As the leader of a nonprofit organization focused on accelerating the transition of ideas from the research laboratory to the marketplace, I’m fascinated by great innovations. Those innovations contain great lessons for those of us in the business of ideas. One of my favorites is the story behind the invention of Teflon™. Teflon is the third slipperiest substance in existence – even geckos can’t climb it. But for all of Teflon’s non-stickiness, there are some great lessons on what makes great ideas sticky.
On April 6, 1938, Dr. Roy Plunkett and his assistant, Jack Rebok, were in the laboratory actively working on ideas for new forms of non-toxic refrigerants. One of the samples they were testing didn’t behave as they expected. When they opened the valve to the cylinder containing the new refrigerant, the cylinder wouldn’t empty. They cut the cylinder open and found an unexpected white, waxy substance. That unexpected substance became Teflon and is, almost 80 years later, still the basis for a market with annual revenues of more than $1 billion.
What can we learn from Dr. Plunkett’s sticky non-stick idea?
Sticky Ideas Aren’t Loners – And They Aren’t Alone
Dr. Plunkett wasn’t pursuing a single idea. He wasn’t even pursuing what would later become Teflon. He was pursuing a clear objective, however. In his quest to identify a non-toxic refrigerant, he evaluated dozens of different chemical compositions. Taken as a whole, these experiments created the environment for a sticky idea to emerge. Successful nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs and business people know that real magic happens when an organization has its eyes firmly fixed on clear objectives, while fostering an environment that encourages lots of divergent thinking and contrary views. They also know that ideas aren’t ever really alone. Somewhere, someone is thinking about the same challenge, the same market space, or the same customers.
Sticky Ideas Aren’t Ideas for Long
In our current innovation culture, we sometimes put too much emphasis on the value of ideas. Unfortunately, ideas don’t magically identify themselves and transform into things of value. Did you catch the description of what Dr. Plunkett was doing? He was “in the laboratory actively working” on an experiment. He wasn’t sitting in his office thinking deep thoughts, writing papers or theorizing. He was in the mix, working, translating a scientific idea into reality. From that energy came his happy accident. Sticky ideas come from translational development, not passive thoughts.
It Takes a Village to Raise a Sticky Idea
When the properties of Teflon were better understood within The DuPont Company (Dr. Plunkett’s employer), responsibility for the substance was transferred to chemists with greater experience in polymer development. Too often, nonprofit leaders and entrepreneurs resist bringing new people into their business. While that is understandable, it almost always results in frustration or failure. The best leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, and surround themselves with people who supplement their skills. And, when the time is right, those same leaders know that turning the reins over to someone else, whether on a project, an event, or a great idea, may actually be the path to success. By the way, Dr. Plunkett was promoted within DuPont, and became a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1985.
What can leaders of nonprofit organizations learn from Dr. Plunkett’s accidental development of Teflon? As leaders, our greatest contribution should be in the creation of an environment where great ideas can flourish; we should always lean forward, knowing that action and progress is always better than mere contemplation; and finally, know your strengths, and when others can take a great idea forward, further and faster.
Have a wonderful year, filled with sticky great ideas!
Scott Koorndyk is President of The Entrepreneurs Center (www.TECdayton.com), a technology commercialization accelerator located in Dayton, Ohio. For most of his career, Scott has focused on intellectual property management, technology identification and development, and early-stage capital investments in diverse for-profit and nonprofit businesses. Scott has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) from the University Of Dayton School Of Law, with a concentration in Intellectual Property law. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is reprinted from Vol. 3, No. 1, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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