The Master Of Big Ideas

A recent realization is really consuming much of my thinking these days. Simply, I realized that we live in a time where many of the most widely used products around us cannot be built by one person. The knowledge needed to build them just can't fit into the mind of one person. The ideas are too big. And... it is the men and women who grasp this reality, and implement new methods to embrace it and work within it who are going to be leading tomorrow's technology product markets.

What's The Big Idea?

An example of what I mean by "big ideas" can be found as close to hand as the torrent of media attention recently given to Apple's adoption of Intel microprocessors. Do you know how to build a microprocessor? More importantly, does anybody? The answer is that no one person knows how to build one. The idea is too large for one person to handle.

To make my point so clearly that nobody can miss it: There is no one person anywhere on this planet who is capable of understanding how to build a microprocessor, from scratch. Nobody can do it. The idea is larger than the capacity of any one mind.

When Ideas Were Smaller

We are still surrounded by even complex products that can be understood and built by one person. But, to make a point, I'll drift back into history to show what I'm talking about.

When Alexander Bell created a telephone, he understood the chemistry of the materials he used, the fabrication methods for converting raw substances into those materials, the basic physics upon which his devices worked, and, the tools and methods needed to convert a pile of raw materials into a telephone (albeit it a crude one). Today, in labs around the world, there are many people who still understand the entire process required to create a telephone. In a pinch, you could toss one of these guys a shovel, a backpack with a few tools, send them into the wild toward a few handy mineral deposits, and, they could gather the stuff from nature to go back to the shop and fabricate a telephone from buckets of raw materials. The idea of a telephone, although large, falls within the scope of knowledge that one extremely bright person is capable of mastering: chemistry, physics, engineering, fabrication

A clock (mechanical), a gas engine (even distilling the petroleum based fuel to run it), the telescope, a shoe, a handgun, all of these complex devices and many, many more are typical of the one-man, one-mind, inventor mentality that was responsible for the bulk of technological innovation for the past few hundred years. But, the last 50-years has brought a fundamental change to the way new inventions are brought to life. The products are too complicated for one person to build (or even to fundamentally understand), so, inventors creating today's hot products have adopted new methods, to cope.

The Lone Inventor Approach

The old method of invention was for one person to develop a clear mental vision of a product, what it would do, how it would look, and, then the conceiver of the idea would just go to work building it. The process looks something like this:

1. Imagine a product
2. Consider the elements needed to create the product
3. Distill the needed elements into a finished product

Now, there's a new step in the process, one required to cope with these too-large ideas I am discussing.

Breaking Large Ideas Into Smaller Ones

My first take on all of this was that the product creation process today must be more team-based than ever before. After all, if something you want to build requires knowledge you don't (and cannot) have, it seems you would pull other people into your process who do have that knowledge. And, together as a team, you would chase your goal. Interestingly, in science, it actually does work that way. But, in technology (converting science to real products), the team is mostly mythology. Even with big ideas, most technology products created today come from the mind and efforts of one person. Instead of building a team, these contemporary inventors are tackling their too-big goals using an entirely different coping mechanism, one that I have never seen discussed, and that is the reason for this article.

The Modular Approach: Object Oriented Invention

Whether the term sticks, or drifts into obscurity as this article slowly archives its way deep into the bowels of this site, I want to introduce you to the idea I call Object Oriented Invention . This turns out to actually be the method being used by today's inventors to bring inordinately complex products to market, ones that are far beyond the capacity of one person to understand or build.

The idea of recruiting a team to tackle a project never occurs to an inventor using this new approach to creation. Instead, the inventor simply adds a step to the age-old process, and then proceeds forward, alone, as always:

1. Imagine a product
2. Consider the elements needed to create the product
3. Note the elements not within your skill set and get them from other sources
4. Distill the needed elements into a finished product

Today's complex devices require that the inventor have a good grasp of what he knows, what he does not know, and, where to find information on what he does not know. And, it is the inventors who have mastered that third step (locating knowledge he does not possess), who are setting the world on fire with wonderful new inventions. In fact, I will now point to the core of my thesis here: Today's (and tomorrow's) most successful inventions will still come from the minds of individual people. But, the process of invention, itself, is more about assembling existing modules of technology into new forms than about creating all-new science. In fact, examples are already evident of products created by this new process, where, just as complex software has been crafted from existing pieces of code (objects) put together in new ways, existing objects of technology have been reassembled into very successful new products.

Pulling Together The Pieces

Perhaps no better example of the Object Oriented Invention process can be cited than the Apple iPod. There is, quite literally, no new technology in an iPod. It is a product completely created with existing technology objects. And, its inventor, Steve Jobs, is an equally compelling example of this new-age inventor type I am discussing: He is personally incapable of "building" even one element of the iPod, from scratch. In other words, Mr. Jobs could be handed a bucket and a shovel and aimed at the nearest appropriate mineral deposits, and, upon returning to the lab, with his bucket still empty, could do none of the shop work needed to create an iPod. He is not a traditional inventor. Yet, Steve jobs is a master of Object Oriented Inventing. He has mastered Step 3: He knows how to locate and smartly apply technology knowledge he does not personally possess.

By knowing how to find the missing technology objects, and, in knowing how to selectively recombine those technology objects, Steve Jobs has mastered the art of Object Oriented Invention... to a degree that he needs not add any new objects of his own creation, in order to create an entirely new, successful product.

The Lessons And Challenges

The reality of Object Oriented Invention becoming the standard method of product creation is that it, first, creates a growing demand for "objects," meaning that there will be a growing demand for small bits of sub-technology from the science community, ones that can be added to the available library of objects, and used by the new inventors. Secondly, it elevates the Object Oriented Inventor to a more central role in the technology industry. The old stereotype of a socially maladjusted nerd of an inventor, being relegated to some workbench in the back of the business is just that: old. The new stereotype will grow to be that of the inventor/entrepreneur who garners both respect and financial rewards for successfully reassembling and creatively redeploying the huge diversity of technology objects that will be growing around us.

Scientists need to think smaller, creating rapidly deployable objects of small technology, and, make sure that the new inventors know about the bits and pieces so created.

Inventors need to master new methods and systems for locating and understanding the application of the growing number of technology objects.

And, lone-wolf innovators need to accept today's reality that the most widely successful new products are not the bleeding-edge "objects" of technology, themselves; they are the result of the smoothing and shaping of those objects by skilled new Object Oriented Inventors.

Inventor As Hero

Finally, one result of this fundamental shift in the way new products are created is that the role of the Object Oriented Inventor is going to grow in both prominence and dominance in industry. Tomorrow's business leaders will, more and more be the men and women who embrace Object Oriented Invention, master its new challenges, and, use the process skillfully to give businesses what they want and need: hit products.

Steve Jobs is not an anomaly; he is the archetype that defines the new genre.


Bryce said…
Wow, interesing post. Though I dont completely agree with the majority of what you are saying, i do understand what you are getting at I believe.
I definitly think the 'inventor' is a lost hero in our society. Technology moves so fast that it is hard to know exactly who is doing what. Insted, we see Jobs and others taking credit for what others, or other teams of people have made.
Jack Campbell said…
One of the things that happens in distilling a book-length idea down to a short article is that a ton of of the premise must be glossed over.

The idea here isn't that "the inventor is dead." It is more that there is a new class of "inventor" becoming more central to the way new products are created, more of a "super inventor," who acts more as an intelligent aggregator of the work of all of the work from the inventors of the basic technologies.

Those technology objects I talk about (think "hard drives," or "LAN protocols," or...) will still need to come from somewhere. That "somewhere" will remain primarily the territory of the lone (traditional) inventor.
R Boylin said…
Your article reminded me of the book, "Notes on the Synthesis of Form", by Christopher Alexander, published in 1964. It was influential in programming circles. While invention is close to creativity, truly creative inventions require a subconscious ability to manipulate, with granularity, applicable knowledge as well as conceptual knowledge. This is where the story of breakthroughs while dreaming come from. The growing complexity of knowledge makes this difficult. "Knowing" where to obtain expertise cannot achieve creative synthesis of that knowledge with your own. We will need some artificial intelligence of a creative sort to enable us to overcome our ignorance; or, an ability to collaborate and fuse disparate knowledge in ways that duplicate subconscious synthesis. Pulling disparate knowledge into problem definition in a manner that promotes inventive thinking would be a first step. Brainstorming, while productive, is limited to spontaneous interactions driven by individual expertise and viewpoints. It is limited to the value of the individuals and their interaction at a specific time. Normally preconceptions drive the agenda. Synthesis happens, but rarely truly creative thinking.
Jack Campbell said…
The Intenet is serving temporarily as a laissez faire compendium of those technology objects I discussed. And, with aggressive searching, a vast pool of potential product building blocks can be located, studdied, and evaluated. However, I agre wiht your implication, that the vastness of it all suggests some specific chronicling methodology.

I serve in the role of Object Oriented Invetor in my own company. So, it is my task to maintain that widespread familiarty with the available technology building blocks I duscuss. Assimilating even course overviews of the entire scope of available technology methods is a daunting challenge. With no orgnizational and screening tools available to aid the process, purposefully sythesizing the best subset of objects to hit a specific product goal remains a near-mystical exercise in extremely eclectic creative thinking. In other words, tools are needed if this approach to technology design is going to spread in usage beyond the very talented few.
Tony Rueb said…
i agree with the author. microprocessors are incredibly complexed when you think of what all goes into them. assuming you had all the materials to build it, you still need to design it, most microprocessors now have millions if not billions of transistors that have to be placed and connected in such of an order to get it to work. once the design is done you have to "virtually" test it to make sure it does what you want. after that you have to make it you have to refine the silicon and make it into a wafer. then you need to make your prototypes and though a long process you now have your first prototype. then you need to test that and find errors correct them and send it back. many microprocessors now are beoyned the scope of one company to build finachely. the Xbox and Wii processes are what they call a "custom" design which means a lot more work and IBM and microsoft worked togeather on the xbox and ibm and nentendo worked on the wii
What you've described here is perfectly the philosophy of UNIX tools[1]: programs do one thing and do it well, linked up into Rube Goldberg machines that relay streams to do everything the particular job you're doing calls for.
This "Object Oriented Inventor" attitude should be how everyone uses computers, but has sadly been relegated to the land of *nix nerds like me, because of the omnipresence of bloated and slow pieces of software that just motivate you to buy stronger hardware. [Disclaimer: I hate the object oriented programming paradigm, but that's something totally different.]


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