Invention: Are You Up for It?
Inventing the World:
The biggest inventions in the world, i.e. inventions that have had epochal implications have largely been anonymous, the discovery of fire, agriculture, housing, pottery etc.etc. They have been the product of acute observation (how does a plant grow across seasons), experimentation over long periods of time and the creation of a standard operating procedure. The SOP becomes the default way of doing things and yet takes account of the tremendous diversity in the globe. An example is that you plant wheat in the winter in India but in the summer in Canada.
It would seem that things are different now. James Watt, Thomas Edison, Einstein, Steve Jobs, Larry Page seem to be inventors par excellence. They may be many things but they are not anonymous. Did James Watt invent the bullet train, did Thomas Edison come up with LED bulbs or even Google, how many of the algorithms are actually even conceived by Larry Page let alone architected or coded by him.
Technology flows continuously. The inventor is perhaps a catalyst. The invention can only take root with the active support of a band of brothers.
The process actually remains pretty much the same even today. Some one makes an observation; steam rising, lightning, stuff in a lab whatever and then a whole band of brothers comes together to take it from a concept to a reality. Some of them are faceless, some have some recognition, some become very rich and some do not but they all have one fact in common, at that moment in time their contribution was irreplaceable and invaluable.
The Success Quotient:
Great inventions have longevity because they solve important questions. The problem of food, transport, health. They solve the hard problems that are part of life of a society at that time. They are solved over time. There is maybe a acute observation in the beginning but thereafter it is a continuous process. The idea becomes wide spread and is adopted way beyond the original set of people who came up with it. We are still trying to get better with agriculture, housing, medicine.
Pfizer, TATA Steel, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Apple are all old companies. They have lasted more than 25 years and they are still scratching the surface of what is possible.
The Train of Failures:
Technologies do not fail, companies do. The companies that fail are the ones that become lazy, timid or focused at the status quo. Somewhere along the way they lose the desire to solve hard problems. They create or fall prey to the popular myths of the time.
Our myths are Listening to the Consumer. How on earth does one do that. You can surely listen to the research agency but is that the same thing. Another one is the Minimal Viable Product. How do we know when we are solving a hard problem, what is minimal and what is viable? They listen too much to the established orthodoxy and too little to themselves.
An Alternate Reality:
It is to go back to basics. Solving hard problems takes time, energy and skill. You will notice that the word passion is missing. It is deliberate. Passion is an outpouring of energy. Hard problems are much more difficult. They need us to chip away at them all day, every day. Passion rarely survives that long. It is better to be focused, tenacious and knowledgeable.
It is also good to have a failure mind set. People who set out to solve hard problems will fail. They are like sailors in uncharted waters. Thankfully, today we do not pay for our failures with our lives. We need to start out with a hypothesis, defines success and failure and measure ourselves against that. But neither success nor failure are permanent. They are stops along the way of inventing a better way of solving a hard problem.
At the same time we need to look for disproportionate reward. This could be money, emotional highs or even fame. The justification for disproportionate reward is not that it justifies the risk or that it attracts the best and the brightest to solve hard problems or even that it attracts funds for these kind of projects. Disproportionate reward is the only proof that we are moving in the right direction.
The Green Revolution is an example of disproportionate reward. It helped India overcome food shortages, fight starvation and focus on creating a forward looking country. And yet it was not enough. There were limitations that became obvious with time and there is renewed focus on Green Revolution 2. That is what technology is about, raising the barrier with every iteration.