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The hidden pattern of innovations

What if there was a common thread between all the inventions and innovations that have shaped our lives? We talked to Pagan Kennedy an expert on the subject, she identified several points of commonality.

Pagan Kennedy is an invention expert. Between 2012 and 2014, she investigated the stories behind a wide array of inventions in a weekly ‘Who Made That’ column for the New York Times. Now, she has combined all the knowledge she gained from years of interviews and deep dives and collated them into her book, ‘Inventology, How We Dream Up Things That Change the World,” and we were lucky enough to interview her on the subject.

When questioned on the definition of invention and asked how it differs from innovation, Pagan quotes Art Fry, the inventor of the Post-It Note:

“Invention is what happens when you translate a thought into a thing.”

Usually, this first phase of invention involves prototyping. When the first model is done, then you have an invention. Innovation, on the other hand, is more closely related to what happens next. According to Art Fry and Pagan Kennedy, innovation is the business process that delivers inventions to society. Innovation, therefore, does not include creating something new, but rather involves working on a prototype and improving it.

Pagan focused her book on the first part of this process and the creativity of the individual. In our interview, she stressed two factors that are, in her experience, fundamental to the creation of new ideas:

Direct knowledge of the problem

An inventor is someone who is suffering from a concrete problem in their daily life and wants to solve it. Therefore, if you hire someone to solve a problem, or invent something, you need to ensure they are not kept away from the problem, or from those who suffer from it. You need to make them experience and therefore really understand the problem. Ethnography field workers and user experience researchers, as an example, generally do a great job at connecting with problems, as they experience them first hand. A boots-on-the-ground approach to problem solving is something that every employee can and should consider.

We spoke to one CEO in 2014 who told us, “I have over 100 shop managers. When something’s going wrong in a shop, I tell them to take a step out of the office for once. I tell them to fake naivety and lead conversations with each of their sales employees for a week. Ask them about their clients, how their kids are, why a particular item is so popular and another not. Try that for one week and you will see what a difference it makes to your understanding of the issue.”


Not all inventors are looking to solve a problem, some stumble upon their inventions by mistake. Duane Pearsall, for example, invented the smoke detector by mistake. He was working on a machine that could dampen static electricity in factories and photography labs when someone lit a cigarette near his new device. He soon noticed the device had detected the smoke in the room, so his cigarette wielding friend suggested he turn his focus to developing a smoke detector.

This example is just one of many stories of great inventions that were created by mistake. It helps highlight that there are those who have problems and no solutions, and there are those who have solutions but might not even be aware of the problem they are solving. The key is to connect these groups. Fortunately, we can now utilise digital tools to make this process easier.

Pagan Kennedy offers InnoCentive as an example of one of these digital tools. InnoCentive’s software allows its users to post their problems and offer rewards for the best solutions. All users can then compete by offering their solutions on the platform. Interestingly, when NASA utilised the software, they found that the solution often came from a different field or sector than they had been expecting. This clearly demonstrates the importance of multidisciplinary knowledge and of knowledge contamination.

Pagan Kennedy reveals that there’s no unique recipe for creativity and invention. There are some factors to keep in mind, such as the importance of direct contact with the problem you are trying to solve, or keeping your mind open, in case you make an unexpected discovery.

But in the end, you should just try. Because, in Kennedy’s words, “we need as many inventors as possible, we have a lot of big problems to solve!”

About the FLI Thought Leader Pagan Kennedy

A former design columnist at The New York Times, Pagan’s interest lies in notable inventions and their stories. From small everyday items like lipstick through to major technological innovations like 3D printers and Twitter.

Pagan is also the author of ten books, including ‘Inventology, How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (2016).’ “Though we possess the brainpower, the talent, and the tools to solve our most worrying problems, it’s enormously difficult to organize ourselves around the big questions,” the author states.

Veröffentlicht in Leadership Stories am 28.09.2023

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