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Three Steps to Successful Invention

Trying to predict the life cycle of your invention, as well as those of the technologies you may be displacing, is the first step to success. But fostering the key stages in the development of a new technology requires attention to detail. My experiences have led me to a number of observations on ways to facilitate the process.

One insight I’ve gained is that most modern technologies are interdisciplinary. For example, speech recognition, another area I’ve worked in, involves speech science, acoustics, psychoacoustics, signal processing, linguistics, and pattern recognition. A major challenge to interdisciplinary technology development is that different disciplines use different terms for the same concept. Norbert Wiener commented on this in his seminal book Cybernetics, written in 1948: “There are fields of scientific workwhich have been explored from the different sides of pure mathematics, statistics, electrical engineering, and neurophysiologyin which every single notion receives a separate and different name from each group, and in which important work has been triplicated or quadruplicated, while still other important work is delayed by the unavailability in one field of results that may have already become classical in the next field.”

At my companies we’ve solved this problem by creating our own terminology and thus, in essence, new interdisciplinary fields. The goal is to try to eliminate the tendency for everyone to describe the same thing differently and find one term to agree on. (This also has advantages in keeping our work secret: anyone overhearing our discussions has no idea what we are talking about!) We teach all the requisite disciplines to every member of the team. And to foster cross-fertilization and new ways of approaching problems, we’ll assign, for example, an acoustics problem to the pattern recognition experts, and vice versa.

This brings up another critical consideration: the importance of creating devoted and passionate teams. One way to accomplish this is to adopt a goal that has the potential to inspire. I’ve tried to do this in my own career by selecting projects that contribute to my own social and cultural goals. And in assembling a team, I consider each member’s personality and team-building skills as important as his or her technical skills. Most importantly, I try to include the intended users of a technology as key members of the team. For example, when I was developing a reading machine for the blind in the 1970s, I recruited blind scientists and engineers from the National Federation of the Blind, and when working on music synthesis in the 1980s, I required that all of the engineers be musicians. Invariably, the users of a technology are sensitive to subtle issues that nonusers fail to appreciate.

Based on these insights, I offer a three-step program for beginning the invention process, good for innovators from the lone inventor to the large corporate team. Step one is to write the advertising brochure. This can be a real challenge. It compels you to list the features, the benefits, and the beneficiaries. You will find this impossible to accomplish if your ideas are not well formed.

Step two: use this brochure to recruit the intended users. If these beneficiaries don’t immediately get excited about your concept, then you are probably headed down the primrose path. Invite them to participate in creating the invention. After all, if they want it so badly, let them help you invent it.

Finally, engage in some fantasy. Sit down, close your eyes, and imagine that you’re giving a speech some years from now explaining how you solved the challenging problems underlying your new invention. What would you be saying? What would you have to be saying? Then work backwards from there.

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