Back to the future
As many of you know, I’m an angel.
An angel is a person who invests his wife’s money into new ventures with high risk. An angel is not a venture capitalist but is typically an entrepreneur and an innovator. Recently I was questioned about the “innovation sauce,” or what makes up an innovator and a successful entrepreneur. Innovation is the means to change concepts and creativity into a valuable asset.
My noble and true daughter, Pat, tells me there are two examples that describe creativity as domains. One is a domain where we make things cheaper, better and faster. This is engineering innovation. It is the dominant innovation needed to progress down the road to increased value for the end user. Another creativity/innovation is the one that comes from playing with toys and can seldom be taught. Pat makes the analogy that “one can teach anyone how to draw, but one can teach no one to be an artist.” It’s the same difference between a cook and a chef.
The second class of creativity is the capture of “white swans.” There are many colours of swans, and the unknowable event that’s beneficial is sometimes called a white swan. Big white swans are the ones pumped up by the media—heroes like Einstein, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The black swan is an unknowable event—large and usually evil—and everyone knows how to fix it after it happens. The big black swans are typically oil spills and the villains of history.
Most of the progress of civilizations probably rests on incremental advances somewhere between the two. Innovations of this type can be in engineering, marketing and social structures. White swans in the domain of engineering are at a slight advantage. The engineers state that “bigger, faster and cheaper” is the road to increasing value. The radical swans that significantly change the way we think are less frequent and normally resisted by the community at large. Radical white swans do not make things better. As one of my venture capitalist friends said, “Radical white swans don’t solve problems, they make problems.”
The incremental innovations belong in the orderly left brain. The right brain contributes to the “A-ha” event. This second class is like a lightning strike. The first class is logical and manageable, but managing right brain innovation is tough. Someone from Japan once asked me the “logical” question: “How did your leader know to tell you to invent the programmable controller.” What?
I had an accidental observation while at COFES, a Scottsdale, Ariz., software conference for the unwashed software people who want to know what the other software people smell like. We decided we would have closing entertainment in the form of an IQ test. The details of the test are irrelevant but it got me to thinking about IQ tests. For example, I can ask you what number comes after the number one. Most people answer two, but it could be any number. We have to think about what the tester wants to get as an answer. If, for example, we use the sequence 1-2-3-4-5, the next number most would say would be 6. But we can still use any number.
No matter how long the sequence gets, any number can still be added ignoring the previous sequence. But we have to reconcile the total sequence. My mathematical friends up at the University of Maine state that, “After 200 numbers, stop wasting your time thinking up a new equation to satisfy a random number at the end of the sequence.” While the left brain allows the random insert, the rational equation becomes inordinately complex. The legal system in most countries is like this. It’s impossible to remove a law. You can make a law obsolete by adding another law and soon you have thousands of pages of new legal documentation. The only way out is a revolution.
The revolution for number sequences is to take a departure along a new path. The new path can go in a different direction with a branching sequence. It can use none, or most, of the old historical sequencing rules for the new start. This has a lot to do with chaos thinking and fractal dimensions.
That departure, if continued, on each of the legs of the chain makes a leaf-like structure that is a surface, not a line. The number of events and innovations that can be had become infinity. It’s “elephants all the way down.” Here’s the turkey analogy. Based upon history, the turkey has a good life. But history doesn’t predict what happens on Thanksgiving Day. If but one turkey escapes captivity, a new direction exists.
I recently read a book entitled The Day the Hippies Saved Physics, a top-10 physics book last year that describes a history of different directions taken by the physics community. In another top-10 book, the suggestion was made that all intelligence in the universe is on the surface. The universe on the physics point of view is one big calculator with a capacity of 10100 bits; the human brain is 1040. By treating innovation as a surface, instead of a direction, we can reap substantial benefits.
One thing I like to say is, “Don’t go into the future, but visit the future, come back to the present and make the visits come true.” Or, come back from the future, not forward into it. Robert Frost (1874–1963) said it best:
I should be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.