How to Invent Something Easily  ?

  1. Step 1: Find a problem worth solving
  2. Step 2 : Frame the Problem and Write a Problem Statement
  3. Step 3: Build a prototype and quality test your idea
  4. Step 4 : Use Open Innovation to extend the reach to more Inventors.
  5. Step 5: Protect your idea by filing Patents
  6. Step 6 : Check Market Feasibility and Commercialization Potential

“I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of the brain unfolding to success… Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep,friends, love, everything.”
Nikola Tesla

I wish there was a book when I was young on “How to Start Inventing as Kid”. Over the next few posts, I will show you a way to invent and then show you many examples of inventions and how people invented new and creative products. I will show how to invent something without any money. Finally, if you follow the process early on in a disciplined manner, inventing or innovating will become second nature.

Inventing and Innovation are terms used interchangeably and have become catch-all phrases. The best way to understand the key differences is to borrow the definition used by Art Fry, the famed inventor of  3M Post It Notes. As per Fry, Inventing is the process of taking an idea from concept to a thing (product or service). At per Fry, “Innovation is the act of working through all of the obstacles and problems in the path of turning a creative idea into a business”. It is also helpful to understand what is the difference between discovery and inventing. Discovery is the process of finding or discovering a fact which remains a fact irrespective of when or if it is discovered. An invention is the process of active conception which may use discovery as a means to the end or not.

Most of the write-ups about innovation mainly focus on patenting, copyright laws, business model canvas, design thinking, product development, marketing your invention and ideation. As Ideation is a small part of inventing, business model canvas, design thinking etc and developing an IP framework is a small and mostly inconsequential component of the innovation process. The most important piece of innovation is to apply “inventive problem solving” to generate a return on creativity. In another post, we will discuss the best way to create a financial framework for Creative ROI which is totally different than the financial metrics used in startups and mature enterprises.

It is also important and perhaps helpful to know that there are no five (5) steps to inventing or “Inventing for Dummies”. Inventing is a complex activity that leads to simplification of complex problems into simple solutions. Inventing is the process of moving from problem space to the solution space and is context independent. Content independent means that the methodology can be applied to any context including product development, finding a better job, solving a problem that has been bothering you for a long time. After all, Gautam Budha, the founder of the spiritual practice Buddhism was an inventor of sorts. He was trying to solve humanities biggest problem i.e. human suffering.

“Discovery is the process of finding facts in the system or environment being analyzed. Inventing is the generic process of moving from problem space to solution space to convert an idea to a product or service. Innovation is a comprehensive process of taking a creative idea into a business concept to generate an ROI on Creativity”

We will now discuss the myths around Inventing and then provide an early version methodology of Inventing. In another post, we will specifically discuss a radical method of inventing called “Breakthrough Inventing”.

Eradicating the Hyperbole, Rooting out the Folklore and smashing the Myths

Inventing is considered the domain of the genius, celebrated engineers and entrepreneurs, design thinkers and creative brainstormers. Nothing could be further from truth. Inventing like discovery and innovation can be learnt and applied by anyone in any context. Many of us are not aware that most of us invent solutions to our problems every day unconsciously, intuitively and without realizing that we are inventing. Inventing is responsive problem-solving in a given context and is the grandmother of Innovation. Innovation is inventing across context, domains, value chains to achieve a creative ROI.

Let us now shatter some myths about inventing.

Myth 1: Inventing is a faculty of Genius.

Reality: As we have already discussed, Inventing is responsive problem-solving. Problem Solving is the process of searching a large search space with specific criteria using various rational/intuitive discovery and reasoning processes until we find an optimal solution to the problem. The journey can be frustrating with many dead ends. We use chance discovery and a zig-zag path to find the answers. If the problem-solving approach is mundane, we call it “Way of Life’. We indulge in “Way of Life Inventing” everyday, right from deciding how to navigate our way through congested traffic to finding a solution to a sudden financial setback. “Way of Live” Inventing is so subtle and all-permeating in our life, that most of us do not notice it.

However, occasionally, we find ourselves in challenging problem spaces where the subtlety transforms to prominence in our consciousness. In these rare occasions, which we call milestone events, the problem/solution space may be completely greenfield or foreign to us and we may feel completely stuck. We can say that this is what prolific inventors experience around their product/service/contextual spaces. Some of us can find our way in this maze and others may take evasive action by withdrawing. If we persistently remain focused on solving that key milestone problem, over time, we can rapid cycle and find the optimal solution (more on that later).

Inventing is not only the privilege of genius or celebrated. Inventing is responsive problem solving and we already know how to invent on a day to day basis. We can easily scale it to the next level if we are motivated and persistent to find a solution.

Myth 2: Inventing is not the same as Innovation and Innovation is more important than Inventing 

Reality: Inventing and Innovation are problem-solving in different contexts. The terms are a matter of semantics i.e how we use linguistics to describe our understanding of something. People have been inventing for eons right from Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Galileo and Wright Brothers. Were they inventing or innovating?

The term “Innovation” has created a new knowledge bubble in the industry in which jargon and buzzwords allow informational asymmetry to be created in the space.  The industry that thrives on knowledge bubbles frequently hypes, embellishes and convert simple things into complex space full of jargon. Complexity is good, if it enhances our understanding of the domain, but is not effective and useful if it creates hyperbole and jargon maze. As Big Data is eventually finding ”actionable small data”, likewise, Inventing and Innovation are about reducing complexity in the space to find simple, actionable next steps.

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication ………..Leonardo da Vinci

Myth 3: We must fail fast and enough times to Invent 

Reality: Failure is helpful if leads to reduced failures in the future. Failure is an unproductive waste of human effort when it leads us nowhere. If we look around us, we will find that continuous improvement is not necessarily driven by failure. Failed events allow us to learn lessons and take corrective action so that we can become more productive and efficient. This is why we do not expect to hit our car to the garage door while driving out, we do not expect the surgeon operating on us to think of us as learning resource if the patient dies. Our lessons learnt from small failure and big failures should unleash a long wave of productivity and efficiency after which we may need to fail and start any long wave of productivity. If human efforts have a value, is something finite, energy consuming and there is a fine line between productive effort and unproductive efforts, then, this concept applies to inventing as well.

As a matter of fact, after studying more than 300 inventors and mapping their cycle time using data from public resources, I have found that “inventing cycle time” i.e. the time it takes to move from a well-defined problem space to an optimal solution space is lower in productive inventors versus unproductive inventors. We must find ways to reduce the cycle time in inventing so that we can use the process with a larger range of problems and then move on to the next.

What is Inventing and how can anyone Invent?

Inventing is the process of finding solutions to any problem. Responsive problem solving is context-based adaptive problem solving on a continuum. Inventing requires both context and the problem driven, outcome oriented task. In responsive problem solving, the challenge increases as we move from existing to new contexts or new problems within the same contexts. The most challenging problems are those in which both the context and the problem is new. We call such problem and domain spaces are Greenfield’s i.e. where no one has ventured before. New Ideas that cannot transcend the invention space and move into the innovative spaces are born still ideas that are a dime a dozen.

Inventing Matrix Zone

Matrix Zone

The key attribute of inventing is Novelty. I created a term called the “Novelty Factor (NF)” to measure the novelty of an insight or solution. Novelty Factor is subjective in nature and is different for each person. What may be novel to one person may not be novel for another. Having studied the unconscious and intuitive decision making of venture capitalists and entrepreneurs, it is always easy to see why most venture pitches fail. The billion dollar idea in one person’s mind may be worth the darkness of the waste bin for another. Novelty Factor (NF) can be increased by hype or well-positioned marketing. However, such hype driven NF will quickly convert into shock and disappointment. As such, unless novelty factor of one person is legitimally and ethically delivered across a value chain for the stakeholders, it is of no use.

Inventing Novelty Factor

Novelty Factor

Humans love insights as insights are accompanied by a rush of Dopamine, the pleasure chemical. Being dopamine-driven led unsuspecting investors to lose their investments in the Bernie-Madoff scam. As such, insights filled with novelty need to be thoroughly stress tested to ensure that we are not being mislead by ourselves. In the insight spectrum, too much of dopamine and always computing inventing brain is known to be present in mental disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis.

Spectrum

Core Inventing is a crazy problem obsessing one perpetually till one solves the problem it and has the potential of making one crazy in the process. Inventing is crazy side of problem-solving. 

How We Invent using Brain’s Unconscious Search (US) ?

Unconscious Search (US) is a process our embodied brain and mind uses to search for affordances (possibilities) in our multi-dimensional sensory environment. Unconscious Search is the process our brain uses to invent new possibilities which may be suppressed obvious states (obvious possibilities that are ignored) or undiscovered non-obvious states (states that are out of our perceptive zone).

Humans are variety reduction machines. Too much variety and we can hallucinate and too less variety, we can become bored, ineffective. Variety is the possible states of a system in a complex environment. Our world is full of billions of possibilities even if our “Variety Reduction Cognitive Apparatus” is unable to see the possibilities. There is a good reason for this as nature has programmed our cognitive systems to allow for limited variety in our consciousness. Unconscious Search is the process of actively and passively searching for all possible states of the system, finding which one are a match to our current belief systems and then excluding all of non-confirming possibilities from any further processing. Inventors use “Unconscious Search” to invent on demand.

Our brain is automatically and unconsciously searching for affordances in our environment (simple, wicked and bizarre) and the search is an “always on” routine. Our brain uses this 24 X 7 unconscious search process to control the sensory inputs that can reach our conscious mind and to match it with the predictions generated by our mind based on our belief system. See “predictive coding” article.

Unconscious Search (US) is a multi-start metaheuristic which is a type of non-linear search and optimization process and works very well in achieving combinatorial optimization. The term “heuristic” originated from the Greek word heuriskein, which roughly translates into “discovery of new strategies or rules to solve problems“.

To put this into context, think of trying to search for a lost ring on a football field. You can search the ring by starting from where you think you lost the ring or do random search. If you do not find it in that area, you define a new area and start your search again. If you reach a dead end using this method, you call for help from all your friends who earmark and define their area of search and everyone searches simultaneously till you find the ring or realize that the ring is not in the field so you should search in the locker room and so on. Unconscious Search of our brain uses similar search mechanisms. As someone who invented a way to reduce the Inventing Cycle Time (ICT) of Innovators and Inventors, I extensively documented many search strategies our brain uses in the service of our perceptions and goals.

Metaheuristics is a method of finding “acceptable” solutions in a reasonable time for solving hard and complex problems in the space. If we know how to tap into the immense power we already have, our brain and embodied mind has the astounding ability to continuously search for good solutions in the changing landscape (using various optimization methods) and bootstrap the solutions in cascades (brick over brick) to build a pretty good solution. The problem is that the Unconscious Search (US) is limited by what we want to search (passionate desire), what we expect to search (habituation) and the undeveloped ability to carry out constraint optimization (getting rid of our own internal mental blocks). As such even if have the ability and possibility of searching for the “best solution” (Global Optima), we remain suck in the “existing comfortable solution” (Local Optima).

Our inventive mind or unconscious mind uses the process of search and planning sequences to find novel possibilities which may be novel goal states (solutions to a problem) or novel pathways to non-novel goal states (ways to achieve something). We can use the long tail of expertise using open innovation to tap into hundreds of other mind’s search and planning sequences.

Search is a theoretical construct and unlike computers, our brain does this search differently. So, there is a space of possibilities or possible states and we want to find a match to our desired goal or outcome. We have to find it by partially inspecting a small area of the search space being examined. All problems are essentially search problems, we have a desired outcome or desired state and by searching each subset of the search space, we are find one that fits.

Planning is a specialized type of of search, but more to do with search of linear or non-linear action sequences. It is search of action or actions sequences that satisify an intuitive or a logical criteria. In one of the inventing courses I taught, I teach people how to create a set of intuitive and logical criteria to get a better match.

Our brain uses a process of predictive processing to reduce variety in our conscious frame to maintain patterns and stability in our lives. As discussed in more detail in another post, predictive processing is framework by which our brain makes predictions on what will happen in the now and the future and then suppresses the possibilities coming through our sensory feed in the environment to match the predictions it is making. William. T. Powers in 1960’s proposed the “Perceptual Control Theory (PCT)” which in essence claimed that our brain, mind and its sensory as well as kinematic system are in the service of our beliefs and mental models.

Our brain is automatically and unconsciously searching for affordances in the environment (simple, wicked and bizarre) and the search is an “always on” routine. The routine ramps up efficiency when we are sleeping effectively, are in a creative flow and works inefficiently when we are under stress or anxiety. Obviously, we will not discuss in this post, how to optimize the search process, but, we will provide some overarching information.

What are Affordances?

Affordances are possibilities inherent in a unique situation or event available to all agents in the system. Affordances allow degrees of freedom in which agents in a multi-agent system can move. The term was coined by psychologist James J. Gibson in his book “The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems”. Since then, other explanations of the term “affordance” have been outlined, but, all of them essentially means ” all transactions that are possible between an individual and their environment“. We must also note that most of the time, barring a few possible transactions, we are blissfully unaware of the rest of the possibilities in the system. The embodied mind and the environment act as coupling or as two arms of a scissor, take one out and the second will fail to operate effectively.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill – “James J. Gibson

Let us use an analogy to explain. Please follow along and try and answer the question/query, before I provide the answer.

Here is a hypothetical scenario for you. You have been nominated as an event coordinator for arranging a meal for eight people. The group is racially diverse and is considered to have unique, independent preference of cuisines. It is unlikely that any two or more individuals will order the same food. You have a large list of menu items with hundreds of items listed in it and you have to read out each item till they say “Yes” to the selected Menu item. Now, in this situation, how many possibilities or affordances exist in the system. Before you scroll down, try answering it yourself.

Unconscious Search Routines

Before we get to the answer, it is important to understand that we are trying to find out the possibilities inherent in this system by oversimplifying the transaction. As we add more variables, the possibilities will keep increasing. As we reduce variables, the possibilities will keep reducing. To keep things simple,  we are using the Latin phrase Ceteris paribus which means “all other things being equal” or “other things held constant” or “all else unchanged“.

It is possible that given a certain set of unique conditions, one set of individuals may experience “Worst case scenario” i.e too many possibilities and another set may experience the “Best Case Scenario” in which choices are limited, answers are quick and precise and the coordinator quickly, effortlessly succeeds. It is also possible that a smart and experienced individual may be able to innovatively collate the responses quickly. They can do this by inferring the ethnicity of the individual, subsequently predicting food preferences and start rattling the list in a certain order, while others may ignore this dimension/feature of the visitors and clinically read out each menu item till they get a “Yes”. As we can infer from the above situation, the situation offers a certain number of possibilities and the individual can make optimal use of their resources and competencies to reduce those possibilities to minimize computational load. In some cases, too many possibilities can be a good thing, while in others it can be a bad thing. Here, we are want to look at the baseline possibilities in a system instead of optimized ones. So, what the maximum number of possibilities inherent in the system given that “everything else remains constant” ?.

The answer is 256 possibilities. The simple way to calculate this is by calculating 2 to the power of 8 i.e 8 people with two choices each. The simpler way is to multiply 2 by itself 8 times. Sorry for making it sound like a kindergarten mathematics class. Now, let us assume that we increase the number of people from 8 to 32 and each has two choices for every menu item i.e. “Yes or No”. The possibilities in the system immediately skyrocket to 4.3 million. Make any changes on either side of the equation i.e provide three choices to each visitor “Yes, No or Maybe” and the possibilities soon exponentially spike into billions.

Searching for Affordances

Our brain is constantly searching for affordances in the environment to meet our objectives. Some players can actively and successfully capitalize on these affordances while others spectacularly fail at it. These possibilities are constantly evolving and based on the number of dimensions in the space, can become consciously incomprehensible.When we feel stuck in a problem, we fail to realize that there are so many solutions in the space, but, we feel stuck as we cannot access other possibilities. Of course, there are those who can access such possibilities easily.

Entrepreneurs perceive interstitial spaces in the market and create products/services that fulfill an unmet/ under-served or futuristic customer need. Politicians piggyback on campaign promises by understanding customer (voters) pain and state actors effectively utilize disenfranchised population to create insurgent movements. All of them are using “Unconscious Search for Affordances” in their environment. As we have already discussed above, the optimization process is riddled with pain and can also throw people off the curve. Take the optimization further to “Hyperforecasting” levels, and “Unconscious Search” can allow one to peek into the future using Future State Models. Using an example from history, certain events in the life starting with an early abandonment of Steve Jobs by his biological parents made him hyper-aware and well as hyper-vigilant. Over time, solitary meditative practices activated his intuitive faculties which allowed him to significantly improve his “Unconscious Search”. The result was the successful range of Apple Products, but it came with a lot of clinical and psychological stress for Steve Jobs. In geopolitics, Iran has been unruffling feathers in the Middle East by its proxy actions and outwitting its adversaries. In it, they cash on existing affordances in line with their objectives. While Jobs used his new faculties for market innovation and some use it for strategy or simply stroking trouble in our neighbor’s house, there are many daily use benefits of improving this skill. Those cashing on the affordances do not necessarily create those affordances and simply capitalize on them. If a state actor uses a segment of the disenfranchised population for its own use, it is simply acting as an opportunistic actor due to its optimal search function.

For those who cannot access possibilities easily, when we feel stuck in a situation, we are unable to see new possibilities due to stress, anxiety or an under-trained sub-optimal search hardware and software (brain and embodied mind). The impact is a deeply constrained and overloaded neural and cognitive level of the individual. Once optimally used, the same constraining process can be used to come up with new inventions or breakthrough problem solutions. Sometimes, the solution is few steps away, but, attention blindness makes us ignore those possibilities. If I could go back to school and learn the only skill required to succeed in life, then, I would give up the rest of my education for it.

While there are many sophisticated formal ways and many painful informal ways to improve “Unconscious Search“, the least expensive and free one is to try to remain calm and power down the stress level. Under controlled test conditions in which the subject was administered certain calming exercises while being monitored under a 25 Channel EEG machine, it was quite evident that the impedance level across various parts of the brain significantly dropped and the subject was able to see possibilities fairly quickly. High impedance levels were directly proportional to nominal stress (rated by subjects) as well as feeling stuck.

A Broad and Simple Framework for Inventing 

Kindly note that the framework outlined here is a simple and basic framework and is not aimed at discussing the detailed process around Inventuit ©. Please also note that Inventors modify this process and there are multiple variants of it. (As a matter of fact, we have found around 30 plus variants of this process)

Inventing involves the following process (some steps are on linear critical path and others are more non-linear. All the steps are need to fulfill the necessary and sufficient criteria for a problem to be solved) :

  • Loose Framing of the overall problem area (Fuzzy Front End)
  • Formulating a problem statement (even in your head)
  • Assigning a timeline to the inventing intent (cognitive pressure tactic)
  • Research greenfield domain area (explore)
  • Release psycho-somatic impediments to the process. (Incubate)
  • Set yourself up to recognize, capture, seize and embed insights in the solution domain. 
  • Create a nuclei around which insights, conscious data, routine observations, biases can be structured and aggregated. (High-Level Research)
  • Re-frame the overall problem area and the problem statement to test for validity. 
  • Associative Indexing process (To assist with recognition)
  • Structure, Prioritize, Classify and Cluster the aggregate responses
  • Reframe problem area, reframe domain area and create generic landscape with problem embedded in non-fuzzy domain.
  • Release psycho-physiological impediments of the next level
  • Loop Forward and Loop Backwards (Perpetual Beta)
  • Document, aggregate and develop clear domain representations (Expert Systems Development)
  • Apply selection criteria 
  • Second level looping. (A more faster, nonlinear process)
  • Assess ‘Delta’ between initial state and current state and keep looping till ‘Delta’ is reduced to negligible.
  • Apply to product/service/solution specific higher level domain (if required)
  • Recognition of ‘Delta’ closure and apply ”Sensemaking”. (Know if your ship has arrived)
  • Prototype (if required)
  • Business Analysis (if required)
  • Roll out and diffuse the Invention in the domain/marketplace or environment
  • Enjoy and Celebrate (Very Important)

Remember that Inventing is not about one big ‘Aha moment’. Inventing is aggregating a series of small ‘Aha moments’ into a big ‘Aha Recognition’ and remaining in Perpetual Beta (Continuous Improvement & Innovation). It is a structured activity with a lot of scope and flexibility for play, for insights to surface, for enhancing the ability to see existing or emerging patterns in data or cues. It is then aggregating those insights around the logically researched areas and using Sensemaking to understand the new data representation. Mind you, Inventing is not Play. Inventing is not Design Thinking. Design Thinking and Play are small inputs (subsets) to the Inventing Process and not super sets of Inventing.

While the ‘Eureka Moments’ are mostly highlighted and celebrated, what is rarely highlighted is that Inventing is a tedious, complex and frustrating process where the Inventor frets, worries, is transfixed and lives his/her life on the edge till the problem is solved. It is such an intense process that one of the well-known inventors forgot to wear clothes and ran out naked in the streets, when an “‘Aha Leap” took place. Significant Aha Leaps are shown to actually shut down the frontal lobes (executive decision-making part of the brain) till the inventors recovers from cognitive overloading effects.

As for the search for truth, I know from my own painful searching, with its many blind alleys, how hard it is to take a reliable step, be it ever so small, towards the understanding of that which is truly significant….. Albert Einstein

An Einstein or Marie Curie is sleeping within all of us.

Wake him/her up !

And if you need some help, drop me a line. I would be more than glad to assist. In the next posts, I will explain “How to manufacture an invention”, “how to formulate a problem statement to invent faster”, “how to reduce the Inventing Cycle Time” and other subjects.

Carpe Diem

Wikimonk @ Wikimonk.com