Idea collaboration – Learning from inventors and scientists

idea collaboration by Inventors, vintage sewing machine

Idea Collaboration – What the inventors say

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The sentence “What hath god wrought” was the first telegraphic message of the world that was sent in 1844 from the US Supreme Court premises to Baltimore in the United States. From then on it was the onset of a great invention of the Modern times which influenced the world so much. We have seen the use of the Telegraph in so many of the Hollywood’s World War movies today. But then, the question we would like to ask is, what went on those days in the minds of Inventors, Samuel Morse when he invented the telegraph? Was it a flash of creative insight? Or was it series of successive idea collaboration drawn over time that eventually went on to reveal the Telegraph. We will see that in a while.

As we seek to understand and explore these answers, they have profound impact and have great relevance for today’s problem solving methods in our workplaces and if you are an entrepreneur, it becomes much more essential to the way you work.

Similarly, there is this case of Charles Darwin who came up with the Theory of Evolution. Charles reached many dead ends but he finally came up with his significant 1859 book “On the origin of species” which changed the world overcoming previous scientific principles on the subject.

I was reading through the book “Group Genius” by Keith Sawyer. Brilliant analysis of a case study on both the inventors. Both were classic examples to prove that it is not a sudden flash of insight that happened that led to their inventions but over a long drawn case of successive idea collaboration from which the insights arose.

In the next couple of paragraphs, we will see two simple stories as examples how they can be relevant to problem solving approaches in today’s modern workplaces.  In both these examples, an important point to note is that the successive ideas happen over time. It is not instantaneous. Both the inventors had considerable time gaps before they actually came up with their breakthroughs. This time gap provided them the ample space for the discussion and successive  idea collaboration with their peers.

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Learning idea collaboration from the classic examples of inventors

Telegraph pole
Telegraph pole

Samuel F Morse was an accomplished painter in his early days. He never had an idea on the workings of the electric current. He was neither trained nor educated in those fields. It was in the year of 1829, a chance meeting with another person had changed the course of events. Morse was on a ship returning back to the United States after extensive tour of Europe. During a conversational chat with a group of people on the ship he had inkling of an idea that electric current can be used to pass messages from one place to another place. The passage of the electric current was instantaneous on wires.

Morse at that time did not know this idea of using electric current to pass messages was already tried and tested in Europe. But then, everybody who tested and experimented with this idea had a vexing problem. Messages cannot be transmitted over long distances as the greater the distance of the wires, the signal weakened and died. There were many sparks of insight and ideas bounced back and forth during this period. A passing electric current produced a magnetic field and so the galvanometer was invented which could measure the electric current.

All these did not deter Morse, partly because he was ignorant of the workings and history behind these experiments then. He then thought about an idea of having short and long bursts of signals to be passed on the wires. These short and long bursts would each correspond to alphabets in the English language.

After many years of dull periods and successive ideas by many the signal problem was finally solved by another scientist, Joseph Henry.  Instead of using one large battery, Henry used a series of successive batteries with a combination of a right electromagnet. This made the signals stronger. This was much like the modern battery operated “Torch light” that we use at home.

Just like Morse, others also took up this idea to invent the Telegraph on their own.  Morse, together with another friend, spent many years in conversation and collaboration of ideas for redesigning the batteries to suit their purpose.  They also redesigned the short and long bursts of signals with a new combination of dots and dashes.

Finally, Morse was able to find a wealthy investor who invested in his idea and then the world knew the Telegraph.

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Charles Darwin
Darwin and Nature

Charles Darwin is another fine example of creating innovation in sciences. Many writers write down their content in bits and pieces. They take down small notes of events, ideas and characteristics as it happens in life. Finally, they assemble it all together. Charles Darwin also had worked this way.

Charles Darwin after his education from Cambridge University went on a voyage to map the South American coast. This was in the year 1831. After about sailing for 5 years, Charles Darwin came back to England with extensive notes that he had taken during his travels.

Through his geological discoveries, Darwin attempted a simple question – if the Geology of the earth was changing, would the animals of the earth would also change in response?  After much thought he came up with his Theory of evolution by natural selection”.

Darwin drew his conclusions after a series of collaborations with many scientists at that time. Notable was Thomas Malthus and his “Essay on population”. His theory is that all animals produced more off-springs than they would survive and thereby relegated the survival of species to the conservative forces of nature.

Darwin built on this idea and transformed it.  He realized that if all animals were to produce more off-springs and if some were to survive, as the geology of the earth changes slowly, the natural selection works with time and species would need to evolve.  Natural Evolution would take over rather than conservative forces of natural disasters and so on.

Darwin’s theory of evolution unfolded over a series of idea collaboration, bouncing forth of ideas, bouncing back from dead ends, notes taking and exchange.

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Use the “Wisdom of Crowds” of peers and collaborators.

Collaborative Team Work
Collaborative Team Work

Successful inventors and scientists learn from their failures. They face many dead ends but they bounce back. The good thing is we need to keep having ideas. We need to learn to bounce our ideas with our collaborators. Involve our collaborators and colleagues at work in the idea development processes. We need to learn from our mistakes and use the bad ideas to change it and convert it to a better idea and for that we need the wisdom of our peers and collaborators.

Creativity emerges from a lot of productive and unproductive ideas. There is no single flash of insight. Linus Pauling, the famous Nobel laureate says “You need to have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones”. When you take risks, you are bound to have failures and that is ok.

In my earlier article, I was talking about All ideas are good. We just need to make it brilliant”.

IDEO the creative design company talks about brain storming for new ideas in a radically different way.  Their practice focuses mainly on the team collaboration of ideas.  Their techniques are much more different than on how it happens in the corporate conference rooms. Building on each others ideas is a fantastic problem solving technique used by them. And when the discussion goes off-course, they deliberately introduce another branch of the main problem topic.

We need to have that space. It is advised that before you start a brainstorming session or idea hub meeting at your company, the members would need to spend some time outside. Probably a stroll around the office premises helps. This prepares them to have their own thoughts and ideas. Once this is done, they can come together to bounce off each other’s’ thoughts and ideas and build on it. This would lead to unforeseen insights which would have otherwise not arisen if they had worked on the  idea collaboration and thought alone.

Inventors like Morse and Charles Darwin also ran into many bad ideas. They spent many days, months and sometimes years to come back on the main track. Had they been stuck with their many bad ideas, the world wouldn’t have seen their wonderful creations and for that matter so many of other business inventions, major project undertakings in the modern day world.

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Further reading resources

  1.  Exploring ideas in the workplace
  2.  New ways of process improvement in workplaces

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Ramkumar Yaragarla

I am 43 years old. Founder, Loving dad and Husband. Worked as an IT Business analyst and program manager in several Fortune 100 companies.Alumnus at the University of Warwick, UK. I love the WWW and write on Social aspects of information, Social collaboration, Digital Sociology, Digital Humanities and Work life balance. I enjoy playing on the beach with my 9 year old daughter. I am open to your suggestions and comments.
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