The September ’95 issue of JCT includes an article by Milton Glaser entitled ‘The Role of Intuition in Innovative R&D’, a topic which he had earlier discussed in the same journal twenty years previously. In general, Glaser found that technical managers were deeply sceptical about the existence (let alone the merits) of such a thing as ‘intuition’.
Surely it is obvious that technical research depends entirely on clear understanding of established principles and the logical application of these ideas? I recall once that one of my colleagues had been given approval to apply for a PhD course, with some financial support from the company. ‘Of course’ said the senior manager ‘you do realise that we expect your project to deliver something which we can patent and which will generate commercial advantage for this firm’.
My workmate was disturbed by this announcement; I pointed out that she could reasonably promise not to produce anything of commercial significance, since doctoral research programmes are designed to create novel contributions to knowledge. ‘Anything that you do which is remotely capable of being exploited in product development is probably already being studied by other firms with better labs and bigger budgets’.
Glaser’s article cites research by Agor, who identified intuition as being a significant factor in the decision making processes of highly successful executives. However, the world of technical research does not tend to produce ‘highly successful’ profiles. A sales rep can meet up with a client and secure business worth thousands of pounds, while the corresponding laboratory work takes place in the background, over a period of months or years, with numerous false starts and dead ends before eventually arriving at a (partially) triumphant outcome.
The opposite of innovation is stagnation; the old, established procedures. ‘We’ve always done things this way, and they’ve always worked’ is a common refrain in the world of British manufacturing. The following quote appears in a HERO (Higher Education & Research Opportunities) report on the demise of MG Rover in 2005:
“If by some sad geographical slip the American Air Force (it is too late now to hope for much from the enemy) were to destroy every factory on the North-East coast and in Lancashire (at an hour when the Directors were sitting there and no-one else) we should have nothing to fear. How else we are to regain the exuberant inexperience which is necessary, it seems, for success, I cannot surmise.”
Harsh words from our friend Keynes; but he had probably recognised that the war effort in the US had sparked off a dynamic new business culture where young, enthusiastic engineers and designers were encouraged to share ideas rather than allowing a sedate hierarchy to stifle their progress.
Although innovation is not the preserve of the physically young, just those who think young; today’s Observer newspaper includes an interview with five of the leading writers on science – James Gleick, Lone Frank, Steven Pinker, Joshua Foer and Brian Greene – ahead of the Royal Society’s Book Prize (the Winton) award. At one point Greene is quoted as saying ‘It’s imperative kids recognise that science involves as much creativity as any other so-called creative discipline’.
Consider the case of Harry Coover (1917-2011), who was researching the use of a cyano-modified acrylic monomer for use as lens-building materials. To measure the refractive index of this material, he placed a drop between the plates of a refractometer and pressed them together. After taking the measurement, he tried to pull the plates apart ready for the next sample. However, it turned out that the cyanoacrylate liquid had swiftly polymerised. In terms of the standard testing of lens materials, this was a disaster; but Coover had sufficient imagination to realise that he had stumbled upon a new type of adhesive material, one which we now call ‘superglue’. Every experiment is designed to reveal information; even the biggest failure is a useful source of future wisdom.
M A Glaser, The Role of Intuition in Innovative R&D, Journal of Coatings Technology, v67, n848, Sept 1995, pp 109-111