The hidden pattern of inventions

What if there were a common thread between all kinds of inventions and innovations who have shaped our lives? We talked to an expert about that subject who identified several common factors.

Pagan Kennedy, who we interviewed for our research about Innovation for the Future of Leadership Initiative (FLI), is undoubtedly an expert on inventions. Between 2012 and 2014, she investigated each week a story behind all sort of inventions to publish them in the column „Who made That” of the New York Times and collected all the knowledge she gained from interviews with inventors and researchers about the creative process in her recent book “Inventology. How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”.

But what defines the invention and how does that differ from innovation? She likes to quote Art Fry’s words, the inventor or the famous Post-it Note:

Invention is what happens when you translate a thought into a thing”.

The Post-It: an innovation through mere hazard

Usually, this phase involves prototyping: when the first model is done, then you have an invention. Innovation, on the other hand, is more related to what happens afterward. According to Art Fry and Pagan Kennedy, innovation is the business process that delivers inventions to society. This second part does not include creating something new, but rather working on a prototype that already exists and making it better so it can be delivered to the market.

Pagan Kennedy focused her book on the first part of the process: the creativity of the individual. In our interview, she stressed two factors that are, in her experience, fundamental for coming up with new ideas:

  • Direct knowledge of the problem
    An inventor is a person that is suffering from a concrete problem of its daily life and wants to solve it. So, if you hire people and pay them to solve a problem or to invent something, you need to make sure that they won´t be kept away from the problem and/or the people who suffer from it – you need to make them experience and really understand the problem. Ethnography field workers and user experience researchers, for instance, are doing a great job with really connecting to problems. But a down-to-earth approach to a problem is also something any employee can or should do- we talked to a CEO in 2014 who told us that: ”I have over 100 shop managers – do you know what I recommend to them every time something doesn’t go well in a shop: go finally out of your office. Fake naivety and lead conversations with each of your sales employee for one week. Ask them about the clients, how their kids are, why that particular item is so popular and the other not. One week. And you´ll see what difference it makes.”

  • Serendipity
    Another group of inventors is those who were not looking for a solution to a certain problem but just discovered something by mistake. Probably they were looking for something different, but they found something new and they thought: “This is really cool! What can we use this for?”.
    An example of this process is the smoke detector who was invented by chance: his inventor, Duane Pearsall was working on a machine to dampen the static electricity in factories and photography labs but one day someone lit a cigarette in his workroom and the machine detected the smoke, so a friend suggested him to develop it like a smoke detector! The smoke detector history tells us something important: there are people that know about the problems and others that know about the solution, the key is to put the two groups together. Therefore, digital tools play an important role, enabling these two kinds of people to meet. Pagan Kennedy mentions InnoCentive as an inspiring example. Used also by NASA, InnoCentive is an online platform where companies can post a problem and offer awards for the best solutions. Everyone can compete, offering his solution, by just registering and posting their idea! One of the interesting findings is that the solution often came from a different field or sector. This highlights the importance of multidisciplinary and knowledge contamination.

Pagan Kennedy reveals that there is no unique recipe for creativity and invention. There are some factors to keep in mind, such as the importance of direct contact with the problem you are trying to solve, or keeping your mind open, in case you make an unexpected discovery. But in the end, the suggestion is: just try. Because, in Kennedy’s words:

We need as many inventors as possible; we have a lot of big problems to solve out there”.

About the FLI Thought Leader Pagan Kennedy

Former design columnist at New York Times where she published articles about notable inventions and their stories – from small objects we use daily (such as lipsticks) to major technological innovations (3D printers, Twitter…). Author of ten books, her latest book is “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World” (2016). “Though we possess the brainpower, the talent, and the tools to solve our most worrying problems, it’s enormously difficult to organize ourselves around the big questions.”

Share this post

Leave a Comment

More posts:


The beauty of moving knowledge

In 2015, we talked to Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, on how to achieve true progress. Find out more about his understanding of progress –

Read More »