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Invention, Innovation and Lab Management

“Invention and innovation are quite different things,” declares John Dr. Lienhard. To promote invention, a lab manager has to devise methods of instilling a sense of freedom in the research staff.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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Dr. John Lienhard Addresses How Best to Nurture Invention within the Research Community

“Invention and innovation are quite different things,” declares John Dr. Lienhard, emeritus professor of technology and culture at the University of Houston. A student of the development of technology and the role of invention in human life, he has a daily show, “Engines of Our Ingenuity,” that has been a staple on many National Public Radio stations since 1988 and describes how human culture around the world is formed by human creativity.

What is this difference? Invention is “new technology that really changes things, that is radical disruption,” explains Dr. Lienhard. One reason for this disruption is that invention is cumulative, as noted by Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, a nonprofit organization that celebrates inventors and inventions: “Side effects or limitations of an invention create new opportunities.” Invention can result in the creation of entire new industries. An excellent example is the invention of the digital computer in 1939. It took a while, but this invention resulted in the creation of information technology industry: computers and software. Similarly, the invention of the airplane resulted in the development of the airline industry and greatly increased personal mobility, which resulted in a vast expansion of the hotel and travel industries. It also resulted in a new dimension for warfare: aerial combat.

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In contrast, “Innovation is seldom accompanied by major disruptions,” says Dr. Lienhard. “Innovation literally means renewing something. Innovation is the result of wanting to be just a stitch ahead of the competition. And American industry likes to use it for a kind of incremental tinkering of something already there. Innovation is safe, while invention is dangerous.”

Ebb and flow of invention

“I’ll claim flatly that freedom is the nurturing mother of invention. Invention always flourishes when people are free—when they enjoy intellectual permissiveness. Every time personal liberty opens up in a society, invention flourishes,” states Dr. Lienhard. “We are in a trough now, whereas we were in very high points in the late 18th century and the early 20th century.”
Despite the huge amount of money spent on academic and industrial research, Dr. Lienhard does not see recent times as an outstanding period of invention. “The great period of U.S. invention was in the early 20th century. The radio, airplane, television and digital computer were all invented before 1939. Since then we’ve gotten very cautious.”

Role of lab managers

Can lab managers increase the invention productivity of the people they supervise? Can they independently and successfully increase the invention productivity of their staff even if other laboratory managers do not? Dr. Lienhard responded to these questions by saying, “I think that invention is a fundamental expression of mental freedom. It requires a kind of carefree hedonistic ability to step off the edge. People who know they’ll get slapped down for stepping out of line won’t invent. Yes, I’m certain that kind of freedom can be bestowed ‘locally’ even when it is not done so ‘globally’—at least to some extent. I think the lab manager has to have the confidence to be wrong—to bounce ideas around, to get in and tangle as a mental equal.”

To promote invention, a lab manager has to devise methods of instilling a sense of freedom in the research staff. One way to do this is to allow staff members to challenge conventional thinking, as Dr. Lienhard suggests above. Another is to not punish staff members for failing—stepping off the edge and falling off the cliff— when taking risks, provided that these risks are calculated ones. To the extent that corporate rules permit, allowing staff members to work flexible hours, attend conferences (provided that the budget allows this and staff members don’t abuse the privilege), and publish or present their research findings can provide another dimension of personal freedom. In doing so, lab managers need to be sure that the employer’s interests are not compromised.

In providing a sense of personal freedom, lab managers need to realize that people respond differently to various incentives. For example, a certain percentage of laboratory technicians may be motivated by an opportunity to attend a conference or serve as coauthor on a paper. To motivate staff members and discover what gives them a sense of personal freedom, lab managers have to know their staff members well. Visiting labs and offices at the beginning of the workday and going to lunch with staff members are two ways to do this. Another is to carpool with staff members if your schedule allows. An occasional social event at your home can also be helpful. Discovering what motivates staff members helps the manager create a flexible work environment while fostering a sense of freedom.

Coaching can include encouraging staff members to take courses and participate in activities that increase their abilities. Many lab staff members, particularly recent hires, may not be aware of continuing education options offered by their employers.

Are current trends in industrial and academic research promoting development of a great new period of invention? What are some of these trends and their likely impact on invention?

Role of teams

Multidisciplinary teams are playing an ever-increasing role in industrial R&D. Do they play a role in invention?
“Sometimes invention is the work of a team, but more often it is the work of an aggregation of people working independently,” says Dr. Lienhard. For example, Dr. Lienhard notes, that at his Menlo Park laboratory Thomas Edison “built a small coterie of bright engineers, scientists, and technicians… He lost the chemistry of that cadre of geniuses and craftsmen” when he opened a new lab in Orange, N.J., according to historian Thomas Parke Hughes (American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970,” University of Chicago Press, 2004).

In his book How Invention Begins (Oxford University Press, 2008), Dr. Lienhard notes that thousands of people applied their combined inventive genius to each of three inventions: airplanes, railroad engines and automobiles. Each of these was really a concatenation of many independent inventions and innovations.

In contrast, Dr. Lienhard observes, “Teams are more likely to be the vehicle for design and development than invention and original research.” In today’s period of high innovation and relatively low invention, it’s not surprising that much R&D is performed by teams. These teams capitalize on previous inventions.

“Sometimes invention is the work of a team, but more often the work of an aggregation. Teams are more likely to be the vehicle for design and development than invention and original research.”

Project management and invention

Project management techniques are useful in managing innovation projects. However, the constraints and discipline imposed by project management that are so helpful to timely innovation can be deadly to the inventiveness of your research staff by reducing their sense of freedom.

Project management usually involves managing six key dimensions and measuring them against set targets. These are:

Time – Measured against the project schedule. Progress is measured in terms of project milestones and their target completion dates. This requires action items to be completed on schedule.
Cost – Measured against the project budget and planned spending for various phases of the project.
Resources – Measured against the originally budgeted resources.
Scope –Measured against the original scope of the project. Is the scope becoming narrower due to limitations in resources or funding?
Quality – Are quality issues being addressed and solved in a timely way?
Responsibilities – A particular person should be made responsible for successfully completing each action item.

Clearly project management is a very disciplined process. Each of these six dimensions can restrict the freedom of researchers to follow up on unexpected results, which often is so important in making an invention.

Academic patenting and invention

What is the impact of the trend of faculty members patenting their inventions? This patent activity is often accompanied by the formation of start-up companies to develop and commercialize the technology. Alternatively, the technology is licensed to existing firms that commercialize the technology.

Dr. Lienhard comments, “Less of this goes on than we might wish. It really is an effective way to pursue new ideas that would be rejected in an established company. It might cause more inventions to occur than would otherwise. However, academic patenting does not increase the pace of invention…I’m skeptical that there’s much connection between patents and inventiveness. Patents are all about ownership.”

Industrial funding of academic research

The role of industry in funding and guiding academic research continues to grow.
Do industry/academic research partnerships increase the pace of invention or do they lead to an increased focus on innovation as compared to true invention? “Again that word ‘pace,’” comments Dr. Lienhard. “The pace of invention has a peculiar inexorability. However, industrial funding of academic research does foster in-house incremental improvement. I’ve also seen lots of cases where an academic will want to sprint ahead and will sever his or her association with a company and strike out alone.”

Working on a project funded by industry means the student is working on someone else’s idea and trying to answer someone else’s questions. Dr. Lienhard says, “I think what research funding does is often cast a huge wet blanket on student inventiveness.”