April 10th, 2018

Applied Futurism: Lessons from Dyson to Musk

When it comes to product innovation, a few designers stand out for their disruptive inventions and insatiable drive to keep pushing the envelope. In 1987, James Dyson introduced the first vacuum cleaner to use a cyclonic dust separator, dramatically improving the vacuum’s performance. Thirty years later, Dyson has brought his revolutionary thinking to hand dryers, fans, heaters, and hair dryers, growing his business into a $3-billion appliance powerhouse. Now Dyson is working on an electric car.

Of course, you can’t talk about innovative futurists and electric cars without mentioning Elon Musk. His staggering innovation repertoire not only includes online payments (PayPal), electric cars (Tesla), and space travel (SpaceX), but also solar roof tiles, artificial intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, and even underground tunneling. Starting 5 ventures in the last 5 years, he appears to be speeding up, not slowing down.

So, what is it about Dyson and Musk that set them apart from typical business leaders and blue-sky dreamers (besides their engineering brilliance)? I did some research and found some key traits any savvy product developer could apply to raise the bar of disruptive innovation within his or her industry.

Innovation Happens at the Intersections

Technology experts today are hyperfocused within their field. It takes decades of study and practice to become an expert in any manufactured product industry. Not surprisingly, many of these experts develop a sort of industry myopia: deep knowledge and experience within their field, but relative ignorance of the advancements being made in other industries.

James Dyson did not start his career as a vacuum cleaner engineer. He was just a curious guy. And frustrated that his vacuum suffered a steep loss in performance as the dust bag filled up. He took his Hoover Junior apart and discovered the problem: the sides of the dust bag had become clogged with dust long before the bag filled up, limiting airflow and suction power. It wasn’t until he observed an industrial dust collection system at a factory several years later that he had an epiphany. The system used a massive cyclonic dust separator to spin the dust out of the air, without the need for filters or bags. Could this technology be scaled down and applied to a vacuum cleaner? More than 5,000 prototypes later, he had his answer. Dyson knew enough about vacuum cleaners to know why they sucked (not in a good way), but he also maintained a broad, cross-industry curiosity that enabled him to recognize a possible solution in an unrelated field.

Successful Futurists are Driven by More than Profit

If Elon Musk’s goal was to get rich, he would have stopped innovating a long time ago. When he and his partners sold PayPal to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion, he pocketed $180 million after taxes. Sixteen years and several billion-dollar-businesses later, it’s clear he’s not working to pay the rent. When TED’s head curator Chris Anderson asked Musk what drives him, he said his vision with Tesla is to “reduce global warming through sustainable energy production.”  Pretty lofty for an automaker! And what does he hope to achieve with his artificial intelligence and space travel businesses? Nothing short of the salvation of humanity.1

You don’t have to reach for the stars (literally anyway) to give your business a greater purpose. But you do need a mission that inspires you and your team to keep pushing. James Dyson’s driving purpose is relatively simple, but no less ambitious: apply engineering principles to solve problems and make the world better.2

Many of the manufacturers we work with at BOLTGROUP have vast technical expertise and experience in their industry, and have enjoyed success as a result. But as they look to the future and wonder “what’s next?”, perhaps they should cast their gaze outward for inspiration, and also look deep within. Only then will they find the higher purpose that will drive them to succeed and change their world.



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