the corner and around the world.

Rarely do we have to go it alone.

We win in business and in life when we change the status quo in some compelling way. And when we learn from the brilliance of others in other places and other moments in time.


The Importance of Experiments

Greetings. Most of us are familiar with the world of school science fairs. We participated in them as children, and look forward to attending them when our kids are old enough to test the laws or the boundaries of nature. At their best, and even their worse, science fairs provide the opportunity for inspired and curious young minds to put learning into action by following a logical process of discovery around a subject of interest. If this sounds like something that might make sense in your company or organization, don’t lose this thought because we will come back to it in just a moment.

Recently I had the great joy of attending the science fair at our son Noah’s middle school and spending an evening wandering through hallways and classrooms where the scientific method and America’s future seemed alive and well. Young people enthusiastically explaining their ideas, why they chose to work on them, the hypotheses they pursued, and the results of their well-planned or even last-minute investigations of biology, chemistry, physics, and a host of everyday challenges that might lend themselves to new and innovative perspectives. Noah, in keeping with his love of sports and animals, decided to test whether humans or dogs worked harder when they ran. To do this, he had five friends run a set of sprints and measured the change in their heart rates as a result of vigorous exercise. He then had our new dog Vincent and a friend’s dog run their own set of sprints, throwing a ball just the right distance to copy the humans and then measured the change in their heart rates. It helped that the dogs where inclined to retrieve. And he concluded that humans work harder than dogs when running the same distances.

One of my favorite projects was an awesome invention by a seventh grader named Gregory who decided to explore behavior modification in dogs. As many of you know I adore dogs, but I realize that they are not without flaws. One particular issue is the reality that their pee can destroy a lawn. And Gregory was seeking to solve this challenge with a creation he calls the “Furinal.” Quite simply, his invention is an elaborate garden urinal designed to get dogs to relieve themselves in a designated place by offering the inducement of a treat. When a dog goes to the bathroom in this device it sets off an electrical and mechanical chain of events that results in a treat or food being dropped into a small bowl for the obedient hound’s enjoyment. While the details might require a bit of tinkering, the invention was clever and practical…though I’m not sure if it will also require a dog psychologist at the outset.


All of which suggests the importance and power of experimentation tied to our innate ability to be experimenters. Yet how many companies and organizations consistently ask all of their people to experiment or test new ideas? And how many also create regular events to shine a spotlight on everyone’s ideas and everyone’s attempts to learn more and make a compelling difference?

Not many at all. Instead most of us believe that innovation is the domain of a limited number of people who, by virtue of their roles or their training, are best suited to creating breakthroughs. Rather than inspiring everyone to give it a go.

We win in business and in life when we create a culture of experimenting. And when we take the simple idea of a science fair out of the classroom and into the rest of our lives.


Closing Our Eyes

Greetings.  This past week, during one of our Team Learning Adventures, I took twenty executives from one of the companies we work with to a new exhibition on invention at the National Museum of American History.  The exhibit, titled "Invention and Play," provides a wonderful and hands-on understanding of the innovation process and the role of play in sparking new thinking.  In the process it profiles some remarkable inventors and ideas including:

Newman Darby, inventor of the "sailboard" and the sport of windsurfing.

Sally Fox, inventor of naturally colored cotton.

Luis Alvarez, Nobel Prize winning physicist who received more than 40 patents and is best known for his invention of a radio distance and direction indicator.

Stephanie Kwolek, a DuPont chemist who invented kevlar.

And Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask, the "caution" signal in traffic lights and a wide range of other innovations.  While Morgan had only a formal sixth grade education, he was an avid learner and had a special gift for invention, solving problems and fixing things that would lead to a successful business career in his hometown of Cleveland.  Upon hearing of the deadly Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, he invented a safety hood and fire protector that he would use in 1916 to rescue two men from a tunnel fire under Lake Erie.  He also invented a three-color traffic signal that provided guidance to vehicles coming into an intersection.  When asked about the secret to his success in coming up with important innovations, Morgan's niece replied: "Some of these things just came from closing his eyes and using his imagination."

Garrett Morgan

Which begs the question:  "How often do you find time to close your eyes and imagine a more compelling solution to a problem your company or organization is facing?"  Or simply take the time to imagine a new and powerful idea that might make a real difference in the lives of your customers.  In the press of our in-box and day-to-day responsibilities, most of us rarely take the time to imagine.

We win in business and in life when we use our imaginations.  And sometimes all we need to do to get started is close our eyes.


Taking the Time to Explore

Greetings.  The week between Christmas and New Year's is a wonderful time to explore the world around you.  To check out a performance, watch a documentary film, visit a picturesque or historic town off the beaten track, or wander through a museum close to home.  And, in the process, to discover a fresh perspective on the world around you.  A perspective that could provide new energy and insight as you and your colleagues approach the year ahead.  With this in mind, I love to use the end of the year to visit some of my favorite museums.  And, here in D.C., we have a lot to choose from.  But I'm sure that there are also great museums close to where you live or visit.

So yesterday I took our children and a friend from Sweden to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art to explore it's remarkable folk art collection.  And what struck me most was the sense of vision, originality, and accessibility of this work.  But that makes sense, because "folk art" is really art by regular "folks" who have little or no formal training and whose work reflects a fascinating fusion of traditional craft, deep-rooted social values, and often a desire to shine a light on an important issue of their time or their understanding of faith.  In addition to the art, the design of this exhibit also attempts to frame the artists' perspectives with quotes on the purpose of art in life and society, the act of creating something new, and the artist's place in the world.  And it even includes a compelling quote from the inventor Charles Kettering who wrote (though originally referring to business and innovation):

"Where there is an open mind, there will always be a frontier."

Not a bad thought to put on your wall as you get ready for the year ahead!

Among several galleries of thought-provoking pieces, one particular work seems to catch everyone's attention.  It's called "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly," and it is the only work ever done by the artist James Hampton.  Over fourteen years, he transformed a rented garage into "a heavenly vision" of a "spiritual environment" suitable for God's return to earth. It's really a statement of one man's great faith in God and hope for salvation that includes 180 unique pieces, based on his interpretation of teachings from the Old and New Testaments, build around a central throne.  And it's all constructed from discarded materials covered with shimmering silver and gold foils.  Whether you are a religious person, or not, the result is striking and inspiring (see below–or better yet, visit the museum in person).


We succeed in business and in life by being open to genius in the world around us, and by seeing the vision and passion that artists of all types bring to the work they create.  What vision and passion will you bring to your work in the year ahead?  Maybe this is the perfect week to discover it.  

Cheers and have a inspiring week of work, play, family, friends, and exploring!