In 1905, Albert Einstein, then a 26-year old patent clerk, published four research papers that reshaped physics. In one paper, "Through the Measurement of Brownian Motion in a Glass of Water," he proved the existence of atoms. In a second paper he deduced the size of molecules. In a third paper he showed that light is made up of particles, not waves as had been previously thought. That change in thinking led to the development of quantum theory. In his fourth paper he presented "a modification of the theory of space and time," which gave birth to his theory of special relativity and supplanted Newton's laws of motion that were long held to be the ultimate description of our universe.
Each of these papers presented new-to-the-world ideas that forever changed their respective fields of science. That they were all conceptualized and presented by one person within a 12-month period, is truly amazing. Albert Einstein was an outsider to the established physics community. He had been unable to get an academic position so he ended up in the patent office. Yet he significantly changed the world of physics.
Are you looking for your Albert Einstein? When determining the requirements for that new engineer, do you insist that the candidates come from your industry or maybe even from one of your competitors? Do you pick members of a new development team based on their experience with your old product? And when you have staffed your team with new employees who are clones of your old employees are you surprised when they struggle to find new ideas?
In 1901 Albert was an unemployed college graduate. Four years later, he showed, in four significant ways, that our understanding of the world was dead wrong. I do not suggest that there is another Albert Einstein in that pile of resumes on your desk. But in 1904, the Swiss patent office did not expect that there was one in their office.
So if we are looking for innovative new ideas we need to be open to all sources. We need to consider potential hires based on their intelligence, enthusiasm and creativity rather than their experience within our company's technology niche. We need to give talented young engineers a chance to work on new products and projects rather than restrain them to the one product where they have become knowledgeable.
Limited experience with a technology or product is frequently an advantage when attempting to come up with an out-of-the-box idea. That limited experience means that the team is not constrained by the past. Yes, that also means they may repeat past dead-ends. But a smart, enthusiastic, high-energy team will be trying lots of approaches, testing them early, keeping what works and discarding what doesn't. With that approach, they will quickly discover those dead-ends and move on.
Past success is no guarantee of future success. A manager must be willing to take a chance on a team who hasn't solved this exact problem before. In 1925, based on his 1905 successes followed by his "General Theory of Relativity," published 1916, Albert Einstein would have been the low-risk choice to find the "next-big-thing." However, while he was an active researcher for the remaining 30 years of his life, the general theory of relativity was his last significant finding. We need to continually be looking under that unturned rock for the next innovative solution for your "Miracle Year."
Reach Howard Dittmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.