Three Titans of Innovation

Have you ever wondered what advice Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone would give to people today that want to be innovative and make a difference? Today, we are going to watch and listen to their advice to us. Are you willing to do what they suggest? It might make all the difference in your innovation.

The blog was first posted January 21, 2015

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The Wright Stuff for Innovation

Wright Brothers First FlightThe innovation of manned flight is truly remarkable.  So much can be learned as we watch the progress  from a few feet of flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to a trip to the moon less than 70 years later.  One of the best ways to learn about this progress is to start with the Wright brothers and the beginning of the airplane.  I have studied these two brother’s history in the past, but recently a remarkable biography, The Wright Brothers by David McCullough was released.  It provides a compelling story to help us understand how Orville and Wilbur Wright changed history.

Often the stories about the struggle to invent and innovate provide lessons that are helpful for other innovator’s success. Here are three lessons that I learned from my recent reading of The Wright Brothers.

  1. It takes more than one person to innovate – The brothers were a remarkable team.  They built each other up and relied on each other’s strengths.  They also relied on many other people to help them be successful, not only in the beginning, but also as they formed a company and traveled the world promoting their airplane.  For example, Katharine, their sister, gave up her teaching position so that she could help them full time.  Her assistance was vital as they moved forward and moved from being inventors to having a fully organized company.
  2. Others will resist innovation and change – As the Wright’s were testing various approaches to flight they published some of their findings.  Some of the top people in the field thought the approach would not work, but if it did, there was no real way to commercialize flight.
  3. You don’t have to have the most resources to be the one that innovates – Shortly before the first flight the U.S. government had given a grant of over $50,000 to a group that was trying to create the first airplane.  They had a well publicized test flight that failed miserably.  The Wright brothers were able to fund their plane for about $1,000 from the profits they made building bicycles.

The other take away from the Wrights is that they just kept going.  They had major setbacks, but they just kept trying, learning and improving.  They were willing to take enough time to do it right, and also they had the drive to push to a successful finish.  So, take the time to learn from these flyers and you may develop the right stuff to complete your innovation.

This blog was originally posted January 29, 2016.

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Perfection is the Enemy of Good Enough

This past Christmas our kids each received a Nerf dart gun as a gift. I will admit that I was not in favor of them, but I was wrong. As parents, we quickly discovered that we had made a mistake, not in getting the product for our children, but not having them for ourselves. We quickly rectified that and during the holiday spontaneous Nerf wars would start at any time. Along with running came laughing and a fun time for everyone–from the student home from university to the kid in elementary school.

After the holiday was over I thought a little about that fun gift and realized something very remarkable. These toy guns are increNerf Gunsdibly inaccurate. In addition, this inaccuracy can be compounded by soft darts that get reused and bent and do not go straight anyway. But, here is the most interesting part, nobody cared that they did not always hit the target. That was even part of the fun when you thought you had an easy shot, but you missed.

The lesson here may be the difference between success and failure. You may have heard the old Italian saying “Perfection is the enemy of good enough.” If the makers of this toy had been sticklers for having the darts hit the target, they may have never have gotten this product to market. Apparently, they realized they did not have to even be that close too perfect in one area, accuracy. But, there are other areas they did have to be close to perfection. For example, safety. This is a child’s toy that shoots soft darts. It had to be safe and not hurt other children, the focus had to be on that area.

Many ideas get stuck in development as people work to get them to perfection. Some things need to be nearly perfect. Safety and some levels of performance may need to be close to perfection. But you have to ask are the extra years in development worth the improvement. Sometimes the answer is simply NO.

Edison and others are sometimes accused of stealing ideas. Often what is really happening is a race to get a product to market. Edison or other competitors are willing to take the product to market when it is good enough, not perfect. Those who wait for perfection may end up getting beat by others working on the same idea.

So, look at your innovation and decide. How close to perfection does it need to be? Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” You may find success when you realize that your efforts to catch excellence have been good enough.

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Edison: Goals and Resolutions

This time of year people reflect on the past year and set goals and resolutions for the next. Where can we improve? What can we accomplish? Such questions often fill our minds at home and work. Thomas Edison asked these and similar questions all through his life. He had a unusual outlook as he sought the answers. When he applied his conclusions to innovation, he created remarkable results.

A great example from Edison’s life about his goals and vision is found in the creation of the light bulb. Edison had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish: to create the incandescent light bulb. While he had some ideas on how he would accomplish his goal, he did not have all the steps laid out on a nice checklist. In fact, most of his steps “failed.” He tried thousands of approaches to developing the right filament that did not work. This didn’t distract him from his goal. What others perceived as failure, Edison viewed as important steps to his ultimate goal.

When asked about his results, or rather lack of results, regarding the light bulb Edison stated, “Results? Why, man, I’ve gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward…” He recognized the small steps he took brought him closer to his goal, even if an outside observer considered it a failure. Each “failure” was really a learning opportunity.

Innovation often comes from trying new approaches to old problems. So as we begin a new year, keep in mind the words of Edison’s good friend Henry Ford, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

This blog was originally posted December 28, 2010.

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Faith in the Future

faith-in-the-future-and-christmastimeThis has been a difficult and discouraging year for some, but during this time of Christmas and the coming New Year, we often focus on hope and faith and the positive aspects of life. Personal and organizational goals are made for the New Year with an expectation that we will do better. Innovation and hope often walk hand in hand. The dreamers hope they will be able to improve their, or others circumstances with some new idea or products. Then they have enough faith in the future to act and keep trying until they have made a difference.

Edison explained some of this faith when he stated, “My philosophy of life is work. Bringing out the secrets of Nature and applying them for the happiness of man—I know of no better service to render during the short time we are in this world.” He was motivated by his faith and hope that we would be able to make the world a better place for everyone. As we have studied the lives of innovators this is a central theme. They want to make the world a better place, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in large ways.

The real secret to this time of the year is the willingness to recognize the real source of power for innovation and success. Take time this time of year to reflect on the good things in the world and how you can make it even better. Your gift this Christmas may just be a better understanding of yourself and your motivations. Your happiness and success may not be based on what you have, but on what you believe. Steve Forbes explained this secret gift this way, “The real source of wealth and capital in this new era is not material things. it is the human mind, the human spirit, the human imagination, and our faith in the future.”

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