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Keep the Antenna Out!

Keep the Antenna Out!

| On 02, Jun 2009

Jack Hipple

In a column two weeks ago, I made some serious suggestions regarding thinking about innovative discoveries and their ultimate outcome prior to investing tons of money. Let’s take the other tack to see both sides of innovation and discoveries.

We can’t afford to chase every idea that comes along and that’s why we have to ask the right questions early on. And we can’t rely on serendipity to provide all the new products and business growth that we need. But we need to keep our eyes and ears open. We cannot rely solely on QFD interviews and Six Sigma studies to provide all the breakthroughs we’d like to have. All of us have to keep our antenna out and our senses tuned in to make sure that we’re not missing a major opportunity. And that in turn comes from hiring the kind of people who see things that others don’t and are willing to explore down a path a bit before quitting (you do have some of these folks don’t you? And you do reward them don’t you?).

Let’s remember a few examples that are now the roots of billion dollar businesses, none of which would exist if hadn’t been for unique individuals making links between unexpected observations and potential customer needs. First Teflon(TM). A DuPont scientist experimenting with low boiling fluorocarbon gases noticed that a cylinder regulator showed no pressure. How could that be? He could have just assumed that the regulator was defective and gone about his work. But he was curious and opened up the cylinder and found some white powder. Again, he could have assumed that someone made a mistake and contaminated the cylinder, but no, he took a sample, analyzed it and characterized it. A plastic that didn’t melt until 450-500F. Wow! Such a thing did not exist—and the rest is history. A multibillion dollar business with numerous spin offs in the household area as well as process piping and others.

Then there’s the famous Viagra(TM) story. Merck, in late stage clinical trials of a medication to improve circulation. The human subject interviews could have stuck to the script but the interviewers heard something interesting from many of the clinical patients—“I don’’t know about my heart, doc, but let me tell you what else I notice….” Apparently, the original developers of Viagra forgot that blood flows everywhere. And we now have a billion dollar drug.

And how about Goodyear and tires? An accidental mixing of sulfur and rubber at home in Charles Goodyear’s kitchen at home and the observation that the lump had turned into a rubbery mass which was flexible at both high and cold temperatures. Vulcanization! Tires that would survive and be comfortable in both winter and summer.

I remember a Dow development scientist casually looking out the window at an airport and noticing that someone was applying a colored film to the tail of a jet to get the logo–he wasn’t painting. The company made films but had never even given a thought to airliner decals as a market.

I could go on and on but the point is not to over program your people and their objectives. While we have strategic goals and objectives, make sure that you’ve told your people it’s OK to see and report things they see that are different and interesting. Don’t assume that your business managers know it all. Keep the curiousity antenna up!