By Thom Kobayashi ‑ April 15, 2016
I don't really think of myself as an Inventor, even though I have more than 20 years in R&D and my name on over 40 patents issued in various jurisdictions around the world. To me, those patents are the culmination of a lot of people’s work. It happened to be my job to put the pieces together into some kind of solution, so I got the patent. One way or another, a central pillar of my career has been the development of innovation, either someone else’s or my own.
First as a process engineer, then in a patent law firm drafting other people’s solutions, and next as a portfolio manager, finding and bundling other people’s solutions to solve still other people’s problems. Even in the course of my Masters Degree in Technology Commercialization, I studied an idea, turned it into a good or service, wrapped a venture around it, to ultimately pitched it to venture. In other words, ask for somebody else’s money to develop a third person’s ideas, in order to solve a generic fourth person’s problem. I’ve referred to it as “puzzle mentality”, where I like to think about the world through the lens of problems and problem solving.
As an Inventor (or whatever you call it), the question I get asked most often is “How did you come up with that?”. It’s a great question, and not so simple to answer, but definitely worth some thought. Today I’m thinking about the role of failure within innovation, how my relationship with failure has changed as I acknowledged failure’s role in my success. But first I want to tackle what I see as the three main ingredients for Innovation to flourish.
So there was a lot of investment on the part of the company, and large portions of the company did nothing but innovate. In order for that to exist, there needed to be a recognized problem worth solving, and a willingness to do what had to be done to solve it. No question in my mind, I was in the right place at the right time. I got into a business where there was a huge economic driver, and my company was willing to compete for the prize. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” So my first ingredient of innovation is proper circumstance, and in my case, the proper circumstance was the opportunity to have the resources to work on commercially important problems where it was of great importance to solve them immediately.
In the R&D group we had a lot of really smart folks. Probably the most educated and experienced group of people I every worked with. I don’t remember the exact stats, but at the peak, there were probably 200 or 300 engineers. Most had advanced degrees with years of deep industry experience at places like Bell labs, or the IBM research facilities. So, you guessed it, enough smarts or intellectual capacity to solve the problem is the second ingredient. You need a critical mass of skills, experience and knowledge.
But can you have the proper circumstance and enough intellectual horsepower and still not get there? Absolutely. So my third ingredient is attitude. And here is where Failure appears….
You really have to have a lot of “will” or “intestinal fortitude” to come in to work every day, prepared to win, when you are fresh off losses from the days before. There are a lot more setbacks than there are successes, because for the most part once you do it once, doing it again is a lot less of a challenge. You can fail a lot and for a long time to get that first win. And it’s not just you. Keep in mind that you may have a team working with you. You all get together and discuss an issue. You may even decide what experiments to run. If none of those experiments work, it can be really tough to just keep plugging away, sometimes for months or even years… “If we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be R&D.” “If we know the answer, there’s no reason to run the experiment.”
"All that proves is that it’s different than how we thought….” These are all things I used to tell my tech because if you think of failure as a lack of progress or look at it as wasted time, you can get really disheartened.
There are a lot of folks that have developed an adversarial relationship with failure. “Failure is not an option.” “Show me a gracious loser and I’ll show you a failure.” I started out as one of them. Over the years, I’ve adjusted my attitude because I came to realize that I learned a lot more from failure than I ever did from winning. Failure teaches you your weaknesses so you can more effectively spend your time developing your skills. Failure shows you what you don’t understand. Failure lets you get better at the fastest possible rate. I remember the guy who taught me snow skiing saying “If you’re not falling down, you’re not skiing at your limit – You can only learn your limits by exceeding them.” It’s true with everything. You have to “fall” (fail) a lot at anything to get good at it. I think of this as the “crawl, walk, run” sequence (more on that in another column).
So I started thinking about a goal of “making myself smarter” about what I was doing. This is especially important when your experiments don’t yield the desirable result. You have to remember that the results are still something. You know WHAT you did, you know HOW you did it, and you know the outcome. Now that outcome might not be useful for the problem at hand, but SOMETHING happened, and learning to see that as a win was really important. Several of my important discoveries were actually based on outcomes from previous “failed” experiments, repeated months in a different context.
Over time I finally realized that even though I was making chips, chips were not my product. In R&D, my role was to create information. I had to be smarter today than I was yesterday. That incremental learning is what makes it possible to solve the problem today, when yesterday I could not. The fastest way to get smarter was to make as many “mistakes” as I could as fast as I could. And that’s how I finally embraced failure as a friend and teacher.
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