I became an engineer because I enjoy being creative, so I look up to James Dyson’s impressive track record of innovation. And even beyond having creative ideas, he’s also got a keen marketing sense. Going from starting a vacuum cleaner business on his own – after his business partners abandoned him – to running a company with more than a billion pound turnover and profits of 25% in 2014. So I’ve been doing some research about him and these are the five things I’ve learned about how to be more innovative:
Ask ‘Stupid’ Questions
Dyson credits his success at innovation with being willing to do ‘completely stupid or wrong things… just to see what would happen’. He put this down to coming from an arts background (he studied classics at school), rather than a scientific one, where you are encouraged to seek the ‘right’ answer. Whatever your background though, I think the key thing is being brave enough to question the premises of things, however stupid it may seem to do so.
Search Around for Solutions to Similar Problems
While doing domestic chores, Dyson became frustrated with his vacuum cleaner. He took it apart and realised that the design was flawed, the suction happened through the bag, so as the bag filled the suction reduced. But it was only later, in a completely different context that he came across a possible solution. He was at a Sawmill and noticed that on the roof there was a cyclone, which through various tubes picked up all the sawdust from the machines. This gave him the idea for a cyclone vacuum cleaner.
Work out what Success Looks Like
Dyson set himself two goals at an early stage, that his vacuum cleaner had to have no loss of suction and that it had to pick up particles as small as 0.5microns across (this is as small as the particles in cigarette smoke). This set a course for how to improve the design and also helped him to know when it was complete. Stephen Covey calls this principle ‘Begin with the End in Mind’
Take Lots of Little Steps
One of the most useful lessons I learned from researching Dyson was about his incremental improvement process, which he took from Thomas Edison. Rather than producing a few prototypes, he made 5,127. Starting with a prototype made from cardboard and masking tape, to prove the principle worked. Each prototype had only one variable changed compared to the last. Even though this process sounds quite laborious (and took 4 years!) he said it was critical to understanding exactly how each variable affected the design.
Invest in Innovation
Dyson is known for investing more than most companies in R&D. In 2015 he spent £113m on innovation, approximately 8% of the company turnover. Very few of us can set a companies R&D budget, but if applied to individuals, this would equate to someone on the UK average salary of £26,000 spending £2,000 a year on training!
James Dyson has always tried to innovate and in his words ‘drastically improve things’. We may never reach his level, but we can learn from these five simple things that he does and apply them to our own lives, whether at home or work to help us to be more innovative.