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Inquiry, Discovery,
Invention, and
Personal Experience
of Technology
Generation and
Transfer in
Engineering and
Scientific Research
nderstanding and developing one’s
ability to do successful research
requires a commitment. It’s about
continuous adult learning and ongoing involvement in understanding
the process of inquiry, discovery,
invention, and innovation. To achieve these objectives a learning and research process framework is vital. Integrating these
frameworks into the research paradigm allows us to enhance
the personal research and learning process. This is the personal,
Today’s created environment is one result of the human discovery, invention, and innovation process. It is based on millions of creative insights deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. This unique knowledge-generating, transformational
Leadership and Management in Engineering
process is constantly at work in human life. Today it is the
essential work of engineering and scientific research. The focus
of this article is the inner, personal experience of this remarkable and sometimes mysterious process. Inquiry, discovery,
invention, and innovation are four distinct phases of the technological change process. Inquiry generates from a curious
state of mind about a segment of nature or reality. Questions
are asked. Answers are sought. Discovery involves finding a
new understanding about an aspect of nature. Behavior is
newly comprehended. Material is newly generated or transformed. Invention uses this understanding to create a new way
developed. Innovation broadly disseminates and distributes
this new way of working or functioning to the greater society.
People begin to work in new ways. New wealth is created.
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Only on very rare occasions does the same person making the
discovery create the invention or distribute and popularize the
highly specialized talents that are needed to achieve success in
Through our intelligence, education, and energy each of us
learns, more or less, how to make our way in the world. Like
every other sector of society science and engineering rewards
the human combination of energy and intelligence, particularly if it is used to support the policies and institutions of the
scientific and engineering world. But what if your intelligence
and energy generates new ideas? What if you are an engineering and scientific boat rocker? What do you do? What’s
important about the science and engineering viewpoint? Can
The worldview of science is a way of looking at and explaining the world. It has captured the imagination of millions
of people in every culture for over four hundred years. Today
it co-opts and dominates nearly every other explanation of
the micro- and macrouniverse. The particular academic,
ideological, political, religious, or secular persuasion doesn’t
matter; whenever a position is being advocated, people
usually feel a need to invoke scientific validity to establish its
truth. From health to environment, from species evolution
to economics, from psychological understanding to spiritual
experiences, scientific validation is the key common ingredient that is openly sought to validate an ideology or a worldview.
But what is the world—the universe—really like? The
truth, and you may find this hard to accept: we really don’t
know for certain. We only know what we experience—the
light, the sound, the odors, the energy, the tastes; and we
know how we conceptualize our experiences so we can think
about it. Science is one process for validating, explaining, and
understanding our conceptualized experience. In the validating process science uses experiments, mathematical formulae, laws, principles, theories, and conceptual relationships to
define and predict future experience. But science itself does
not discover new understandings, invent new technology, or
innovate in the marketplace. Only alive, curious, aware human beings can inquire, discover, invent, and innovate. So if
you’re a person who is interested in new ideas and inventions
you’ll need to develop some additional tools so you can better deal with and understand yourself, the world of science
and engineering, and the marketplace.
Most of the time we interact with our world in habitual
ways based on past, learning, concepts, and experience. We
see and experience what we were taught and learned to see
and what we expect to see. We solve problems with the
usual tried and true approaches or with a few, minor variations of these methods. We define, model, and bound our
problems within limited parameters of rational thinking
using familiar words, metaphors, and historical solutions
such as scientific, games, ladders, races, travel, survival of
the fittest, don’t-rock-the-boat, relationships to or analogies
with the human body or nature, brainstorming, etc. But,
occasionally, as humanity and society progresses on this journey of inquiry, discovery, invention, and innovation, our understanding of reality and truth is expanded. When this happens new metaphors emerge like machines, vehicles,
computers, programming, chaos, self-organizing systems, or
even strings. This is the journey of inquiry, discovery, and
New understandings invite us to change both our way of
doing and of being. But, primarily due to our past successes,
we are challenged by change. We develop familiar, ingrained
behavior patterns that define a successful everyday and functional life in the world, and we find it is hard to change our
ways. Most of our daily experience continues to be predictable and determined by our past knowledge and experience.
We usually forget that our familiar ways of conceptualizing
reality are the direct result of our prior education, training,
and past experience. For example, it is due to our training
and experience as scientists and engineers that we think like
scientists and engineers. This holds true for artists, lawyers,
doctors, writers, teachers, etc. We sometimes call this silent,
mutually agreed upon behavior the “reality consensus.” But,
why don’t we just learn to think differently? Well, it’s
mainly because thinking differently takes a special ingredient. That ingredient is one of the tools you’ll need to identify
and cultivate if you wish to be a person who generates new
Since the beginning of what we now understand as human
time people have been making discoveries. From the making
of fire, to Archimedes eureka, to the discovery of penicillin,
new ways of understanding the world and the cosmos were
evolved or discovered by curious people. They were using the
creative inquiry process. This process generated the “ah-ha!”
insights and flashes of understanding. Discoveries are made
by people who are curious about the new and novel and
dissatisfied with the status quo. These are people who are
curious and who ask old questions in new ways and who ask
new questions. Inventions are created by curious people dissatisfied with current methods and means of working. These
are people who seek something more than an incremental
refinement in the usual way of working. And, innovation is
spawned by dissatisfied people looking for new opportunities
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behind doors believed by most people to be closed. As you
will read in a later section, even the basic methods and philosophy behind modern science was an innovative discovery
made by a dissatisfied young person challenging the status
Just what is the experience of insight? When we have a
breakthrough experience, we rarely consider the nature of the
experience itself. Our attention and awareness are so captured
by the conceptual content of the breakthrough that we usually overlook the nature of experience itself. But the particular underlying nature of each unique insight experience can
also point us to a new ingredient—something different
about our mind, our presence, and our inner processes of
learning and knowing. This ingredient points to new ways
to interact with, experience, and understand our world.
The personal ability to deal with the unknown, to make new
discoveries, and to experience and understand reality in new
ways can be developed and enhanced. This personal growth
process is tied directly to developing a more refined sensitivity to the physical, intellectual, and emotional experience of
our familiar world. Cultivating these refined abilities necessarily means expanding our range of experience. This finetuning can only happen if we can learn ways to enhance our
human experience instrument to receive a wider range of
inputs. In today’s world, you could say we’re looking for
ways to upgrade our personal-experience-processing program. It not only means having new experiences and but
also learning new ways of experiencing the familiar world we
know and see. Developing a more refined physical, intellectual, and emotional experience may include:
• New physical experiences via learning new ways to move
your body, like a new dance; or a new physical activity or
sport like juggling or golf; or a new body movement technique like Feldenkreis or yoga; or learning how to see the
world in a more refined way by taking a drawing class;
• New intellectual experiences via learning to write poetry,
studying metaphor, language, and communications to understand and find new metaphors and concepts for describing our personal experience of reality, or learning to
consider nonlinear systems and use integral note keeping
and information management techniques; and
• New emotional experiences via learning to expand inner
awareness and curiosity, taking a creative writing class, a
silent meditation retreat or guided visualization workshop; or taking up a personal journaling discipline.
For most adult people, particularly scientists and engineers, such new learning pursuits may be scary prospects.
Since these are soft, touchy-feely subjects, and not physically
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real like chemistry and physics, they usually get dismissed by
the technical person as unworthy of pursuit. But if we are to
learn to experience and think in new ways about our world it
necessarily must involve more subtle interior learning and
Another major reason we resist these subjects is new
learning makes us confront an anxiety-producing inner state
called “not knowing.” Now that we are educated and successful, we don’t like the idea of feeling ignorant. But on
some deeper intuitive level we know it is only by this process
of experiential learning that we can make new brain connections and enhance our personal development. In order to
understand the world in a new way—a way that is different
from the past and different from the ordinary knowledge,
experience, and information in our personal memories—it is
necessary to find new, more refined, and subtle approaches to
experiencing the world and reality. We need to see it, feel it,
or hear it differently fro our usual ways. The story goes that
to find a new way of understanding light, Einstein rode
around the universe on a beam of light in the inner world of
his imagination. Not the usual experience of sunshine.
Now some new experiences are riskier than others. The
experiences being pointed to here are empowering and permanent educational experiences that generate unique and
new personal freedom and options. So let these qualities
guide your choices.
Here is a down-to-earth, personal example of what I mean
by new experiential learning. Once, when I was just beginning my engineering career, I was taught an interesting lesson in refining my ability to see the world. The engineering
firm I worked for won a contract to inspect several bridges.
Ned Ashton, a prominent, Iowa State University structural
engineering professor and bridge engineer, was a friend of
our firm’s president. He was able to engage Ned to advise
and assist us on the bridge inspection contract.
One day while Ned and I were standing down stream
looking back at a multispan bridge Ned said to me, “It looks
like this bridge has some serious settlement at the second
pier from the south end.”
From my limited-experience viewpoint, I was quite surprised and asked, “How can you tell that without doing field
Ned said, “It’s not that difficult. You just need to know
what to look for. Follow along the top of the handrail with
your eye and you’ll see what I mean.”
Sure enough there was a clearly visible dip at the second
pier in the top of the otherwise flat handrail.
When we look, we don’t see everything before us. We see
what we expect and think is in the scene before us. Mostly
we see reality as it is bounded by our familiar words, symbols, and concepts, but not the full range of reality itself.
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Seeing more is part of the researcher’s challenge. It is also
another reason why learning new ways to be in and experience the world are important to our ability to inquire, discover, invent, and innovate.
For a mature adult, one of the keys to effective continuous
learning is having an appropriate conceptual framework and
method to generate and connect new knowledge. Such a
conceptual framework is vital to understanding new processes, information, data, or ideas. Adult human learning and
development is potentially an endless process. To be most
effective and to access it in a new way requires an operational
framework. One thing we do know is people learn when
new things are happening to them, when they have new
experiences. However, we don’t usually have a way of explaining the process by which we encounter new things or
generate new experiences. These experiences are often left up
to the vagaries and varieties of chance. But they can be more
deliberate choices.
One particularly effective metaphorical explanation for
human learning uses the relatively recent scientific understanding of self-organizing systems. New knowledge of selforganizing systems or dissipative structures, as they are
known in the world of chemistry, won a Nobel Prize in
chemistry for Belgian/Russian Ilya Prigogine in 1977. This
understanding basically states that when a functioning,
self-organizing system in a state of equilibrium is disturbed
by some external influence, at first it tends to become chaotic. Then, at a later point in time, because it is selforganizing, the system begins to generate a new and interactive level of complexity, sensitivity, and functioning that
includes and transcends the external disturbance. The selforganizing system internally evolves a new state of equilibrium. And this new state can result in the development
of unpredictable, new, more complex, and refined patterns
of a system’s functioning and behavior. Doesn’t this sound
like a good description of how we, as human beings, learn
something new? It’s been adopted as a metaphor by many
social scientists to explain the process of human growth and
In the individual person, this type of self-organizing behavior usually occurs with new experiential learning, but it
can also happen occasionally with purely intellectual learning
experiences. New and experiential learning results in more
complex behavior. And it can generate new options for inquiry, discovery, invention, and innovation. With it can
come new ways to approach our daily experience of the
world in work and in life.
Becoming and being a normal adult means our human
operating system is relatively stable. So for most adults, selforganizing system changes occur in us only when we expeOCTOBER 2007
rience radically new knowledge. This happens when we find
ourselves in a totally new situation where we don’t know
what to do, like starting or loosing a job or experiencing the
loss of a loved one or a spiritual awakening.
For young children and adults the operating system is a
state of continual flux. This self-organizing change in equilibrium is one reason why the first grade is so scary for a
six-year-old, why high school is so traumatic for a teenager,
and why college is so challenging for a young adult. It’s not
just the reading, writing, arithmetic, and new ideas that are
so challenging; it’s the added experience of major personal
change and transformation taking place at each of these
times in our life. Young people are leaving behind their old
self and new people are being born almost on a moment-tomoment basis.
But don’t panic. You don’t have to create an earthquake
in your life to learn something new. A new and focused
approach to adult learning for people in the scientific research and development process doesn’t have to be as dramatic or radical as the journey from childhood to adulthood.
However, it does require intentionally introducing new, selective, and experiential disturbances.
During our careers as young adults we experience learning disturbances as a normal part of our world. We accept
change as another part of living. These experiences include
graduation, new jobs, relocating in a new city, getting or not
getting the promotion at work, a failed relationship, new life
commitments like marriage and family, travel and unexpected success or failure in work and life, and much, much
more. Each of these experiences challenges us to re-selforganized at a new, more complex state of behavior. This
state includes the new knowledge and understandings of the
most recent disturbance experience. As we get older and gain
more experience these challenges become less frequent but
they never completely disappear. To be alive is to change and
grow. Only the velocity of change seems to decrease as we
Self-organizing systems with an introduced disturbance is
our foundation framework metaphor for the human learning
process. With it we can begin to explore a particular intellectual challenge faced by the scientific and engineering researcher. To be effective in research and the discovery of new
knowledge one must simultaneously know and not know. Why is
knowing and not knowing such a challenge, perhaps the key
challenge, in the world of inquiry, research, discovery, and
innovation? Before we address this question, let’s briefly look
at a part of the history of science.
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Birth of Modern Science
This is a story about the birth of modern science. It is an
accepted historic fact that on November 10, 1619, while on
winter bivouac during the French Thirty Years’ War with
Germany, a French soldier in his early twenties named Rene
Descartes had three dreams that were to create the basis for
what we know today as the scientific method. A significant
aspect of this historic event was the inner attitude of the
young Descartes. We are told that after the usual schooling
and two years of law school he basically rejected the educational paradigm of his day as inadequate and bankrupt for
individually learning the truth about the world and reality.
The learning and education of Descartes’ day was based
mostly on memorizing what the Catholic Church and the
Romans and the Greeks thought was true. Descartes had a
deep inner thirst for knowledge and truth. He had a burning
curiosity about finding what might be a better, more verifiable, and personal method for learning the truth. Without this
interior intellectual posture of both knowing and not knowing
and not accepting the current knowledge paradigm, it is
unlikely Descartes would have achieved the breakthrough
insights and understandings contained in the three dreams.
Each day, we take Descartes’ earthshaking insights for
granted, along with the major global and scientific infrastructure his dreams spawned in academia, government, and
Today, we know that each human being is potentially a
continuous learning organism—actually, a self-organizing
continuous learning system. From our beginnings we had
to learn how to use our bodies, and, with much thanks to
Descartes, our rational minds, intuition, and creativity so we
could function in the world. Humans do continue to learn,
transform, and grow in knowledge and development
throughout their life.
However, as we have observed, most people find a comfortable intellectual place and state of development. In this
place they know a great deal about a particular segment of
reality and so they stop or dramatically slow down real experiential learning. They then work to keep the status quo at
that comfortable level of development. In this place they
consciously and unconsciously carefully avoid any real change
and/or radical new learning disturbances and work to stay in
control of their life experiences. But as the earlier description
of a self-organizing system implies, we can only truly learn
when we are challenged or disturbed from our comfortable
and established view of life and work by some problem or
Descartes lived in chaotic times in his society. He was
actually at war, perhaps the most chaotic of human events,
when his breakthrough insights occurred. In addition, for
people of his time, there was a taboo against personal inner
learning 共i.e., learning anything for yourself兲. If it wasn’t in
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the Greek and Roman classics or approved by the Church, it
was taboo. Today we have actually adopted a similar perspective with regard to the knowledge generated by science and
some contemporary cultural, social, and political positions.
How often do we hear people say that if something isn’t
proven scientifically then it’s not valid? And this actually
means that if the experience in question isn’t based on and
verified by a knowledge system that was literally “dreamed
up” four hundred years ago, it’s not okay. And, yes, science is
one valid methodology for validating, explaining, and understanding performance and defining predictable behavior in
natural phenomena. But science is not how we inquire, discover, invent, and innovate. The generation of new knowledge requires something else to happen within the consciousness of a human being. Then, when we discover the
new thing, we can use the principles of science to help us
validate and understand our new knowledge.
Systems and Chaos
In the self-organizing model we can characterize humans as a
system of systems. As such, humans generally respond to the
principles of systems theory. The principles of systems theory
offer us another supporting framework that can help us further understand the use of learning disturbances in the creative inquiry process. One systems principle rooted in
Prigogine’s discovery is “a complex, self-organizing system
begins to evolve when it gets disturbed from its ordered way
of operating.” This causes the system to move away from its
usual ordered state and toward a less ordered, more chaotic
state. The system is moving away from the ordered state
toward the boundary between order and chaos. Another systems theory principle is that an ordered system tends to
evolve as it approaches the ordered side of its boundary between order and chaos. It is important to face the challenges
of a problem or conflict where we don’t know all the answers. In this place our human organism learns best. In this
place of known ignorance, we know and accept that we do
not know. This is the interior intellectual posture of not
knowing and knowing but not accepting the current paradigm as the only way of approaching the issue we are considering. It is a key inner ingredient in the inquiry, discovery,
invention, and innovation process—the mental posture that
is the Descartes state of mind.
Basic Learning Processes
Normally we learn in two primary ways: 共1兲 we learn by
sensually experiencing reality from some new, unfamiliar
perspective; and 共2兲 we learn about reality through new concepts, analogies, and language. These two ways of learning
are sometimes referred to as real/concrete learning and
theoretical/symbolic learning. Both are considered rational
cause and effect methods and result in more information,
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data, and understanding about existing things and processes.
Both these learning methods work like algorithms and generate the information and ordinary knowledge that is then
stored in our memory capacity.
Another observation from the systems perspective is that
a seemingly unsolvable problem in one system usually has a
solution in the next higher system. This characteristic is frequently experienced in family, social, and organizational system contexts. For example, when a rule or policy challenges
a particular behavior or condition, the next higher system 共in
this case the rule-making authority兲 can generally resolve the
situation. This understanding is also at play in other more
creative methods of solution generation. This systems principle can be a way of explaining the role of creative insight
into an apparently unsolvable problem from a current state
of ordinary knowledge, experience, or performance.
When we have an “ah-ha!” experience we experience
learning by seeing from the perspective of a higher knowledge system. So this is another way of learning. This ability
to have insights and intuitions is a third category of learning
sometimes called direct or intuitive insight. This third way is
metarational approach and not directly cause-and-effect generated. It is different from our usual life activities and more
rational ways of learning. This method seems to tap some
unknown part of our own consciousness or perhaps some
greater logos that is connected to the situation or challenge
we are working to understand. This direct understanding
usually results in new knowledge and a new understanding
of reality for the observer, and sometimes, as with Descartes,
for all of humanity.
So how do we deal with the basic research challenge of
both knowing and not knowing? How do we develop
greater understanding of it and cultivate our ability to have
insight and function within it? To apply this new learning
process of experiencing new knowledge and insight we require another conceptual framework. This framework
bounds and defines the scientific research process. And that is
where we turn now.
The Question behind the Challenge
The research challenge begins with an unusual question that
can be phrased something like this: “How can I begin to
learn what I don’t know about this problem?” Acquiring the
habit of asking this question and listening for a spontaneous
response can bring us to a new mental place, and potentially
a new lifestyle place. Asking this question doesn’t mean that
you forget what you know; rather, in asking this question,
you open the possibility of learning something new. Actually, habitually and repeatedly asking this slightly confusing
question can bring one to a new way of being in the research
world. And it is in the act of asking this question that we
further introduce the new ingredient and begin to change
how we are. When we inquire we are present in a different
way than our usual awareness. This brings us to the first
stage of the process.
Stage 1: Research, Inquiry, and Information
To stimulate the ability to invent and innovate it is necessary
to find ways to experience the unknown. This means we
inquire—we cultivate the inner posture of curiosity. We seek
questions, challenges, and problems. A famous playwright in
the last century said, “Creativity is the capacity to see what’s
there.” Another question worth asking is, “What is here that
I’m not seeing?” Frequently we look but do not see the
amazing breadth, depth, and diversity of a particular scenario. We dismiss many experiences in life with a “been
there done that” attitude when all we’ve done is barely
scratch the surface of the experience. By understanding the
experience conceptually or by knowing one way to do what
needs to be done we think we know all about it. One demonstration of this behavior is to think of several uses for a
paper clip or a toothpick. You’ll be surprised that after six or
eight uses people usually get stuck. Or you might try to
think of more than one way to observe deflections at a bridge
When you get stuck, if you are lucky, someone may show
you how to see more of what’s there in the picture 共like how
I learned to see the bridge pier settlement兲. Mentors and
teachers can be found if you’re willing to look for and engage
them. A vital discipline for researchers is continually expanding our curiosity and experience of the world and watching
and learning how we react to new scenarios. This discipline
is essential to expanding the ability to discover and generate
unique creative output.
Asking new questions and expanding our learning experiences takes work, time, and money. That may be one reason why many people resist learning new material. If it
sounds like you might have to make some choices and perhaps even make some sacrifices to achieve this new level of
creative output, you’re right—you do. True education always
requires paying tuition. Expanding our unique talent and
ability requires us to grow and change. It is one of life’s
truths that you can’t keep doing the same thing over and
over—behaving, functioning, and thinking in the same
way—and expect things to really change or be different.
That’s on reason why real learning is scary and most adults
aren’t willing to do it. As a child at birth to when you begin
school and on through college and graduate school you don’t
usually have much choice in the matter of learning. When
you were young, to learn actually meant growing up—to
change as a person. This is one reason your children always
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seem to be questioning you about the world you have created for them, why they sometimes seem to challenge your
authority, and why they seek out new experiences. But
things start to change after we’re grown up and have been
out in the world for a few years. Then we are making some
money and acquiring some cultural positioning and personal
and financial power and security and pleasure. At this point,
real change and learning is not as easy—it’s risky and challenging to our circumstances. When it comes to making
choices, even though the risk may be small, we usually
choose the undisturbed pleasure of staying in the same old
patterns of behavior rather than the potential pain of learning
something really new.
So here we have another view of our research challenge
and one of the many personal barriers to our creative
output—it is our adult, ingrained, automatic, cultural
mindset against genuinely new learning and experience. As
we age we only want to “learn” through the relatively painless conceptual methods of books, words, and other communications media. As we get older traveling to a foreign country may be all 共by way of radical new experience兲 we are
willing to tolerate. But when we’re young and striving we
don’t usually act so cautiously. We’re curious, we question,
we’re more fearless, we have less to risk. A young person is
going somewhere both on the inside and the outside.
So remember: making the kind of change needed to expand our inner abilities doesn’t mean starting again from
scratch. Working on a new challenge, particularly one that
will cause us to grow and evolve, can be one of the great joys
and adventures of life. Using some of your time each day to
expand your talents is a discipline worth cultivating. And
your money? What is it for if it isn’t a means to help you
along life’s journey? Frequently, it is the fear of our personal
unknowns that usually holds us back. Curiosity and change
challenge our perceived security, survival, and social position.
But sometimes we don’t have a choice—our destiny brings
us new change, knowledge, and experience.
Stage 2: Incubation
Once our courageous curiosity has generated some new information inputs our inner processor must digest the new
experience. Because the action of incubation is a lot like
“stopping” what you’ve been doing, it looks like we are giving up, or even worse, not working. In the modern world
with all its multitasking, self-esteem training, motivational
methods, and sports metaphors, just hanging out or looking
like you gave up is not an acceptable cultural option. But
human beings possess an internal, inborn ability to integrate,
synthesize, and bring together recently acquired knowledge
in new ways. It is not a rational process. It is metarational—
above or higher than rational and somewhat mysterious—
because we don’t know exactly how it happens. We do know
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that to function effectively this process needs some quiet
time away from the usual mental thinking process. This
internal incubation process adds to the research challenge.
When we incubate our new information and data with our
previously acquired knowledge and experience, it appears, by
the usual standards of society, that we are not doing anything
productive. From the usual expectations of managers and
supervisors, the act of incubation in the process of discovery,
invention, and innovation can look like laziness. This is another one of the cultural barriers we face as research scientists
and engineers. This doesn’t mean that incubation is lethargy
where no work is being done. However, it does mean that
we step away from the particular task, give it some space,
and perhaps move on and even begin some new task. In
some new ideas the incubation period has gone on for years.
The researcher just keeps returning to the problem from
time to time when something reminds or motivates him. In
these moments you see if you can observe something new or
find something specific that you hadn’t considered.
Keystone of Discovery, Invention, and Innovation
Stage 3: Synthesis
This is the “ah-ha!” experience. It’s what most people think
about when they think of creativity. Almost everyone has
had some form of the “ah-ha!” experience—the spark of a
new idea, the insight, the revelation that resolves a problem
or conflict with new understanding. Remember its symbol?
It’s the light coming on—enlightenment. The word “brilliance” is often used to describe these flashes of insight and
In the process of research 共the verb兲 and creative inquiry,
we uncover a variety of what appears to be disparate pieces of
information and data. Initially, we do not see the preexisting
underlying thread of unity that connects these elements of
our knowledge. It is this thread that emerges from the darkness in the “ah-ha!” moment. As we work to hold the disparate knowledge elements generated by our inquiry in our
consciousness, it is the metarational action of our inherent
brilliance that eventually reveals the underlying connecting
thread. When this happens we experience the flash of insight, expansion, and spaciousness of the “ah-ha!” experience.
With this new knowledge we are then energized to take the
next steps in the discovery process.
People don’t usually remember much about the “ah-ha!”
experience specifically. This is usually because they are focused on the content of the insight. The objective of the
research was to reveal a new understanding—to find the
underlying thread of new knowledge and resolve of problem
or conflict. But this new understanding is only a part of
the inquiry, discovery, invention, and innovation process, and
a relatively small part at that. Make no mistake—it is an
Leadership Manage. Eng. 2007.7:141-150.
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essential ingredient and a vitally important part. But to
the unattuned mind insights can be fleeting. Many inventors
familiar with the process know they have had good ideas
and have forgotten them. This was a synthesis they failed
to capture in the momentary flash of light, mainly because
their awareness was taken over by another new thought or
The synthesis part of our creative engine has a type of
automatic pilot. It’s always working. It takes a certain inner
atmosphere of awareness and presence to capture the output
of insight, and that’s why we sometime miss it or fail to
capture the insight. The “ah-ha!” usually comes about when
we are present and aware and in a quiet mind state. Such a
state of consciousness is a rarity to modern man with the
elements of modern culture competing for and attracting our
attention and with our own inner enculturation processes
dictating and directing our awareness. Cell phones, PDAs,
computer games, text messages, and media of all types vie
for our attention on a moment-by-moment basis.
Our normal consciousness is a stream of words, thoughts,
concepts, and ideas including judgments about the past and
plans for the future. Without a way to cultivate a quiet mind
through meditative or contemplative mindfulness exercises,
we have to be particularly alert to be attuned to the synthesis, insight, and illumination experience. You also require
specific ways of capturing its output. Carrying a notebook or
voice recorder or PDA can work quite well, if it is used for
this purpose. When you are working on a tough problem,
it’s also important to pay attention to your dreams and to be
alert when you’re in the shower. Take quiet walks alone and
ride alone in the car without your earplugs and your tunes.
Many insights and illuminations are born in these relatively
quiet, singular, common environments. The very act of inquiry and curiosity brings with a unique state of presence
and awareness because inquiry can only take place in the
current moment, in a more focused state of presence and
Something else usually happens automatically when the
“ah-ha!” experience occurs, and this can be a major barrier to
discovery, invention, and innovation. Habitually, because of
our enculturation and education, we begin to critically judge
the new insight based on our previous knowledge and experience. If we are not careful in this judging process we can
discard new knowledge without giving it a chance to fully
emerge. And that leads us to the next step in the discovery,
invention, and innovation process.
For most researchers who work in the research, development, demonstration, and deployment paradigm, the illumination experience is like a graduation scenario. However,
it is important to remember that graduation is a commencement and not a conclusion. Perhaps you’ve heard before that
real change in inquiry, discovery, invention, and innovation is
10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. What I
have discussed up to this point has been the 10-percentinspiration portion of the process—the is the inquiry and
discovery portion. What remains is the 90 percent—the real,
nonintellectual-world work—in the invention and innovation portion.
Manifesting the Idea in the World: Development,
Demonstration, and Beginning the Work of Invention
Stage 4: Verification
When we make a new discovery and invent something truly
new, there are frequently no words for it. Our first steps are
to find familiar words, experiences, and metaphors that can
explain the insight. This is part of validating and testing the
insight. How does it fit into our current reality? A first question is whether or not we can we model it with concepts.
How does it fit into the paradigm of our current field of
knowledge? Can we model it physically with a small-scaled
version or using a computer or model simulation? Every
successful inventor does this modeling and simulation in one
form or another.
If these small-scale tests of the idea are successful, the next
step is a bigger test. Can we make it fully real—a full-scale
demo? Scaling is one of the great problems and challenges in
science. Frequently when we scale up from a laboratory
bench model to a full-scale version the characteristics of the
idea vary disproportionately and create new challenges. For
example, the characteristics of a discovery or invention may
not vary linearly, but may vary geometrically—instead of the
impacts doubling as we double the size, they can quadruple.
The complexity of working at the full scale can increase exponentially in ways we can’t immediately foresee. For example, when going to full scale it’s usually necessary to involve new people in the process of creating the full-scale
demonstration. This involves a further refinement of the
communications aspects of a new idea. In this modeling and
scaling up or in the actual market-size sample of data, we
validate, verify, and refine the new knowledge and discovery
of the basic insight.
These actions of verification and validation are how we
bring the inner concept of the “ah-ha!” into the world of
reality. And as we describe it, we literally birth it by speaking it into being. This scaling up step is how we get from a
good idea to a real-world invention. It is why an important
act in the art of inventing is called “reduction to practice.”
You can now see why verification is one part of the perspiration process; it involves real, experiential work. It can’t be
done purely intellectually. And even though computers can
now model and simulate a wide variety of ideas, concepts,
and systems, their models are only as good as the limitations
of their programming. Computer models can save time and
money but they are not a substitute for the real-life, full-scale
Leadership and Management in Engineering
Leadership Manage. Eng. 2007.7:141-150.
field demonstration. Beta tests almost always bring new information. One major reason is the full-scale field version
involves the new idea interacting with other people and
other parts of the world.
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Deployment in the Marketplace and Building the Work
of Innovation
Stage 5: Implementation
This is the last step. It’s where innovation in the world takes
place. Today this work is known as “technology transfer.”
We are transferring the idea from the special circumstances
of the one-of-a-kind lab or field unit to the multiple versions
that are necessary to serve society. This is an arena that many
intellectual organizations like research labs and universities
find unusually challenging. Deployment of a new idea
means that it must become a success in the market place.
Decisions on new ideas in the market place are business decisions. To achieve acceptance the new idea must have the
potential to be a business success. To be a business success a
new idea or technology in any field must be marketplace
validated. Marketplace validation is another process that involves the realities of economics and common use. A business decision maker will decide in favor of the new idea if
and only if it meets all the marketplace validation criteria.
For the invention to be a success in the marketplace the
following validations are vital in achieving a successful transfer from the lab or full-scale field test to the production
• Equivalency: For the engineering and technical validators
the invention must effectively demonstrate its equivalence
to or exceed the performance of the current methods or
products and not instantly create more problems than it
• Functionality/Usability: For the worker, user, or craftsperson who must use the invention it must be acceptable
to them by making them more productive, be at least
as easy or easier to learn and use than current methods,
and be as safe or safer than the existing methods or
• Economic Value: For the owner/buyer who must pay for
the new technology it must be competitively priced, more
productive, and/or otherwise more economical than
the current methods or products; be able to work within
the current paradigm without making it instantly obsolete and worthless; and for investors, the invention
must be able to produce a suitable return on their
If the invention can demonstrate that it meets these criteria then it can begin to take its place in the world of
the marketplace and people will begin using the new technology. This validation process is a small part of the work
Leadership and Management in Engineering
and perspiration that must be exerted to get to the final
implementation. There is still much more work to do,
however. Many different people play a part in this implementation step—entrepreneurs, lawyers, accountants, financiers, bankers, investors, consumers, craftspeople, clerical
workers, engineers, marketers, salespeople, contractors, executives, managers, supervisors, manufacturers, publishers,
reporters, and many others. A major challenge in implementing an invention is for each one of these people, in their
own way, to understand and approve of the invention. Then,
and only then, will it achieve the status of an innovation in
the marketplace.
All this work can be viewed as another continuous activity in the process. To achieve the enduring success of innovation in the marketplace, at each step along the way the
invention idea is being reviewed and improved by the inventor and many others. The craftspeople and users of the idea
are very important in the improvement. They can and do
have a very powerful role in the technology transfer success
process and the validation of the new idea. Workers’ jobs
depend on their productivity and they will not use a product
that does not make them more productive workers. Providing useful improvement feedback demonstrates the workers’
ownership and buy-in to the invention. The user’s okay is
vital to any new process or inventions success in the marketplace. This work of improving the invention is also the ongoing foundation for new challenges, problems, and research.
It seems all of our current problems were generated by the
solutions to problems of an earlier age. These new problems
generated by the new invention are the source of the law of
unintended consequences. If you are thirty-five-years old or
older, think back about the development of the computer
and the Internet. You will see all of these technology transfer
process steps at play.
Our science, ideas, inventions, processes, and designs
must ultimately satisfy not only our engineer colleagues but
the whole spectrum of humanity. These are the people who
work in the global marketplace. If we do not awaken to this
larger picture, we will continue to think we know the reality
picture when in truth what we know and understand is a
very small piece of that picture. This awakening allows us to
accept that in one way we are always like one of the blind
men trying to describe the elephant by feeling for its parts.
In this inquiring posture, we can embark on the journey of
learning something truly new by beginning to understand
what it is we do not know.
Almaas, A. H. 共2002兲. Spacecruiser inquiry, Shambala,
Almaas, A. H. 共2006兲. Brilliancy, Shambala, Boston.
Austin, J. 共1978兲. Chase, chance, and creativity, Columbia
University Press, New York.
Leadership Manage. Eng. 2007.7:141-150.
Samuel G. Bonasso, P.E., F.ASCE, is an inventor
with four U.S. patents. He is a consultant, writer, and
adjunct civil engineering professor at West Virginia
University. He has served as West Virginia’s secretary
of transportation and as acting director of Research
and Special Programs Administration for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Downloaded from ascelibrary.org by New York University on 05/17/15. Copyright ASCE. For personal use only; all rights reserved.
Bonasso, S. G. 共1982兲. “Can we become more creative?”
Civil Engineering, 53共1兲, 70-72.
Bonasso, S. G. 共2001兲. “Engineering, leadership, and integral
philosophy.” J. Professional Issues in Engineering Education
and Practice, 127共1兲, 17-25.
Harman, W., and Rheingold, H. 共1984兲. Higher creativity, J.
P. Tarcher, Los Angeles.
Prigogine, I. 共1980兲. From being to becoming, Freeman, New
Leadership and Management in Engineering
Leadership Manage. Eng. 2007.7:141-150.
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