As a 28 year old PhD graduate in 2001, I had no idea how to “invent” something, much less file for a patent. Almost 20 years later, I’m now the inventor/co-inventor of over 2,000 US patents and over 2,700 worldwide. In 2019 alone, my inventions were responsible for 347 US patents. Odds are your somehow interacting with one of my inventions if you do online banking, online shopping by using credit cards, use an ATM or use most government services like going to the DMV. That’s because the backbone of those activities are mainframes. In the heart of a mainframe there are semiconductor chips made with semiconductor technologies to which I and my co-inventors have contributed.
So what changed for me 20 years ago? It was the moment I met Jack Mandelman, a now retired IBM engineer, who at the time became one of my greatest mentors. Jack always reinforced the notion that inventors are made, not born, and anyone could come up with a new idea if they just allowed themselves to shift their mindset.
This concept stuck with me over the years and as I went from mentee to mentor, I realized I had acquired a framework for invention that transcended the lab.
I’ve spent a lot of time dissecting what that mindset shift looked like for me. There are some lessons here for any inventor or entrepreneur with a good idea. I like to think of them in three different areas:
See opportunities, not obstacles
No one can be truly successful if they let roadblocks deter them – and during the invention process there is no shortage of roadblocks. One of the ways inventors see the world differently is by keeping an open mind when problems arise. It’s easy to get hung up on obstacles and to think they are a fixed part of life, but inventors see obstacles as a way to put their skills to use. Redirecting frustration caused by challenges into excitement at the opportunity to find something better is the root of all invention.
Of course, that doesn’t mean every invention needs to be a major breakthrough. Instead, it helps to look at minor inconveniences and ask yourself what doesn’t quite work. This creates a solid foundation to build an innovative solution.
While I use specific tools for my inventions — math, physics and chemistry — the real spirit of invention is curiosity. With curiosity I find opportunities for improvement. Leaders use different tools such as timesheets and budgets, but they must also learn curiosity to find inventive solutions to problems they face.
The 1+1 > 2 effect
When I file a patent application, I am rarely the only named inventor. There are commonly three to four other people on my patents that deserve credit as well.
This collaboration exists not just because the work is long and difficult, requiring many hands to share the load, but also because each team member brings a new perspective to the problem that ultimately helps us find a better solution.
I like to say collaborating with other inventors you can achieve the “1+1 > 2” effect. For me, that has resulted in several hundred inventions that I know would not have been possible without the unique and different perspectives my colleagues brought to the table. As an example, Ali Khakifirooz, my top invention collaborator, has quite a different background and view from what I have. Together with other talented collaborators, we can snowball multiple inventions by simply seeding from a single problem statement, thanks to the different approaches from different people even for the same problem.
Every leader needs to work with others to be effective. By surrounding yourself with different viewpoints and experiences, you will hear ideas that would never have occurred to you. However, these new ideas can only be effective if others are willing to listen to them. A leader needs to keep an open mind and ensure that people have an opportunity to share their perspectives.
Make peace with rejection
Invention is very rarely the result of a eureka moment; it takes a lot of work to bring an invention from a first idea to reality. Sometimes it has taken 10 years or more for one of my inventions to be included in a product, assuming it makes it into a product at all. About 70% of inventions never even get used, which can be discouraging to a young inventor.
Inventors have to be willing to put in the work beyond just coming up with an idea, and they need to be able to deal with rejection. When I first started my career, the first three ideas I presented to our internal review board were rejected and I nearly quit. But my mentors, Jack Mandelman, Rama Divakaruni, Carl Radens and Louis Hsu, helped show me how to work through and present ideas in a way that got them through the review process. It’s important to keep a tenacious attitude towards a project. Small failures don’t mean it will never work; you may just need a different approach.
One way to help remain persistent is to break down a big project into achievable segments. This way the project does not seem overwhelming and each step brings you closer to the final goal.
The inventor’s mindset has been key to my work finding and creating new technology, but it can help anyone who faces challenges on a regular basis. This way of looking at the world invites curiosity and continuous learning. It is rewarding but also useful. And the best part is that anyone can adopt this mindset by changing how they look at the world.
Dr. Kangguo Cheng is an IBM Master Inventor and currently holds the record as IBM’s most prolific inventor. He is a Lead Engineer of IBM Systems Research at Albany Nanotech, where he is currently focused on hardware-based artificial intelligence research.