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New Company Perfects the Science of Inventiveness

The fact is that most great discoveries come from sideways thinking. To wit, a hitch with the Hubble space telescope was fixed when a NASA engineer took a shower in a German hotel and repurposed the design of the shower head. Likewise, Alexander Graham Bell borrowed his idea for the telephone from the human ear. Sideways thinking is the bailiwick of Innovation Accelerator, a startup company that creates software to help companies solve their worst nightmares, design their best products, and create their brightest inventions in a scientific, systematic, effective way. The whole point of Innovation Accelerator is to organize ineffectual brainstorming into a perfect storm of inventive ideas. Along the way, Innovation Accelerator uses sideways thinking to inspire a lot of problem solving, meeting of the minds, and glitch busting.

Innovation Accelerator is the brain child of Tony McCaffrey, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for e-Design of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The CEO of the new startup is MIE alumnus James O. Pearson, president of J.O.P. Consulting.

“Everyone wants innovation,” says Pearson. “But what is it and how do you get it? Innovation Accelerator brings science to the art of innovation by defining it and devising software to achieve it.”

Innovation Accelerator’s first product, its Analogy Finder software (http://af.innovationaccelerator.com), is based on a simple observation: Most creative breakthroughs arise through analogy, which is just another word for sideways thinking.

McCaffrey likes to use the example of an actual ski company that was struggling to stop the “chatter” in its skis and keep customers from careening out of control. After a long and fruitless process searching for solutions, the company stumbled upon the metal grid used by violin makers to stop an analogous problem, the vibrations in violin strings. The ski company adapted this analogy to its own field and triggered an avalanche of good vibes on the slopes.

The world, in effect, is one huge incubator for what McCaffrey calls “analogous solutions.” No matter what problem you're trying to solve, the Analogy Finder software will psych-out analogous solutions by hunting through patent databases, research libraries, and other sources just slightly out of the box.

Indeed, before earning his doctorate from the UMass Cognitive Psychology Department, McCaffrey began finding analogies while working in an analogous field. "I was an elementary school teacher for several years," McCaffrey says. "With all these ideas bubbling around in my brain, I gave my students a steady stream of puzzles and observed carefully when they were getting stuck. After doing this for several years, I had this burgeoning theory about strategies for getting people unstuck when they’re struggling to solve a problem.”

Later, McCaffrey quit his teaching job and took his new theory to UMass. There, in effect, he became a Doctor of Analogy when his theory evolved into his successful doctoral dissertation, entitled “The Obscure Features Hypothesis.”

“My dissertation was based on the idea that any innovation is built upon something that is commonly overlooked, therefore obscure,” says McCaffrey. “If it were obvious, it wouldn’t have been overlooked.”

McCaffrey’s Obscure Features Hypothesis led to a systematic, step-by-step approach to overcome a wide range of cognitive obstacles to invention. It also led to Innovation Accelerator.

Looking at more than 1,100 modern and historical inventions, McCaffrey analyzed how successful inventors overcame various cognitive obstacles to uncover the obscure information needed to solve problems. He found that almost all innovative solutions follow two steps, as articulated by the Obscure Features Hypothesis: first, noticing an infrequently-seen, obscure feature; and, second, building a solution based on that feature.

After McCaffrey erned his doctorate, UMass MIE Professor Sundar Krishnamurty invited him to join the MIE’s Center for E-Design and put his Obscure Features Hypothesis to work developing a toolkit of problem-busting techniques that became the foundation for Innovation Accelerator.

“Our first product is based on one of these techniques,” says McCaffrey. “Analogy Finder is grounded on the idea that 90 percent of solutions aren’t really new. Many of them are built upon solutions that are beyond your field of endeavor.” They’re not really solutions from out of left field; more like out of short left field, where the bloops and Texas Leaguers fall in for hits.

McCaffrey tells the old story of the guy who invented reinforced concrete for skyscrapers and highways. He got the idea at the Paris Exhibit of 1867, where a gardener had made stronger flower pots by embedding mesh inside of them. Now, our whole highway and building infrastructure is embedded in that analogous solution.

“The key to Analogy Finder,” says McCaffrey,” is that it can find solutions for something else that you can adapt to your own needs.”

Now Innovation Accelerator is trying to reinterpret the whole invention, R&D, and problem-solving process for any company. Meanwhile, publications such as The Atlantic, The London Guardian, and the San Francisco Chronicle have printed articles and editorials on McCaffrey’s research, and Innovation Accelerator itself has been covered in blogs operated by Scientific American and the Harvard Business Review.

As McCaffrey summarizes his research, “Everyone has tried brainstorming, but the evidence is that it doesn’t work well. So this innovation process I’m developing is sort of the next generation of brainstorming that has less guesswork and more science behind it.”

Typical brainstorming, then, is really just a synonym for mind cramping. The job of Innovation Accelerator is to uncramp your mind while turning your best brainstorms into a cloudburst of creativity. (June 2013)