Friday, February 27, 2009

3 Questions Innovators Should be Asking

I've mentioned here and elsewhere that I'm just finishing a book that has been very good called The Invention of Air. It's a little outside the genre of books I normally read but has been a fascinating one. It's a narrative centered around the life and innovations of a pastor in England in the 1700's named Joseph Priestly - a kind of lost figure among the founding fathers of America. He was highly influential in the lives of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. He was also a key figure in other fields -he played a critical role in the discovery of pure oxygen, the discovery of ecosystems science and the process of photosynthesis, he was the founder of the Unitarian Church, and as I said earlier, played a critical role in the politics of the American Revolution. Not bad for a life's work. I must say plainly that I believe that theologically he is a heretic in the first variety. Nonetheless I've learned a lot from the example of his life and one angle has centered around the process of innovation. Inspired by the life of Joseph Priestly here are three questions I think innovators should be asking themselves:
  1. Am I creating enough down time to innovate? The spikes in Priestly's innovative genius and influence occurred during the seasons of his life where he had the most free time. I know there are limits to this in our modern reality. Most of us can't just work 1-2 hours per day like he did and devote the rest of our time to innovation, invention, and new ideas. But there are smaller ways that we can create space and time to innovate. I need to be diligent about creating more.
  2. Do I have people around me that will help to give my ideas wings? Priestly was a part of the 18th Century British coffeehouse culture which proved a gathering place for very smart and like-minded thinkers from a variety of disciplines who gathered regularly to share and build upon each others ideas. Priestly was incredibly unselfish with his ideas and far less concerned about getting credit than getting at the truth of the next big innovation.
  3. What are the fatal flaws in the existing models? Priestly consistently looked for inconsistencies in the current ways of thinking, be it chemistry, or thermodynamics, or theology, or politics. And then let his curiosity run wild as he explored other methods, theories, or explanations for what was happening. These alternative explanations ultimately led to paradigm shifts in all of these areas.
What are some helpful questions that you ask to fuel your innovative side?


Danny Lucas said...

Few in the nation know of Priestly. We are at an advantage locally.

With the concentration of GE nearby, Lawrence Park, PA named their streets after famous scientists and inventors, dreamers and innovators.

Emmet, Howe, Rankine, Morse, Smithson, Silliman, Draper, Napier, Priestly, and many more streets are an easy and safe walk.

They are colorful at Christmas, but my favorite time is fall, as leaves turn and change is obvious.
A stroll through Elbow Tree Park (straight up Emmet a few blocks off Iroquois Avenue (Rt 955)would spark an imagination.

The tree had a massive trunk, that turned 90 degrees at head height,
It grew horizontally for about 5 feet, then went 90 degrees upwards again.

In effect the tree became a giant "4", but tilt that hypotenuse straight up.

I likened it to the church.

There was a main "church" trunk that grew for centuries from the day of Christ.(Catholic).
The Protestant Reformation veered way over to another direction, then proceeded heavenward anew.

Meanwhile, the original trunk, grew a new limb and continued upward. Numerous branches shoot off in all directions forming denominations of all sorts.

I used to take my daughter out there and ask "Which is the REAL trunk? The base is obvious, but it turns left, and then, both the elbow and original proceed heavenward. But you cannot tell which was the original trunk above the elbow.
Likewise, which is the real "church"? Many a discussion ensued from that.

This was a popular spot for young and old, strollers through the park of all ages over the years.
They would sit on the base of the "elbow", the bottom of the "4". It was a photographers dream spot too.
The weight of many people over time took its toll.

I went for a photo of the tree two or three years ago to find that it had broken down completely and been removed. I stood there thinking, "I hope that is not a foreshadowing of the "church" as the tree had been when alive".

Art stores on Main Street still have sketches of the tree for sale.

A map of Lawrence Park, with all the scientists names everywhere, can be found at Google Maps, by typing "lawrence park pa" and zooming in. Priestly is off Iroqois Ave, headed toward GE.

These streets with well chosen names of innovators, show us the many "greats" of our past, who innovated their future, which is our present.

The question all of these innovators asked themselves was....WHY?

Larry Shallenberger said...

For me, its "how is my intake?" Am I reading enough and enough of high quality stuff?"