Breaking Things Enables Invention in the Fast Lane

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Waking Up in the “Odd”yssey Years

Much can be learned from studying historically innovative companies like Bell Labs, Apple, Microsoft, Google and Facebook. Taking note of winnings and losses and applying them quickly to the next idea brewing in the mind of the innovator will allow one to remain in the idea stream, even if it means inventing a product that breaks. David Brooks of The New York Times was right when he wrote, “It’s possible to see that this period of improvisation is a sensible response to modern conditions.” He was referring to his belief in a new stage we have added to our lives called the odyssey years, which seems to have been born out of modern necessity, but really is the backbone of what has always driven the human race to strike out on their own.

The odyssey years can feel a little awkward and odd walking down a path that seems to wind and wander when you feel you should be on the straight and narrow climbing the ladder of success.  It’s a stage of self-exploration, discovery, enlightenment and adventure originally said to be lived out in the 20 something years. However, this phase of life can ignite itself when conditions are ripe in one’s life journey. It leads many closer to the path of innovation. What we must learn to do things fast and learn that breaking them is okay. Making mistakes is one way that the human brain learns.

It’s said that there are at least 6 stages in life: childhood, adolescents, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement, and old age. The odyssey years are about figuring things out, asking questions and yes, breaking things. Facebook’s Chief Executive Officer, Mark Zuckerberg, lives by the mantra, “Move fast and break things.”

Photo from The Ronald Grant Archive

He cited this mantra in a recent letter to investors called “The Hacker Way” just before Facebook’s IPO filing earlier this year. Despite their recent debacle following protocol for IPO valuation, we can take a lesson from Facebook and their successes through this way of shipping their products quickly and making adjustments later.

54% of college students today say that having classes foster invention during school or a field trip would help move them down the path of innovation. During President Obama’s State of the Union address in February 2012, he had a call to action to increase the dwindling pool of innovators and push college students toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors. Today’s innovators need to be cultivated, motivated and re-invented, not just in college but also throughout their lives.

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Innovators Need Guidance

Bell Labs, formerly known as AT&T Bell Laboratories, is a research and development company with labs around the world dating back to the 1920’s. John Gertner recently wrote an article for The New York Times discussing Bell Labs and his belief in learning from this innovative company of the past and present. He feels that we idolize our start-up entrepreneurs of today and we should look to the past. In many ways he’s right. Presidents of today study presidents of the past taking what insight they can to build a better future. Many things can be learned from Bell Labs. They created many technologies. They were given time and plenty of it to do what they needed to create a new tomorrow. Bell Labs moved forward not because they were chasing profit, but because they were seeking to understand and build upon a platform. However, Time magazine was quoted as saying, “Few companies are more conservative; none are more creative.” This helps support the theory that moving fast is important.

Being first on the market with an imperfect product can be your real life experiment. Taking those findings and improving the product is going to be better than trying to make it perfect without those findings from real life testing.

Inventing or re-inventing one’s self is done during the “odd”yssey years. This stage of wandering seems odd at first, but as the saying goes “all those that wander are not lost.” As we progress through life, there are times that we may feel lost and wander, but there are also times that we wander when we are seeking to understand.  Without wandering, we might never find what we are looking for; isn’t that the reason we go in search of something more; to make a difference; to change the world with innovation?

So, wander; learn from history; break things; but move fast because real life experiments are more valuable than trying to be perfect before you launch.

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