Many of us prefer to improve ourselves and our world without risk, without uncertainty. We like step-by-step guaranteed procedures,
such as those of the “________ for Dummies” books. Fill in the blank
any way you want—someone has written it. You can buy Low-Carb Dieting for Dummies, Catholicism for Dummies, Guitar for Dummies, Japanese for Dummies, NASCAR for Dummies, and even Sex for Dummies. When we recently searched its Web site, Barnes & Noble listed 2,519 entries that are “for dummies.” These titles offer methods that eliminate uncertainty, procedures that are no-brainer methods for guaranteed success, improvement without risk.
Of course, the “For Dummies” type of procedure is widely embraced. such procedures for risk-free improvement have yielded large profits and have benefited society for countless years. Consider technology available to farmers over centuries. An ox-drawn plow was certain to yield gains relative to a human-powered hoe. Then mechanized solutions (such as tractors) offered still greater profits; farmers could cultivate more land per hour and thus obtain greater revenues for the same hour of labor. There is no uncertainty—a farm with mechanical equipment will be able to produce a larger harvest, per labor hour, than a farmer using Amish-approved techniques. A more modern example comes from a mathematical research field called “operations research,” the science of optimal business decisions. operations researchers provide schedules for airlines and baseball seasons, figure out the best locations for product warehouses, and devise inventory management policies so that retailers do not waste precious capital on items that sit on shelves for most of the year. These scheduling formulas, inventory management solutions, and other operations research techniques offer risk-free improvements, like tractors for farmers. The improvements can be worth vast sums to the company. For instance, John Deere recently saved $1 billion through the supply-chain tinkering of SmartOps, an operations research consulting firm.
With a “For Dummies” checklist, it is the process that does the work. The person implementing the process does not matter, does not need to think—hence the series title. But with the methods for innovation, the user of the methods is critical, for the methods aid but do not replace the innovator. They enable the innovator. They are a tool, like a hammer for a carpenter, and like computer-aided design (CAD) in the hands of an architect. The Freedom Tower in New York has been designed using the latest development in CAD tools, a 3D drawing and modeling program called Revit. Similar programs have long been used by engineers and designers in the design of motorcycles, airplanes, and other consumer products. The tool tremendously leverages the ability of the architect, but the architect still must do the work. Methods of innovation are tools that leverage the skills of the user, tools that take that person’s productivity beyond what it would be otherwise.
Consider the work of Frank Gehry, the famous architect who designed, among other masterpieces, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Gehry’s buildings are large-scale livable art forms that flow and curve in ways only imaginably drawn on paper or molded in clay. Yet these organic shapes that meet and multiply at many levels of complexity form the basis for Gehry’s buildings. There is no repetition or standardization; no two forms or parts of forms on his buildings are the same. One can imagine what a nightmare to the traditional construction contractor must be the daunting task of constructing one of these buildings. Yet they are envisioned, designed, and then successfully built. The only way that this can happen is with the tool of CAD/CAM. The CAD system allows Gehry to represent and communicate his imagination. The CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) system allows each piece of material on the outside of the building to be individually manufactured and labeled for assembly. The CAD/CAM system, in this case one called CATIA, is just a tool, but in the hands of his engineers, it is a sophisticated enabler that allows Gehrys innovation to become a commercial and structural success.