Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Midnight Discoveries Not Happening In Your Cube

There was an interesting article in the New York Times this weekend about people that take part in mad scientist competitions thrown by institutions such as NASA. Peter K. Homer, an unemployed man, was one of those searchers for the elusive eureka moment who won one of these competitions. In the article by Jack Hitt, he talks about the "outside inventor" and their place in America's folklore:

NASA is banking on the idea that a renascence of technological ingenuity is just a treasure chest away. The hope is that the lure of the prize will attract another bright-faced inventor out there like Charles Lindbergh, a guy who tinkered with the tradeoffs of weight, fuel, speed and route to jigger a plane that could make it to Paris on a single tank. He so profoundly changed the public's perception of flight that international commercial air travel soon followed.

So why does NASA and many corporations have to look outside their organization in order to innovate? Is it built into us as Americans? Is that what the key and the kite story did to us? It makes you think of companies that are innovation example darlings like YouTube, Google and Apple. All of these type of stories have origins in a garage or a dorm room that make their stories more compelling, like the key and the kite we learned as children.

Why don't corporations inspire the same type of midnight discoveries that these competitions do? An unemployed man from Maine has a lot more to lose than someone making a salary. Then again, a lot of valid reasons come to mind as to why he has the advantage. Peter Homer built his prototype on a Singer sewing machine. A corporation might have not approved the expense for such a tool. Peter may have had his Outlook calendar filled up with status meetings and had a lot of bureaucracy to deal with that he didn't in his home. Having a eureka moment at midnight is also probably not going to happen in your cube. Peter is in a more comfortable place to innovate at all hours. There is also the chance at winning a treasure chest of money. Corporations own you and your ideas, and there usually isn't a treasure chest to be found.

Peter also didn't have to just discover a great new idea. He had to come up with a process to innovate. Most companies don't have product lifecycles that lend themselves to innovation. Also, if innovation happens in the lifecycle where it isn't intended, it actually could cause a disruption. If you design an interface for a product in the middle of the overall process, you now would have to rewrite test scripts, business requirements, functional specifications, technical documentation, etc. Are you a hero or a pain in the ass that has just caused a lot of people to redo work?

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