Innovation @ TEDx NASA

November 22, 2009  

This past Friday I had 6 minutes to share a message about innovation with the world at TEDx NASA.  It was a fantastic event with 29 speakers, authors, musicians, aerospace engineers, a neuroscientist and more.  1,700 people were in attendance and it is reported that nearly 100,000 people watched via video streaming on the internet.

Given that my typical speech is 45 minutes long, preparing a 6 minute presentation was a bit of a challenge and required me to script it out to make sure I did not go over my allotted time.  Below is what I prepared.  Within the next two weeks, I will be able to share the actual video footage – where I am sure I said something completely different.

TEDx NASA

TITLE: SOMETIMES EVEN ROCKET SCIENCE ISN’T ROCKET SCIENCE

It’s not rocket science.

We hear people use that expression to describe something that’s not that complex. And although I would never suggest that aerospace challenges are simple, sometimes, even rocket science isn’t rocket science. What I mean by that is sometimes the most creative solutions to aerospace challenges can be found outside the realm of rocket science.

The issue is, you are experts. And your expertise might be the very thing that is preventing you from finding the most creative solutions.

Let me explain why with a simple example.

Think about a time when you lost your keys. After searching everywhere, upon finding them, what did you inevitably say to yourself? “Can you believe it? They were in the last place I looked!” Well of course, who finds something and continues to look for it?

The same thing is true when looking for a solution to a problem. Once your brain finds a solution, it stops looking. And the greater the level of your expertise, the quicker you find a solution. Unfortunately, your idea may not be new, innovative, or the best solution.

The key is to look outside your domain of expertise and to assume that someone else has already solved your problem. Because the odds are, someone HAS solved your problem. So, if you are working on an aerospace challenge, the solution may in fact not be rocket science.

Let me give you a few simple examples.

A high margin item for office supply companies is selling refilled toner cartridges. The challenge is however, very few customers return the used cartridge. During a brainstorming session designed to find creative solutions to this dilemma, I asked the question, “Who else has solved this problem? Who sends you something and is guaranteed that you will send it back?” The first response was the IRS. But the next response was NetFlix. They send you a DVD. You can keep it as long as you want. When you are done you return it and get another one. We investigated and implemented a NetFlix style subscription model for toner cartridges. This worked out great for the company, because they had a 100% return rate on empty cartridges. And customers love it because they never run out of toner and they get great discounts.

It’s not rocket science. Someone else solved this problem.

Or consider engineers who have been searching for better ways to locate and seal cracks in gas pipelines. This is a pressing issue for the industry. Then, one day, while a Scottish engineer was working on this issue, he got a paper cut. Unlike most people who would be annoyed, he was thrilled. What he realized is that his finger is like a cracked gas pipeline. By making a connection between capillaries and a pipeline, he was able to quickly develop an inert coagulation ingredient that would seals these cracks.

The solution wasn’t rocket science. Someone else, in this case the human body, had already solved this problem.

Or consider a snack food manufacturer that wanted to find a way of reducing the amount of fat in their potato chips. The best solution wasn’t found in their laboratory. In fact, the solution wasn’t found in any laboratory. The person who discovered the best solution had no experience with food production. He was a musician. He knew that sound vibrations travel through solid objects and that if an object is light enough it, too, will vibrate. The solution was to place speakers above the conveyor belt and use loud music to literally shake the fat out of chips.

Clearly, this was not rocket science.

Quite often the most creative solutions arise when you assume that someone else has already found a solution. When you look outside your domain of expertise.

Or, as Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Inc, once said, “Creativity is just having enough dots to connect… connect experiences and synthesize new things. The reason creative people are able to do that is that they’ve had more experiences or have thought more about their experiences than other people.”

When you become masterful at connecting dots you find new and creative solutions.

That’s the wonderful thing about this conference. They could have put 20 aerospace engineers on the stage. But instead they brought in artists, musicians, authors and neuroscientists. This is a chance for you to connect the dots. To learn from unrelated disciplines. If you have 100 aerospace engineers working on a challenge, the value of adding the 101st would be incremental. But adding a biologist, a neurologist, a nano-technologist, or a musician, may lead to a breakthrough.

[at this point I show a picture and tell a funny story…but you’ll have to wait for the video for that]

It is about making connections. It is about connecting the dots. It is about looking outside of your domain of expertise.

You are all experts. And you are admired for your deep understanding of complex technical issues. Having said that, sometimes, the key to creative thinking is to recognize the best solutions aren’t always rocket science.

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3 Responses to “Innovation @ TEDx NASA”

  1. Twitted by UpbeatNow on November 23rd, 2009 1:35 pm

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  3. Alex Dail on November 28th, 2009 5:17 pm

    I do like your point that often solutions are around us. This makes pursuing knowledge and networking important. The challange I see is getting people to recognize the solution when they see it. I recently read a book titled, Sparks of Genius. It covers the topic in greater depth. One of the things it points out is the proclivity to make connections of the type your discussing is uncommon. This of course can be more true in a business environment that pushes for fast decisions.

    Educating people to the fact that we can take knowledge gained in one area and with a little imagination apply it towards another is a positive step in the right direction. I hope your message was well received. The next challange is to develop more people who can such connections.