Probably you have seen a few things someone else invented and at some point you got to thinking that it would be good if you could invent something: something that will change the world, make you money or just to invent for the sheer fun of it. Then, not long after, you've said to yourself that you are not creative. Nothing is popping into your mind and the things which are popping are either invented already or just plain old stupid.
Question is, can you learn how to be inventor or, as I like to call it, problem solver?
Yes you can!
Every inventor has a double personality or, if you prefer, two little man sitting on their shoulders. The first one is the detective; for the purpose of this article I will call him Mr. Sherlock Holmes and the other one is an engineer I will call Mr. Nikola Tesla. It does not matter what you call them or what gender they are. You can choose whoever you like as long as she/he portrays authentically the image of what he/she needs to represent. If you have a vivid imagination this can be very helpful as you can imagine the discussion between you and these characters.
So, Mr. Holmes is the detective and his main duty is finding problems. He has to find problems where no one has created any solution before. Also he has a task to discover problems in existing inventions, solutions or processes. He has to search constantly. Even when everything seems perfectly normal he will keep searching, constantly living on the edge. Sometimes in your sleep he will just pop up and remind you that something is fishy about something or somewhere. And when a problem happens, he will be always at the crime scene to investigate what happened.
The other one, Mr. Tesla with his vast knowledge of science and engineering, can give you a new practical solution to any existing problem. You just have to give him a problem and he will find the way. If he does not have enough knowledge he will research a subject as deep as he can, and where knowledge does not exist he will create it by exploring nature.
Where and how to find your invention?
The first important step is to learn how to impersonate your two main characters. In some parts of the world they call that process “being in someone else’s shoes” in others they say “changing your thinking hat” *1, regardless of what term you prefer, briefly, you have to practice how to “pretend to be”/ “be” someone else or figure out how to look at the world from someone else’s eyes. Almost like an actor; when you improve your skill at switching roles, you will not even notice that both imaginary people have become part of your own personality, parts of who you are.
When looking for the invention, start first with Mr. Holmes. Look for the problems around you. Whenever you find something that is annoying for you or for other people, whenever you stumble upon something for which you think the current solution is slow, complicated, expensive, energy-consuming, bad, or harms the environment...probably you are on the right track.
After identifying a problem, it is play time! At this time both Mr. Holmes and Mr. Tesla should work together: they should talk, exchange ideas, debate, think and play.
You should play too. Play with the problem and ideas, try to think how you would resolve the problem, please do not restrain your thoughts, let them fly around. Some solutions will be good, some bad, some smart, others...well, you can call them stupid but...
You have to remember there is no stupid idea; even silliest idea can be valuable.
In the book "Lateral Thinking", Edward de Bono mentions the example of how thinking about “What would happen if airplanes had square wheels ?” led to numerous improvements and patents, although the idea was ridiculed in the beginning. After they got serious and they started thinking what would really happen in that case, that single “stupid” idea has done more for them in one day than hundreds of “smart” ideas had done for many months.
When you dare to think outside of the box that has imprisoned you, miracles will happen!
Silly ideas will not give you a fantastic invention but they will surely lead you to one.
Brainstorming is an excellent way to explore things you know about a problem and also a possible ways to resolve that problem.
After identifying the problem, thinking about the problem, playing with solutions, choosing an idea and polishing that idea, it is time for Mr. Tesla to take over. It is time for hard work.
This is the time when you conceptualize the idea that has to be transferred into reality through design, research and development. This means you will spend lots of time with tools: real or virtual ones, depending on the nature of your invention. And lastly, do not forget you will fail. Sooner or later you will fail, but that should not stop you from doing it again, and again, and again. Every time you fail, you will learn new things. So you should not be scared of errors and failures; believe it or not, they are your friends.
Let me give you an example of one invention:
Recently I visited a place where huge numbers of people were waiting in line. And they were quite cranky. They were all complaining about how they were going to lose the entire day there. Some of them got really frustrated and at some point even aggressive, and the situation started getting out of control when a few people jumped their place in the line.
Now this is the point where Mr. Holmes said to Mr. Tesla, “Friend we have problem here; can we do something about this?”
So they started thinking: What if anyone who comes could take a paper card with a number so everyone will know who came when? Good, but can we improve this? Well, if every person who finishes tells his number upon exit, we could potentially calculate the time to our number. Yes, but this is age of electronics and we can surely do better that that? We can display the number on a digital panel, and the approximate time for each number. That is good, but can we do it better? Well, maybe instead of coming in person, we can use the internet to book appointments, and then the person needs to show up at the appointed time. What if the person does not show up? Hmmm, that is tough one. I do not know...what about fee penalties or maybe switching with someone who is already in? Not bad, this looks very good now; can we do it even better? Well, nowadays every person has a mobile phone, probably we can send messages or they can check the status online. In that way, we could handle the line more efficiently.
And further down these lines. Also, do not forget: iterate, iterate, iterate!
And, remember “Keep moving forward” *2