By Jim Euchner, VP of Global Innovation, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., RTM Editor-in-Chief
My grandfather was an inventor. He worked at Kodak during its golden years, where he invented a variety of still camera devices, including an early stereo-imaging camera. When I got to know him, he was already retired, but he was still inventing. I remember, in particular, a sundial he designed and built that was precisely engineered to give the proper time in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I recall checking the time on it one sunny summer day and finding that it was correct. This desire of my grandfather to make such a device was interesting to me, and a little strange. Where had this obsession come from? I had not yet come to know the mind of an inventor.
Recently, I came across another sundial inventor—Julien Coyne, founder of Mojoptix, who developed a digital sundial. A traditional sundial is designed and placed so that the sun casts a shadow on the image of a clock; the shadow indicates on the clock face the approximate hour and minute. Coyne’s intricate, 3D-printed sundial looks something like a three-dimensional maze or a geometric coral. When sunlight passes through it, the complex combination of shadows displays the time in digital format: 11:20, for example. It only displays time in increments of 20 minutes, and only works between the hours of 10:00 and 2:00, but it works (at least in the northern hemisphere). Such an intricate device could only have been created using 3D printing; it demonstrates an extreme use of a new capability. You can see a clip of the device in operation on YouTube or find a video describing how to make it on the Mojoptix website. As my grandfather would have said, I love nuts like that.
Why do people take the time and energy to invent seemingly frivolous items like these, things that are functional but in a left-handed sort of way? Why make sundials at all in the age of digital watches and cell phones? One reason is because it is challenging, and challenges are fun, especially quirky challenges. These inventors are engineers, but they are also artists and they use their invention as a form of expression. They do it because it is beautiful and somehow right. It is this striving for something beyond functionality that drives the most creative thinking. Making this kind of creativity possible in a corporate environment is one of the functions of technical leadership.
Several of the articles in this issue address this challenge. In their Research Note, “Exploring the Principles of R&D Leadership with Award-Winning R&D Leaders,” Louis Gritzo, Alan Fusfeld, and Daniel Carpenter consider the role leaders play in enabling innovation. They interviewed people who have led some of the most innovative organizations in our times and identified from these interviews eight principles leaders can use in building an innovative organization. One of these—“Value unique characteristics and styles in colleagues”—sounds a lot like valuing inventors of things like crazy, hyper-technical sundials.
In “The Role of Leadership in Innovation,” Richard Dodge and colleagues look at the matter statistically. They report on a study that analyzes the organizational characteristics associated with companies that are perceived by their employees as being innovative. Using data from a very large survey conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership, they seek to identify what characteristics of a workplace make it innovative. They find that challenging work “always has a high impact on innovation.” Other variables, like organizational encouragement and work group support, definitely have an effect, but that effect is smaller and more contingent. Challenge, it seems, is the main driver of innovation within corporations, as it is for many individuals.
One example is Paul Sandstrom, a Goodyear fellow and holder of more than 300 US patents. In this issue’s C-Scape profile, Sandstrom discusses invention from the practitioner’s point of view. He talks about a life of experimenting, tinkering, and trying things out—lots of things. Each experiment, he says, adds to his knowledge base and creates fodder for the next invention. He cites challenge as one of his primary motivating forces. His favorite patent is one for a material used in a rock-climbing tire; the material combines a set of apparently contradictory properties that were necessary for the application. It is his favorite because it was a challenge: everyone said it couldn’t be done.
There is one other element that I think must be present, in addition to challenge. Several years ago, I worked for an innovative leader named John Thomas. He is an expert in human computer interaction and was one of the founders of the art and science of usability. John once wrote a paper with a colleague called simply FUN. Its premise is that people do not always seek that which is easiest to use. If they did, there would be no video games or pogo sticks. Sometimes, people seek challenge, surprise, and fun—in their play and in their work. When we, as managers, do things that take these away, we wind up with cheaper digital watches, not digital sundials. When we find ways to foster them, we build great innovations and truly innovative organizations.