Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Why do you say - innovation is difficult, Mr. Feynman?

Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!” is an autobiographical bestseller written by Nobel Laureate physicist Richard Feynman. Richard concludes the second chapter titled “String Beans” with following line: I learned that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world. Question is: Why does one of the best scientists of last century find innovation a difficult thing? Let’s explore this question below.

“String Beans” is a story when Richard was seventeen or eighteen and did a summer job at a hotel run by his aunt. He worked twelve hours a day and got twenty two dollars a month. The world as he describes was: You worked long hours and got nothing for it, every day. During this stint as a desk clerk cum busboy, Richard carried several experiments to improve things. One such experiment was related to string beans.

As he was cutting the string beans using knife in the kitchen, Richard realized that it is a slow process and got an idea how it can be improved further. He sat down at the wooden table outside the kitchen, put a bowl in his lap, and stuck a very sharp knife into the table at a forty-five-degree angle away from me. Then he put a pile of the string beans on each side, and he'd pick out a bean, one in each hand, and bring it towards me with enough speed that it would slice, and the pieces would slide into the bowl that was in his lap. This was way faster than the original method. And this is what happened when boss came:

The boss comes by and says, "What are you doing?" I say, "Look at the way I have of cutting beans!" -- and just at that moment I put a finger through instead of a bean. Blood came out and went on the beans, and there was a big excitement: "Look at how many beans you spoiled! What a stupid way to do things!" and so on. So I was never able to make any improvement, which would have been easy -- with a guard, or something -- but no, there was no chance for improvement.

Richard was indeed a powerhouse of ideas and he was also a master experimenter. Where he is finding difficulty is in selling his ideas even to people who know him (like his aunt). In fact during that summer job, not a single idea he suggested got accepted in the hotel. And hence he feels “innovation is difficult”.

“Selling your idea” isn’t a “nice to have” competency for an innovator, it is a core competency. Idea matters, experimentation matters even more but selling your idea to the beneficiary matters as much if not more. On the flip-side, if you are trying to innovate in a place where people don't understand what experimentation means chances are high you will find innovation "a difficult thing".

Thanks to my friend Akkiraju for bringing Feynman back in my life after nearly 20 years!


  1. Great post, as usual! Here is my pick. Richard also sold his ideas. He wouldn't have got nobels that easily if he doesn't know how to sell his ideas to fund his projects and experiments.

    That statement I would say is not so much about selling. But a serious comment about the world we are in. Especially the captive and top-down bureaucratic setups. The higher up you go in these setups, the closer you are expected to reach nirvana or find omni-potent.

    "This is how it has been done for ages and so it must be the right way". Experience and positions are the ones that usually make the innovation difficult. We would have still been in caves eating raw meat if our fathers followed their fathers and they followed their's without questioning. Lord Ram may not be my ideal for following his dad blindly and without questioning :)


  2. There are indeed a few things to learn for Feynman's story:

    First, people conveniently forget that need is the mother of invention. Nobody is interested in a new thing if what it does is not perceived as a problem.

    Too many times there are solutions that are going around looking for problems. These usually are disasters waiting to happen.

    Most inventions need considerable engineering effort before any product can emerge. Many innovators are unwilling/unable to take up that challenge. This is really "selling the idea" part. Innovators fail here not because they do know how to market their idea but because many lack what I call the real world connection (for lack of better word) to see how the idea fits into general scheme of things. This has negative effect on people who will be making a product out of it. Also, the engineering process is just that, a process. It is very uninteresting and requires lot of patience. If you compare it to going on to work work on another shiny new idea, innovators are likely to choose latter.

    To Akki's point about loathing of change is right, but I think the rationale is a little different. In some ways, success kills innovation. This is described very well in "Innovator's Dilemma" by Christenson. I would suggest a read .


  3. Good article - though i had read this story before, i had completely forgotten about it.

    Curious minds are necessary but not sufficient. The atmosphere which nurtures experimentation plays a much bigger role.

    In a different context, Buffett says:
    When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.