April 09, 2021
Note: Blog post subject matter is discussed in more detail on the Athalonz Podcast.
I have been working with engineers for over 40 years, most of that time as a patent attorney. As a group, engineers are a pretty smart. It takes a certain level of intelligence to get an engineering degree. There’s a lot of advanced mathematics and then the math has to be applied to engineering problems. It’s not easy.
Yet, only a small percentage of engineers are creative thinkers. What I mean by that is most engineers can solve tasks when the tasks are fairly well defined for them. They are task solvers. It is a rare engineer that can create the tasks out of thin air to achieve something new. That’s creative thinking.
Steve Jobs is one of the best examples of a creative thinker. The iPhone was a truly unique concept that has changed the world. As the features of the iPhone were identified, task solving engineers developed them.
Why are there so few creative thinkers? I have been pondering this question for years. Here’s my thinking about thinking.
A key element of creative thinking is questioning. Albert Einstein was once asked, “If you only had an hour to solve a problem and your life depended on solving the problem, how would you do it?” He responded, “I would spend the first 55 minutes asking questions. Because, once I knew what questions to answer, I could answer them in 5 minutes.”
We are not trained to ask questions. I look back at my education and from grade school through law school, I was told what to learn, how to learn it, and then tested on what I was supposed to learn. I’m not knocking the education system, we need to learn the fundamentals. If we don’t know what 2 + 2 is we can’t do any mathematics. But it doesn’t teach me what I can do with 2 + 2 once I’ve learned it.
It’s not just the education system that doesn't teach us to question, it also includes the work environment. When I look back at my professional career, I had one boss that encouraged me to ask questions and be creative; the rest viewed my questions and creativity as a threat. For instance, when I worked at Motorola in the early nineties, they were big on “cycle time reduction” and “six-sigma quality”. Basically, do things faster and better.
My boss encouraged me to try different ideas on how to make the patent process better and faster. So I did and I found ways to do it. With the approaches I came up with, the quality of patent applications went up 4X and the speed at writing them went up 3X.
Because of the success of these approaches, I was asked to teach every attorney in Motorola’s patent department the approaches; there were 150 attorneys at the time. I had just finished law school and most of the attorneys had much more experience than me. Let’s just say my teachings were not well received. There was one senior attorney who would punch me in the arm every time I passed him in the hallway.
This leads to my second observation regarding creative thinking; it requires risk taking and embracing change. Both of these can be uncomfortable. The status quo may not be great, but it is familiar and familiarity is comfortable.
Being comfortable, avoiding risks, and avoiding change is the mantra of mid-management in large companies. As such, they often create an environment of “do what your told and don’t ask questions”. In my experiences, mid-management does not like subordinates that are talented and creative and do what they can to suppress such subordinates.
So, how does one end up being a creative thinker? Within today’s environment, it’s something innate in a person that drives them to take risks, ask questions, and embrace change. I believe that innate ability to be a creative thinker is in all of us, it just needs to be nurtured and encouraged.
I am the CEO and Founder of Athalonz, LLC., I am a founding partner of the patent boutique law firm of Garlick & Markison, I am a survivor of child abuse, and I am an inventor on over 300 patents.
Athalonz is a technology company based on Mesa, AZ. It develops and sells athletic footwear, which incorporates its patented technology that leverages the laws of physics to improve athletic performance. Website: athalonz.com
Garlick & Markison is a patent law boutique firm that assists clients in building a patent business within their business using proprietary tools and techniques. Website: texaspatents.com
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