“My favorite quote is, ‘Creativity is intelligence having fun,’ and that’s not taught in a lot of domains.”
Manion once hired an exceptionally gifted engineer PhD who couldn’t invent. During brainstorming sessions, she would shut down and say, “But I have never heard of that before!” Intelligence was not the issue. A star of her department, her training prevented her from overcoming that ingrained technologist barrier into a creative space.
“In inventing, you need a good technical ability to assimilate information and bring concepts together and understand how things could work,” Dr. Manion said. “But you need to be able to dream and play, too.”
Successful inventors tend to have creative streaks; they don’t run in in one-man wolf packs, either. A surfer himself, Dr. Manion rattles off the creative outlets of his favorite collaborators–a gourmet chef here, an artist there. While their interests vary, an open mind and the ability to take criticism can predict inventive success, largely because prolific invention entails collaboration, brainstorming, and iteration. There’s a problem-solving mentality and approach underlying each step of the invention process; that mentality functions as a binding force between inventors.
“I find that inventing doesn’t always gel until you find people you really gel with, and that has to be organic,” said Dr. Manion. “You can’t force it. It comes by experience. Some invention sessions I’ve found myself working with people I’ll never do anything with again, and with others we just can’t wait to invent together again. It’s like finding a friend.”
Dr. Manion must have a lot of friends. The Xinova inventor community uniformly praise him as an innovator and as a person.
“I love working with Mike,” said longtime Xinova inventor, lab director, and fellow surfer, W.R. Walsh, PhD. “Michael Manion is a champion. I’ve learned so much interfacing with him and watching him invent.”
Great inventions aren’t immaculately conceived. A collaborative process of ideation, experimentation, rejection, and revision typically is required. And that’s just for one invention. When you get into the dozens, or hundreds of inventions, collaboration and process are keystones.
“The transition from technologist to inventor and then to prolific inventor is a step change,” he said. “I remember the first submission I put in for IDF and I still think it was a good idea even though it got rejected. But the 10th one I put in? Or the hundredth or even the last one? I couldn’t tell you. Because I’ve gone from inventor to prolific inventor, and the idea is to go through the process of developing a robust solution and then move on. That transition is hard to do.”
There are Edison-type exceptions to the rule, such as Dean Kamen. These folks had a stroke of inventive genius early in their careers, became commercially successful, and then continued inventing on their own terms. But the vast majority of successful inventors work collaboratively and prolifically. Few ideas are born perfect; and no one wants to work with a jerk who chafes at feedback, perceiving it as only criticism.
“The trick to solving problems is getting together lots of people from different backgrounds,” said Dr. Manion, emphasizing the vital skill of first defining a problem properly. “The ability to understand a problem is not unique to an industry expert. They know all the ways something won’t work, but not necessarily how something might work outside its domain, whether that’s chemistry or physics or mechanical engineering. They approach problems as a technologist, not a problem solver. This diversity is far more powerful than what any one expert can provide.”
The first step is embracing the power of saying, “I don’t know.” “I don’t know” opens the creative floodgates. “I don’t know” recognizes that something new must be considered. “I don’t know” is the seat of invention, the threshold separating technologists from inventors. Brilliant technologists’ laurels are won by mastering prior work in their field. Their reputation depends on knowing everything that has been published. Leaping into the frontier of unknown ideas-inventing–constitutes an unnatural act for some.
Embracing the power of “I don’t know,” Dr. Manion integrates a diverse array of equipment and bright minds into his Seattle invention company, Keon Research. Reaching across various disciplinary aisles, these scientists challenge each other to properly define problems and brainstorm solutions for everything from energy and clean water issues to designing better snacks and medical devices. Next, the group moves past the bad ideas, develops the good ones, and then sets about tinkering with prototypes.
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