Forget the terrible title (it refers obliquely to the electrical current generated when we think).
Juice: The Creative Fuel that Drives World-Class Inventors
By Evan I. Schwartz
Harvard Business School Press
Forget the terrible title (it refers obliquely to the electrical current generated when we think). Ignore the lackluster examples (do we really need to hear again from Dean Kamen of Segway Human Transporter fame or Jay Walker of Priceline.com?). And don't look for stellar prose from this contributing writer to MIT's Technology Review.
Instead, concentrate on this: Schwartz, with lots of help from Microsoft Corp.'s former chief technology officer, Nathan Myhrvold, who wrote the forward, has created an impassioned plea to boost innovation in your company.
That is no small thing. Still smarting from the Internet meltdown, and trying to make a profit in an economy that seems to be growing no faster than a bonsai tree, there is a natural tendency to be conservative, to take incremental steps that build off what has come before. The problem is that small risks lead to small rewards. Schwartz wants you to swing for the fences instead, increasing your commitment to originality and daring.
Schwartz, author of Digital Darwinism, wraps his argument around profiles of inventors in a variety of fields.
Two things become clear time and time again. First, the innovations that make the biggest difference in our lives are never created in a linear fashion. And second, innovation in large companies frequently becomes a stealth affair as people sneak off from their "real" jobs to work on something new.
They fear, correctly, they will be penalized for wasting resources, though that's inherent in the invention process; after all, no one comes up with a working prototype first time out.
No wonder they hide what they are doing. But the fact that they need to is inherently stupid. As Myhrvold notes in the introduction: "Invention is to technology what conception is to reproduction—the moment that makes something original and unprecedented. As such it is the high-valued activity."
Schwartz tries to make this palatable to bean counters by arguing that innovation can be forced. He contends that all inventions fall into one of four categories:
• Build a better mousetrap. You take an existing concept and improve it.
• Recognize a latent desire. Folks never knew they needed a Walkman until Sony unveiled it.
• Create something the world has been clamoring for. The lightbulb, for instance.
• Get lucky. Like the folks who created the microwave oven and the laser.
While the list of categories might help jump-start your thinking, the book's real point, as Myhrvold observes, is that there's never been a better time to have big ideas—or an easier way to share them worldwide.
Once you get past the initial cost, the business case is compelling, as Schwartz notes, quoting everyone from economist Joseph Schumpeter ("Invention plus capital equals innovation") to GE Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Immelt ("The only long-term source of profit, and the only reason to invest in a company, is your confidence in its ability to innovate").
In 1940, Schwartz points out, the U.S. Census Bureau eliminated "inventor" as a separate job category. It may be time to reinstate it.
Paul B. Brown is the author of numerous nonfiction books, including Publishing Confidential, published by Amacom.
This article was originally published on 09-01-2004
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