Monday, December 16, 2013

Dyson Innovation, Failures and Parallels

A colleague on Google+ once posted about celebrating failure. I disagreed vehemently with this notion, but wisely tempered my reaction in a comment. We can learn from failure, we can accept the inevitability of it, and we can tolerate the disconcerting experience of it. But celebrate it? I don't think so.

In posting their interview above with James Dyson, Bloomberg takes a nearly similar tact as my colleague in the title - Failure is Better than Success. No, it is not, and Dyson doesn't say it is. Instead, he says that he and his team are used to failure and that failure is fascinating and much more interesting than success.

Dyson is the inventor, designer and businessman behind the company that bears his name. He strikes me as a curious and dissatisfied, patient and persistent, perhaps exacting man. For example, he realized years ago that the vacuum cleaner lost suction over time, as dirt collected in the bag. I often do the vacuuming in our household, and I know to monitor how well the cleaner is actually working and to check the bag periodically.

But what about a cyclone mechanism, instead?

Dyson managed to resize an industrial cyclone, used for collecting sawdust, to a much smaller one for a vacuum cleaner. The idea was straight out of Isaac Newton's laws of motion: An object in motion stayed in motion, and in a certain direction, unless acted upon by another force. Specifically, centrifugal force threw dirt against the wall of the cyclone, from which it fell and collected below. An initial test using a cardboard cyclone worked better than a conventional bag.

The challenge for Steve Wozniak, at the behest of one Steve Jobs, was to design a computer fit for a personal desktop. No small task, I imagine, as the computer in the 1970s worked off mainframes that seemed to dominate any room. Jobs was the business and marketing genius, alongside Wozniak's technical prowess, and the Apple I they arrived at revolutionized computing.

Dyson and Apple were the manifest of two crucial innovative efforts: Their founders dared to take industrial technology, (a) size it down considerably, and (b) make it useful for the everyday, common needs of people.

Dyson demures to specify how many prototypes he and his team created from the initial idea, but apparently it was 5127 between 1979 and 1984. Staggering. During what must've been lean years of inventing, he and his wife lived off her salary as an art teacher. Similarly, as I work at my Theory of Algorithms and The Core Algorithm, and the tough go of making my management consulting firm fly, my wife works two to three jobs to support our daughter and me. I am deeply confident, and more encouraged, that we will be wealthy, as the Dyson family clearly has become.

(c) Patient and persistence, and the inevitable failures, are part-and-parcel of meaningful innovation. Even then, there is no guarantee of success. So this requires an abiding faith, perhaps foolish confidence that success will come, in time. No matter how many failures one has endured, success may be just one step, one prototype, one tweak away.

But (d) such arduous process also requires some sustenance for life or some platform for funds. It is the innovator's dilemma that Clayton Christensen wrote about: Companies are reluctant to invest in anything that they know will fail repeatedly, before it ever becomes a success story. So in the absence of sustenance and platform, innovation simply does not happen. Thank God, then, for women like Mrs. Dyson and my wife! Neither Dyson 30 years ago, nor I in 2013, have the prospects of company backing in the thick of our inventing.

(e) A business model is de rigueur, nevertheless. Dyson managed to persuade the Japanese company Apex to license his vacuum cleaner innovation in 1983. But not only that, it sold rather well in the Japanese market, won a design prize in 1991, and became a status symbol there. Funds gradually allowed Dyson to launch his company and a research center and factory in 1993.

I imagine he hasn't sat on his laurels, and no doubt has kept himself curious, kept at tinkering, and kept drawing fascinating lessons from failure. Failure and success may be the integral yin-and-yang of innovation, but it is the latter we celebrate.

Me, I am mindful of business models, and even in the early stages of work on Theory of Algorithms and The Core Algorithm, I saw how crucial it was to generate revenues from such a heady conceptual framework and a laborious practical application. Right now, I am very grateful to have Kuwait Petroleum Corporation as a consulting client, and perhaps, God willing, they may be, to me, what Apex was to Dyson.

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

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