It has taken me a lifetime to understand that I’m an inventor and always found my own solutions to problems, sometimes to the consternation of my engineering peers! I’ve been living on raw courage, so it’s gratifying to be part of a community where curiosity and playfulness are supported.
– Brenda McCaffrey, PhD, Xinova Innovator
As an engineer, Dr. Brenda McCaffrey has often found herself on the fringes, while her peers stayed strictly within the boundaries. Her tendency to question the norm and explore the unknown caused some turbulence in her early career. But her innovative drive pushed her towards self-actualization as a successful scientist, businesswoman, and, ultimately, as an inventor.
Joining the Xinova inventor community has felt like a coming home of sorts after a winding 30-year journey as: a scientist and technologist; an entrepreneur and an innovator; a creative spirit with a technical mind. Now, she freely admits she’s an inventor to peers who don’t raise their eyebrows and wisecrack about the revolutionary new weed-whacker she’s built in her back yard.
“I was never a good fit in a large company,” said Dr. McCaffrey. “I was always this kind of outlier. I would ask questions that would make people uncomfortable.”
In every big corporate job, she would be turning everything upside down within six months and asking, “Why do we do it this way, why not this way?” She’d encounter resistance to change and confrontation, but upon leaving, she’d hear that a VP had been appointed to the job she’d vacated because perspectives had widened after her shaking things up.
“It was the same in education,” said Dr. McCaffrey. “I would be working on a research project and I would have this insight, and I would develop a new mental model to explain what was happening. Then I would do something new with positioning an experiment and get novel results. This was what led me to say, ‘Gee, I can start my own company,’ because I could do new things that got new results.”
In 1999, Dr. McCaffrey founded White Mountain Labs, a semiconductor testing and characterization company with a global clientele. After it was acquired in 2007, she spent a year completing the Advanced Management Program at University of Chicago, Booth School of Business. This gave her validation while “playing with other C level executives.” She realized that the leadership and management practices she’d innately developed while growing her own business were reflected in many business case studies.
“My method of operation was, first of all, to really understand the question,” said Dr. McCaffrey. “You can run down the wrong path based on not addressing the core problem, and that can be extremely costly and counterproductive.”
Sound familiar? Without schooling or mentoring, Dr. McCaffrey grasped the inventors’ foundational practice: define the problem, contextualize it, and do your research.
Dr. McCaffrey naturally transitioned from technologist to prolific problem solver, developing solutions that satisfied the commercial, human, and technological dimensions of the problems at hand. Her interdisciplinary approach to creative problem solving hinged on communication and out-of-the-box thinking. When engineer clients would come to White Mountain Labs with gnarly technical problems, she would systematically untangle them.
To do so, she avoided complexity and embraced simplicity. Her philosophical approach wasn’t natural to her fellow engineers, but worked so well and so often, no matter the underpinning technology, that they became advocates.
“The Chicago Booth experience was a wonderful way to validate the creative process that could result in tremendous impact across many complex disciplines.”
“I’m a little unusual as an engineer because I’m somewhat intolerant of complexity,” she explained. “Many engineers and scientists love to really dive into the details, to immerse themselves and embody the complexity of the problem. I’m kind of intolerant of that, personally. I dive into something incredibly complex knowing that the goal is to … find this simple perspective. I work well with other scientists and engineers because I’m able to articulate this high-level perspective.”
Problem-solving, she found, was best accomplished in an open and collaborative environment. She used structured whiteboard brainstorming sessions with clients and staff. Putting on her psychologist hat, she would neutrally draw out the group’s diverse ideas. In this inclusive atmosphere, ideas were held to the light like desert gems to either be polished or shelved.
“I’d encourage people to look at the problem from both technical and business viewpoints. We’d drill down on those elements and put it on the whiteboard, often with surprising results. We could parse the problems so that we could find solutions that were often highly collaborative and unique.”
Dr. McCaffrey relates her passion for invention with enthusiasm, if not outright joy. Certainly, her 30 years in business and engineering gave her an excellent skillset to invent stuff. And her broad interests and experiences –delving into fields as disparate as biomimicry and dance—help her work across multiple fields. But it’s the powerful burst of brain chemicals triggered by solving a great problem that keeps her coming back for new and gnarly problems.
Experience has instilled a powerful innovative intuition. She likens the process of developing a solution to standing before a huge tapestry of seemingly unrelated images. Without fully knowing why or how they are connected, she starts pulling and picking away at threads until arriving at the kernel of what she is trying to solve.
“You have resources, you have a lifetime of knowledge and experience, along with the imagination to play out scenarios. ‘How would that idea transform this?’ Thoughts are triggered, and you say, ‘Oh, there’s something there! I have to pick at it.’ I’m sure people from all walks of life experience these creative moments! There is something special about having a lifetime of experience that gives you a tool chest full of things you can bring out and try. And if one thing doesn’t work, you have the creativity to discover to something else.”
Her first experience inventing with Xinova was tackling an Request for Application (RFA), and this experience revealed to her just how right this space is for her. She had technical knowledge relevant to the RFA although the application she discovered was outside her direct experience. The Xinova team provided a critical sounding board and encouraged her to look at the problem in a new ways, leading to a surprising solution.
“At some point, it’s like hitting the center of a gong. There’s a kind of resonance, an ‘A-ha!’ moment for a solution that makes sense across the whole financial, technical, and social landscape.”
Perhaps the greatest joy of becoming an inventor is no longer feeling like such an outlier. After a lifetime of self-editing her ideas amongst colleagues, she is discovering kindred spirits and working with others who, when looking at a technical problem, don’t roll their eyes when drawing inspiration from a jellyfish’s method of propelling itself, or a dancer’s movements, or a saguaro’s method of water storage. There’s a special kind of person willing to canvas multiple views and fields, and use their imagination to draw connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena.
“I have goosebumps thinking about that. I am realizing that people are this way at Xinova. It’s like I have found my tribe. There is a sense of coming home, of recognition, of validation. Now I have people I can talk to and throw ideas around with. They will say, ‘Oh, you’re an inventor, how interesting! There’s this opportunity to really play in this environment, where your ideation can unfold without concern that your ideas are a little ‘out there.’
It is very gratifying to find a community who enjoys playing this way together and who don’t feel threatened by it or feel that it’s not practical enough. After reading the blog post (about Michael Manion) there was a click when I read it: ‘Oh! I really am an inventor, there’s somewhere I belong! I will give myself permission.'”
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