What is engineering creativity, anyway?

Engineering creativity, often considered a mystical talent, boils down to the ability to generate new, meaningful and useful cross-correlations. With invention a risky business all round, and inventors as likely to be pilloried as praised, how can we foster creativity and innovation? Michael Hammer, winner of The Warren Centre’s Innovation Hero Award, has some ideas.

13 June, 2014

One hears comments that creativity is some sort of nebulous mystical talent some people are born with. I don’t agree with that, at least as far as engineering is concerned. To me, engineering creativity is simply the ability to generate new, meaningful and useful cross-correlations between disparate items in a dataset.

A couple of corollaries follow from this definition. First, one must have a dataset on which to work. Without some data on which to work no creativity is possible. It is however important to realize that the dataset is not limited to technical knowledge in a particular field or even several fields, it also includes all the things one has seen heard or experienced in one’s life. Everyone has a dataset; not everyone is able and even more importantly willing to create new cross-correlations.

Secondly, new cross-correlations only have meaning within the dataset. That means that it can only be understood and appreciated by someone who shares at least some and probably a large fraction of the same dataset. That may seem obvious but in fact it is remarkable how little overlap there sometimes appears to be between two people working in very similar fields or even in different aspects of the same field with the result that the true implications (both positive and negative) of the invention may not be appreciated.

It’s either obvious or it’s magic

Of course, in an industrial environment extensive overlap in datasets is far more likely. So how is an invention viewed in that case? If all of the data involved was also known by the observer, the cross correlation once explained is immediately obvious. Indeed so obvious that the observer can have difficulty believing it to be novel at all. They may believe they could have come up with the same idea if they had just thought about it.

More damaging still is the view that it is so obvious it must have been thought of by others many time before and presumably rejected because of a not yet appreciated flaw, hence the comment, “if it’s such a great idea why hasn’t someone thought of it before?” I should say that in my view that comment is a putdown to which the only answer is “because they didn’t”. The patent literature is full of great ideas that are obvious in hindsight. If there is something wrong with the idea then say what is wrong, don’t dismiss it through mental laziness.

Then again if one or more of the items of data being cross correlated was not known by the observer the common reaction is to ascribe the innovation to that piece of special knowledge: “how the hell did you know that?” In both cases the observer is focusing on the data, the tangible concrete bit, not on the cross correlation, the abstract part and the real invention. This common focus on tangible concrete data rather than abstract interrelationships is an important issue.

Coming back to the dataset, its nature has a lot to do with the cross-correlations achieved. A narrow deep dataset favours close cross-correlations, likely to lead to incremental or evolutionary ideas. A broad shallower dataset favours wider spaced cross-correlations, more likely to be revolutionary.

Better kit doesn’t mean better ideas

In this context it is worth remembering the old adage “inventiveness thrives on adversity”. I don’t want to suggest that inventors don’t need support, in fact they need a good deal of support, but limiting resources is not universally bad.

Not being able to afford the conventional ‘professional’ equipment may be very frustrating and may reduce productivity but it forces one to look for alternatives – to adapt something from the surrounding environment (often from fields far removed from the current technical focus, such as what you can buy in a local hardware store) which of course encourages broader cross-correlations.

The original microwave plasma research was done with almost no equipment, just a domestic microwave oven (from which the magnetron was extracted), a second hand magnetron power supply, some bits of aluminium box section and access to the model shop. No circulators, couplers, stub tuners, microwave power meters or network analysers.

People hearing this have on more than one occasion commented “Wow, imagine what outcome could have been achieved if you had decent equipment to work with!” The work would certainly have been easier and much less frustrating with decent equipment but I doubt if the outcome would have been any better. On the other hand however, access to microwave simulation software would have made a significant positive difference to the outcome. For the same reason, a cluttered environment may not look very professional, but it again can encourage cross-correlations by bringing disparate items into close proximity.

The limits of conventional wisdom

So how does conventional wisdom view the creation of a dataset? We are taught that the first step in carrying out research is to read up on what others have done, build your knowledge base. If you don’t, you risk revisiting old ground, falling into the same traps and dead ends as others before you? The more thorough that that survey, the better the basis for moving forward. You have to put in the hard yards if you want to succeed. It is due diligence, the mark of a scientific approach as distinct from a mere dilettante. It’s almost as though one needs a license to think and create in a field and that license is earned by first studying the work of others. But is it true?

The first knowledge one gains when exploring a new field is broad fundamental principles. Further study yields knowledge that is progressively more detailed and narrower in scope. Still further and one learns the specific approaches that others have tried often with limited success, since if they were fully successful the problem being researched would already be solved.

The initial knowledge is vital to forming useful cross correlations, but more and more detail acts to deepen rather than broaden the dataset, more likely to lead to evolutionary rather than revolutionary cross-correlations, while the details of the approaches of others can be poison for an inventor because it locks you into other people’s thinking and approaches.

Sure, not knowing that information may condemn the inventor to follow the same blind alley. It can also easily happen that an idea doesn’t work because of ignorance of a well-known bit of knowledge that some reading would have rectified. Such situations invite criticism and are almost impossible to defend but that does not mean it’s always wrong, in my view it’s about risks versus benefits. So, am I saying established wisdom is wrong and we should not study the work of others? Absolutely not – studying the work of others has great use – but I am simply suggesting that broad reaching inventions are more likely to be made by someone relatively new to the field.

In this context I want to talk about three titles:

  • Inventor;
  • Researcher; and
  • Expert.

In one sense I would argue that an inventor is more concerned with discovering new cross-correlations whereas a researcher is more concerned with discovering new data, but in another sense I think they represent a progression in knowledge. An inventor makes a breakthrough. Along the way he or she acquires more and more detailed knowledge and becomes a researcher refining and incrementally advancing the original breakthrough – eventually ending up with very broad detailed knowledge, an expert, ideally positioned to appreciate and critique the work of others.

It’s a commonly seen progression and just in case you think that I view that in a derogatory light let me state that a constructive critic is the most valuable ally and supporter an innovator can have and I am very much indebted to a now retired Varian employee, Barry Sturman, who fulfilled that role for me.

Of course there is an alternative. The inventor somewhere along the road may choose to change fields and again become an inventor in a new field with an even broader dataset to call on. I am reminded of Edison, a supremely successful inventor in many unrelated fields yet in the field of power generation which he pursued for a considerable time he was incapable of or unwilling to appreciate the advantages of Tesla’s invention of AC versus DC power.

Even in 2014, heretics still face persecution

So how does the broader society view new ideas and inventions? Are they welcomed and valued? New ideas involve change, risk, uncertainty, overturning of accepted views all very unsettling concepts. We laud Galileo today but at the time he was forced to recant his heliocentric ideas on threat of death. Mendeleyev was ridiculed for 20 years before his periodic table was accepted. The germ theory of disease, tectonic plates, the theory of evolution, I could go on and on and on.

Of course that’s the past – we are far more enlightened today. Really? Consider Pons and Fleishman’s 1989 cold fusion announcement. Within weeks of their announcement they were being ridiculed, it was schlock science, pathological science. They were well respected electrochemists yet overnight their careers and reputations were ruined. The only people able to safely investigate cold fusion were those very close to or in retirement. One broad reaching invention takes you from a respected prestigious scientist to lifelong pariah. Who is willing to accept such odds?

But cold fusion doesn’t count, it’s a special case because it was wrong, and it really was schlock science…? Well the latest reports suggest maybe not. Several prestigious organisations are now reporting replication and a growing number of companies (about five at last count) claim to be currently developing commercially viable products (based on nickel hydrogen rather than palladium deuterium). There are even claims that Industrial Heat in the USA took delivery of a fully operational 1 MW thermal system over a year ago. Is a possible clean, cheap, safe and essentially limitless new energy source worth supporting, especially given our current obsession with decarbonisation?

Of course, if it turns out to be correct, Pons and Fleishman will be vindicated by getting the Nobel Prize. Well, no they won’t, because you have to be alive to get the Nobel Prize and in the quarter of a century since their announcement Martin Fleishman at least has died – without vindication. There is an old adage in science: new ideas are never accepted, it’s just that those opposing eventually die out and for the new generation it isn’t new. Targeting incremental advances by building on accepted ideas or striving to become an expert is a great deal lot safer!

So what about industry? After all we keep hearing that the future for Australian industry is intellectual property, new ideas. I would like to suggest that industry, like society, does not generally welcome invention. What it welcomes is invention reduced to practice (innovation), which is not at all the same thing. Again I could cite watches without mainsprings, cameras which don’t need film, the black box flight recorder, cameras in telephones, or the TVASA aircraft landing system.

The path from invention to innovation

Between the invention and the innovation is a very expensive and risky development process. A credible invention forces management to decide on whether to take that risk. It takes great courage to make such an investment and the consequences could be serious if it does not turn out well. Such decisions are always stressful and rarely welcome. Indeed I think Varian and now Agilent deserves very considerable respect and praise for having had the courage and commitment to invest the many millions of dollars required to turn the microwave plasma from an invention into a commercially innovative product. I am extremely fortunate to work for such a forward-looking organization.

And for an inventor in industry? An innovation is 5% inspiration 95% perspiration (5% invention and 95% development work done usually by others). The tangible product often only eventuates years after the original invention and the invention must be kept secret until then. When it does occur, the cast of players is large and all have a valid claim of contribution, some having themselves made incremental inventions on the way. Thus recognition is both significantly delayed and diluted, and if you think recognition and credit is not or should not be important for an inventor think of how university researchers behave and the “publish or perish” adage. Again, we are extremely lucky that Agilent (and for that matter The Warren Centre) is sensitive to this issue but it is worth noting that the original microwave plasma research work was done in 2000-01 – 13 years ago.

Then again, in a university environment, positive, neutral and even negative outcomes can all justify a paper, but in industry if the outcome is not so much better than established art that it warrants going into production it is worth nothing – no half way measures, all or nothing. Industrial research is a manic depressive affair, 95% depression when things don’t work, along with occasional supreme moments of ecstasy when the breakthrough occurs, a situation that others often find difficult to understand. Being an inventor is not even a good path to promotion since promotion usually entails a very different skill set (people skills and convergent rather than divergent thinking). In fact, an inventor is all too easily an irritant and isolated within the organization, small wonder that some people capable of invention choose a safer path within an organization.

So what can we do about fostering creativity and invention leading to innovation?

Decide whether the organization wants invention or not and make that clear up front. As with all risky endeavours, the decision is both financial and emotional the latter often being the bigger barrier. It’s all too easy to say yes when there are just one or two people pursuing an idea, and then say no to a successful invention when it comes to the major development investment. “We have other priorities, there are other things we need to do first, it’s too risky, the marketplace would not accept it”. From the inventor’s point of view this amounts to telling him/her after the event “you failed and all the work done was for nothing”.

Blind acceptance and blind rejection of ideas are equally bad. Critical detailed objective evaluation is the best way to control risk and by the way, it’s also the best support you can give an inventor (use outside experts under NDA if necessary). Make sure you really understand the implications and are not applying blinkered convergent thinking (a watch without main spring). Don’t be blinded by what an invention can do, ask instead what it cannot do, just like a scientific theory, it only takes one unacceptable flaw to sink it, it’s got to tick all the boxes not just most of them. Remember also sometimes the actual benefit is very different from what was the intended goal of the invention. When the research started the goal of the MP research was a cheaper instrument and initially there was pressure to get it working with Argon. Only later was it realised the true benefit was working with air.

Be tolerant. Many inventors engage in divergent instead of convergent thinking. It may seem alien and even threatening but its useful. Inventors need and live for the moments of ecstasy when things work, its not indicative of poor critical thinking skills or lack of objectivity. Making something work also evokes an intense feeling of ownership making it very emotionally difficult to “let go”. Handle this with great sensitivity or expect massive resentment.

There is a view that one can pick up “proven” inventions from outside the organization, usually from a university, so inventions from inside are less important. Don’t forget, 95% of the effort (and cost) is in the in house development stage which the university will not do. Then again royalty payments are often 5% of ongoing annual turnover, far higher than a one off 5% of development costs for in-house invention. Outside researchers also know far less about your business and customers’ needs, in my experience they always focus almost exclusively and optimistically on what it can do, not on what it may not do, and have far less commitment to the eventual product success once the contract is signed. They work for a different organization and have different goals. If you can’t make it work with in-house inventors your chance of success with outside inventors is very low.

Overall, let’s face it, invention is a risky business all round. It’s just that not doing it is even riskier in the long run.

2013 Innovation HeroesMichael Hammer (second-left in picture) has worked at Varian (now part of Agilent) for 38 years, in roles almost entirely related to invention, innovation and research.

Along with Hugh Stevenson (second-right) and Philip Wilson (right), Michael was The Warren Centre’s 2013 Innovation Hero for his work developing and commercialising Agilent’s 4100 Microwave Plasma – Atomic Emission Spectrometer.

This article reflects Michael’s personal views.

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