#106 from R&D
Innovator Volume 3, Number 7
Innovation in R&D
Tanner is president, Tanner & Associates, Inc., and executive
director, Edward de Bono International Creative Forum in
Wilmington, Delaware. Previously,
he was R&D director of du Pont Industrial Fibers Division and
director, du Pont Center for Creativity & Innovation. He
is author of Total Creativity in Business & Industry
creativity as the generation of novel, useful ideas. We define innovation as the process for bringing the best
ideas to reality. Creativity
is a personal act while innovation is often a team effort.
The innovation process starts with a need, which triggers a
creative idea, which generates a series of innovative events,
including demonstration, scaleup, and commercialization.
Innovation may be
viewed as occurring in three time frames: 1) decade-to-decade: e.g., discovery and commercialization of major new
classes of polymers; 2) year-to-year:
e.g., important advances in existing polymers, like making tougher
ones; and 3) day-to-day:
e.g., modeling reactions to improve yields.
an essential role in all three types of innovation.
It helps generate the original idea and overcome barriers
to bringing the idea to reality.
Thinking Techniques and Applications
There is a myth
that creativity is limited to a few individuals who are naturally
creative. In reality,
creativity is a skill that can be learned and applied like any
other skill. Many
techniques in creative thinking are available to help germinate
and accelerate the innovation process.
fraternal and identical twins supports the view that different
abilities to think, and to think creatively, are not
and creative thinking are learnable skills like driving a car,
swimming, or knitting. Some
people will be better than others, but, given sufficient
motivation, everyone can develop a reasonable amount of skill.
stimulate creative thinking include:
thinking; 2) metaphoric
thinking; 3) positive
thinking; 4) questioning
conventional wisdom; and 5) capturing and interpreting dreams.
At du Pont, these techniques have been used successfully in
product and process development, trouble-shooting, and tackling
difficult business issues.
is defined as “seeking ways to solve problems by apparently
illogical means.” In
science, many major discoveries have come about through a chance
observation, accident, or mistake that led to non-obvious ways of
perceiving things. Dr. Edward de Bono, who coined the term "lateral
thinking," teaches techniques that jar normal thought
patterns in problem solving and shift them to new starting points.
These techniques (which can be found in his 1992 book, Serious
Creativity, HarperCollins) lead to provocations and
alternative approaches to the problem.
at du Pont led to a process breakthrough for drying polymer fluff.
The old process used a reciprocating belt system with 70
moving parts, which frequently broke down.
A lateral thinking session resulted in a major new design
concept, reducing the number of moving parts by 80% and
significantly improving process continuity. The lateral thinking technique used was “reversal,” which
triggered the provocation, “the reciprocating belt is
shifted thinking into an entirely new direction, leading to the
new design concept.
thinking involves generating new ideas by connecting the problem
to something in a totally unrelated realm (often in nature).
At Du Pont, the
need to develop a flame-resistant Nomex™ fiber that could be
dyed more simply frustrated our research program for many years.
Then a researcher asked himself what made it possible for
people to enter a coal mine.
His answer: props
that keep the hole from collapsing.
Applying this metaphor to Nomex™, he imbibed a large
molecule into the fiber during manufacturing, which propped open
the structure so dyes could enter.
positive-thinking technique involves viewing a negative from
different angles and turning it into a positive.
At Du Pont, we
needed a more rapidly dyeable nylon fiber.
In one experiment, the chemically modified nylon was
totally unreceptive to dyes.
Instead of viewing this as a negative result, our chemist
reasoned that since the fiber wouldn’t dye at all, it could be
mixed with dyeable fibers and provide a novel pattern effect.
This concept was the birth of du Pont’s dye-resist nylon
styling yarn--now an important carpet material.
deliberately question existing paradigms and take risks (something
which comes naturally to many researchers).
In the early
1960’s, we had a vision for a super fiber with the heat
resistance of asbestos and the stiffness of glass.
The breakthrough occurred in 1965, when a researcher
produced a solution of an opaque polymer that couldn’t be
clarified by heating or filtration.
This implied that inert matter was dispersed in the
solution, which would plug the spinneret holes and prevent
spinning into fibers. The
researcher bucked conventional wisdom and persisted in extruding
the opaque solution. Surprisingly,
it spun well, and we now know that this opacity was due to
formation of liquid crystals that shear-oriented in the spinnerett
capillaries. This led
to Kevlar™ aramid fibers.
harnesses the subconscious in generating new ideas.
It requires keeping a pad and pencil by your bedside to
record your dreams.
A du Pont plant
was experiencing costly shutdowns caused by de-lamination and
collapsing vacuum hoses. One
night, a team member working on the problem dreamed about slinky
toys, those metal-spring children’s toys that “walk”
themselves down stairs. This
dream sparked the idea that a slinky-like spring inserted into the
vacuum hoses would prevent them from collapsing. It worked.
Creativity at the Company
It’s vital to
set aside quality time specifically for people to learn the
techniques of creative thinking.
This first step satisfies an essential criterion for
cultural shift—that is, it gives “status” to the effort.
What resources can you use to focus on this subject?
In-house seminars, books and articles on creativity, and
outside creativity experts. By
rewarding and recognizing individuals and teams which apply
creative thinking techniques and deliver bottom-line results, you
reinforce the central importance of creative thinking.
Even units in the
organization that have less participation in formal creativity
programs will think and act more creatively because the general
environment has improved. They
will recognize that management is supportive of creative thinking,
provides freedom in doing the job, encourages risk taking, and
doesn’t punish mistakes but rather focuses on learning from
thinking techniques offer processes for deliberate, systematic
approaches to problem solving and opportunity searching.
Techniques like lateral thinking are applicable to all
disciplines and in all situations. In this way, creativity can help accelerate the process of