Book Review: Inventology by Pagan Kennedy


July 2016 | By: Brigitte Muehlmann

Estimated reading time: Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Key Takeaways

  1. Inventology, by Pagan Kennedy, focuses on the first phase of creating new products: the initial imaginative steps inventors take with their minds and hands.
  2. Inventors tend to be individuals with a broad perspective who straddle two or more disciplines, are able to cross boundaries, are interested in solving others’ problems, and enjoy connecting and cross-pollinating.
  3. Inventors boost their imagination capacity by reading science fiction literature, viewing movies and even experimenting with hallucinogens.
Page Content 1

Ray, a speech communication expert, was a highly qualified electrical engineer and computer programmer. He contributed to the development of an operating system and the implementation of self-replicating programs. Then, he got sidetracked. Ray took an interest in symbols and determined that the @-sign was not only underutilized, it also was the only preposition on the standard U.S. keyboard. Inventing a protocol for email addresses was not appreciated at the time because there was no demand for email addresses when the Internet was in its infancy. This was not the best and highest use of Ray’s capacity. Ray’s employer tolerated his behavior. Was Ray working on an important invention?


Inventology, whose author, Pagan Kennedy, dedicated the book to her grandfather, an inventor, explores “how we dream up things that change the world.” Until 2014, Kennedy wrote The New York Times Magazine’s “Who made that?” column, where she introduced the origins of 65 products and processes as diverse as tennis ball hoppers, sippy cups, finger prints, 3-D printers, flip-flops, and speed dating. All these success stories started when their inventors recognized connections that no one had before, and some generated substantial commercial success. The author views these examples as the result of two successful sequential phases–first, invention, then, business innovation. Inventology focuses on the first phase: the initial imaginative steps inventors take with their minds and hands. The examples demonstrate, however, that the faster the process moves from idea to market, through mechanisms such as crowd funding, the sooner the two phases are integrated.

To lay the foundation for her book, Kennedy introduces the late Genrich (also Genrikh) Altshuller (1926–1998), a popular Soviet science fiction novelist whom she considers the father of Inventology. Based on a review of thousands of patents in the 1940s, Altshuller uncovered general principles of successful inventing, which he codified as the Theory for Inventive Problem Solving, internationally known by its Russian acronym TRIZ. Popular in the U.S. only since the 1990s, the theory involves “science fiction-style prediction, cognitive science, and deep knowledge of the way technological systems progress through history.”

Following her belief that we all possess, though few practice, the skills of imagination, Kennedy reached out to inventors whom she had interviewed for her column in The New York Times to learn how they conceived their ideas. Based on this work, together with a review of published research, she identified five kinds of imagination—(1) problem finding, (2) discovery, (3) prophecy and futuristic thinking, (4) connecting, and (5) empowerment.

Problem Finding

How do inventors identify frustrations that lead to big ideas?

Necessity is the mother of invention, as an old English proverb says, and repetition enables an inventor to recognize necessity through the experience of frustration.

Kennedy distills the following characteristics of frustrations that lead to big ideas:

  • People can spend a substantial amount of time experiencing frustration. Individuals may experience daily “nano-frustrations” that last only a few seconds. What matters is not one individual’s time, but the total time that people collectively experience a particular frustration.
  • A frustration reveals a hidden problem that is difficult to detect.
  • A frustration can affect thousands or millions of people in the future, a condition Kennedy refers to as “Martian jetlag.”

Kennedy identified the following problem-finding practices from successful inventors:

  • Ask the community to understand a problem deeply.
  • In order to truly understand other people’s frustrations, immerse yourself into their lives, put your mind into theirs, and open up your imagination.
  • Continue searching until you conceive something useful for a segment of society, not necessarily for yourself.
  • Adopt a mindset of continuous improvement.
  • Observe better and different feedback than everyone else.
  • Find tools to discern the unexpressed desires of an audience.

Tip for the post-invention phase:

  • If you have more invention opportunities than you can pursue, try “Dick’s Book of Dumb Ideas” as used by the inventor of the Sippy Cup. The word dumb allowed Dick Belanger to distance himself from growing too attached to his own ideas for inventions and, instead, to listen to the voice of the community.


How do inventors turn accidents into inventions?

Kennedy explains that discovery is the process of accidental invention, which works in a manner opposite that of problem-finding. These happy accidents, at times mocked as solutions looking for a problem, result from multiple kinds of activities, such as playing and experimenting without asking questions. Some call this process “tinkering,” through which important discoveries emerge.

The author suggests that serendipity plays a role in the creative process when an accident turns into a useful invention. Examples include the Super Soaker toy water gun (invented by a NASA engineer), several biotech products, the copy machine, the Seinfeld show, and the Candy Machine, a repurposed inkjet printer which became the first and unexpectedly fast budget 3-D printer. (The printer’s name derived from its use of sugar as the initial printing medium and the later discovery of Sweet’N Low as perfect print material.) Another sweetener, the increasingly popular sucralose, was identified when a student tasted a compound that his professor had asked him to test. The inventor of the smoke detector solved an urgent social need with his idea to crack the smaller need of reducing static electricity in factories and photography labs.

The Pantone Color Matching System enables standardized color reproduction in the publishing industry. The system, which today contains more than a 1,000 colors, enables perfect matching of a desired color tone worldwide. It relieves designers, ink companies, and printers from the frustrations of custom-replicating colors. Lawrence Hebert, then co-owner of the Pantone printing company, imagined a world of unique numbers for each shade of color. He printed a sample page with painted squares in slightly different shades of orange and added a number to each one, which he shared with ink manufacturers. This sheet of paper became the seed of a system that became a global success story and a multimillion dollar business.

Using numbers instead of alpha-characters avoided translation obstacles and enabled Pantone to become one of the earliest companies to identify and predict color trends globally using data mining. In the Big Data age, there are increasing opportunities to mine large amounts of surplus data. Because waiting for “happy accidents” to happen does not fit well into our time-constrained schedules, efforts are underway to speed up their occurrence with the help of data analytics, which the author calls “engineering serendipity.” Regardless of whether problem finding or discovery comes first, it is crucial to imagine how an invention fits into a future world.

Prophecy and Futuristic Thinking

How do inventors predict the future?

There are timeless practices involved in transforming ideas into inventions. Inventors master “mental time travel”: exploring imaginary worlds and possibilities until a futuristic reality emerges in their minds. Some use “science-fiction prototyping,” such as experimenting with written narratives, films, and cartoons to envision new possibilities. Demo models, however, are considered most effective because they serve multiple purposes, allowing inventors to work with a “real” product, demonstrate proof-of-concept, test effectiveness, and experiment with improvements.

An alternative approach that Kennedy introduces is the “Wayne Gretzky Game,” named after the legendary hockey player, who is said to have been best at skating to where the puck was about to go. Three activities are involved in the Gretzky Invention Game:

  • Imagine the future world in decades and predict the evolution of machines as well as human needs and desires
  • Decipher the kinds of technology that will be needed
  • Bring that technology to life through stories, sketches, and videos

Kennedy also describes various attempts to boost imagination, from reading science fiction literature and viewing movies to experimenting with hallucinogens. To solve social and environmental problems, she suggests designing a parallel system that mimics the natural world, in which people who suffer from the failures of technology are at the center of inventing activities.


How do inventors bring together seemingly incompatible ideas?

Kennedy shares that inventors tend to be individuals who straddle two or more disciplines or fields, and who are able to cross boundaries and share with unlikely partners to help create breakthroughs. These “Go-Betweens” typically have a broad perspective, are interested in solving others’ problems, enjoy connecting and cross-pollinating, and like to perform their own experiments. Such qualities enable them to avoid the traps of ego, adherence to hierarchy and customs, and pursuit of personal gain that often hinder collaboration. The Internet has opened up global partnering opportunities, in which problem-solving marketplaces such as InnoCentive act as brokers. In spite of these opportunities, inventors still need to handle budget constraints and other potential obstacles in order to move from idea to invention; otherwise any idea remains simply a thought, or maybe a sketch on a piece of paper.


How do inventors prevail in the face of ridicule, rejection, and opposition?

Inventors need inner strength to surmount obstacles with courage, fortitude, and perseverance, and those who are employees face various special challenges. Believing that most inventors are in their 20s, corporate leaders tend to offer “invention” opportunities to this age group. As Kennedy learns, however, on average, U.S. inventors reach their peak at 47. When managers assess employees’ novel solutions as too risky and expensive, they can help inventors find creative compromises and thereby allow them to remain in the company. A radical breakthrough may, however, open up a new opportunity in a different industry. An employee-inventor who wants to pursue an invention must find what Kennedy calls a new “zone of permission” either inside the company or elsewhere. Imaginary time travel helps inventors make this decision.

Managers of people like Ray, the inventor in the introduction, may wonder whether with the same firm for 45 years, email addresses were taken for granted, and a large, stylized @-sign was part of the permanent collection in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Having shared her valuable insights about how inventing world-changing products and processes works, Kennedy concludes her book with a call for developing a second, parallel system of invention. Mimicking the human immune system, its inventions would solve social and environmental problems in ways that strengthen the system each time it is attacked. The people feeling the frustrations—from technology failures, injustice, lack of privilege, illness, or other symptoms of systemic disadvantage—would play a central role in coming up with big ideas. This system could help humans “become a more robust species, better able to survive and adapt.”

Illustrative Examples from the Book

Product Ball Hopper
Inventor Jacob Stap
Problem Tennis coach suffered from backache from picking up tennis balls.

He put a tennis ball on the car seat to be reminded of the need to come up with a solution.

He imagined a tennis court in his mind’s eye

He imagined mechanical hand to pick up the balls, but it would be too slow because it could pick up only one ball at a time.

A ball was rolling in the car. He pinched it into the seat next to him, and this brought him to the idea to squeeze the ball through metal bars.

Tool Meditations
When Late 1960s
  Sometimes we discover the power of our imagination only when we feel desperate.
Product Hand-held cell phone
Inventor Martin Cooper/Motorola

Cooper began by imagining a science-fiction future where everyone would walk around with communicators in their pockets and use a phone number that was issued at birth.

He time-traveled into the future by utilizing his imagination like a novelist or movie director.

Time to commercial success One decade
Product Twitter
Inventor Jack Dorsey
Problem Dorsey wanted to be able to announce where he was located and what he was doing, the way the drivers of ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars do, but few of his friends owned a phone on which they could receive his dispatches.
Process He experienced a problem years ahead of everyone else and felt confident that other people would catch up.
Tool 21st century CB radio