A few days ago the NPR program Talk of the Nation Science Friday ran a story of a group of high school students who invented a new wheel chair.  The student inventors came up with a revolutionary approach in dealing with problems associated with modern day wheel chairs.  The video and the story, which can be seen at the following link, are important reminders that invention requires critical success factors such as:

  1. Teamwork.  We often think of inventions come out of someone sitting alone in an office dreaming of a brand new idea without the input of anyone else.  That simply is not true.  Great inventions require a strong degree of collaboration and teamwork to produce something new.  They also require interaction with stakeholders who may not be directly involved on the team.
  2. Building Blocks.   We sometimes assume that an invention has to come out of think air.  That is an inaccurate way of approaching invention.  So much of what is done is building on the work of others and tapping into prior inventions.
  3. Rethinking Problems.  As one of the students said on the video, invention is about coming up with “new methods to solve every day problems.”  People are obsessed with coming up with something totally different for a problem that does not exist.  They may get lucky and stumble upon a new invention.  However, the more realistic approach, the one that actually produces results, is one that focuses on addressing the problems of today by rethinking the solutions.
  4. Everyone can do it. Innovation is not the domain of scientists that have strong and wealthy backers.  Even teens who have a great idea and a willingness to work hard can create an invention.
  5. No fear.  If we are worried about failing we will likely not succeed.  These students won an award for the prototype that they created.  If they had spent the time worrying about losing instead of building the prototype they would have surely failed.

During my career I’ve been involved in several product development and R&D projects where several of the points above hold true. The most critical element in the process is to balance the need for creativity with a strong business sense.  Favoring one over the other will likely lead of a significant amount of frustration by various stakeholders.  Indeed it is important to hold the team accountable for meeting timelines and budgets, however, we also need to provide them enough room for innovation.  This is why adopting a phase gate approach is a best practice that often provides that needed space and offers a realistic framework for linking product innovation and project management.