I was showing the James Burke “Connections” TV show to my son when he asked what was the point. Was it the history of technology? Was it an explanation of how something he talked about in science worked?
The overarching lesson from the show actually is: the big advancements in science have historically happened when, to quote John Stossel, ideas have sex.
Two people in unrelated areas are drinking together and talk and ideas come together. Or the student of one talks to an expert in a different field, and an existing product gets put to a new use. Or someone sees someone in one field sees the mechanical process similarities and says you could use this process we use for your product, too.
Those who spend years doing detailed trials with plenty of error do make progress in science. The light bulb is one proof of this, and the herbal medicines that were adopted by pharmacology are another. However, many of the big advances are cross-discipline transfers of known applications and solutions to new uses or someone discussing a discovery and others saying “we could do this with it”.
How can we use these lessons today?
• Your greatest advances are likely to come from cross-discipline idea exchanges, not the continued study of existing field experts.
• Many of the suggestions to make things better, faster or easier will likely come from those who apply related expertise to your process.
• The grind of research isn’t to be ignored or neglected, because it produces the sheer volume of data needed for others to know what works and doesn’t work.
• Don’t neglect the mistakes and accidental byproducts – those may be the new materials that are more useful than the products you are making incrementally better via slow trial and error.
• Punishing all mistakes as failures instead of learning from them or trying to find ways to use what you discovered will hurt in the long run. It will also hinder exploration that leads to new discoveries.
Discovery and invention requires the free exchange of ideas and learning from everything that happens, good or bad. If only many managers and team leaders did, instead of siloing information based on job type or ignoring input from those who don’t have as many credentials.