Recently, at my company, we’ve started the process of going through a transition. Our company has been around for over 30 years, pushing the bounds of technology and providing critical solutions to national security.
However, as the transition takes place, there will be a number of people on our staff who will feel overwhelmed, partly because some struggle with having the right perspective.
We have a part of our company that strives to gain a deeper understanding. They know things really, really, really well (admittedly, these are some of the smartest people I’ve ever had the honor to work with…). However, they have a hard time describing what they know to others or even how to turn what they know into something that might be useful.
We have another part of our company that strives to develop new capabilities. They focus on the people who are interested in what they are working on, and they turn their knowledge into beneficial products that can be easily understood and useful.
Of course, it’s always incredibly important to strive to know more or to create new innovations that do things that have never been done before.
But, for our efforts to have true impact, they need to be geared towards benefiting others. While significant energy can be exerted on gaining new knowledge or demonstrating a new capability or invention, an equal amount of energy is needed to present these new insights into benefits for other people. Otherwise, our initial efforts in gaining the new knowledge might ultimately be lost.
One such example is the comparison between the contributions of British chemist Sir Humphry Davy and those of American inventor Thomas Edison.
By connecting two charcoal sticks to powerful battery technology he invented, Davy demonstrated the capability of using electricity to generate light. Davy had developed many other lamps, including candle-based safety lamps used by miners, but the demonstration of his powerful arc lamp to the Royal Society in 1809 was the first of its kind – a brand new innovation.
Thomas Edison, on the other hand, strove to make the light bulb practical, thus benefiting others. Seventy years later after Davy’s demonstration, Edison took advantage of the rush to create practical light bulbs using a method called “incandescence”, which refers to light being emitted from a hot metal object due to its temperature.
As a result of thousands of attempts on Edison’s part, he created an incandescent light bulb that lasted for 40 hours and then later improved the design to last for over 1200 hours.
Now, by the electrical light bulbs that illuminate nearly every home and office in the world, we remember Edison. In fact, many people think that Edison actually invented the electric light bulb itself, leaving Davy’s contributions, while significant, deep in our collective memories.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard in my occupation that people want to be recognized for their great ideas. They sometimes ask how we’re going to recognize the scientist that comes up with the next $100 million idea for our company. However, (even I sometimes fall into this trap myself…), what I tell my colleagues is that it doesn’t matter how great your idea is, it matters what you do with it.
And what you do with it needs to benefit others. Other people need to understand why your innovative concept or capability will make their lives better.
Your work may explain something that others have never understood before. So, not only should your work provide that answer, it needs to explain that answer in such a way that it’s clear to others.
One way to think about your efforts is to think of what you are providing, and ask: What am I producing or what “product” am I creating that others will find useful?
If your goal is to gain understanding, you need to communicate that understanding to others. The “product” is the understanding AND the communication of that understanding.
If your goal is to provide a new capability, your need to present it in a way that is useful to others. The “product” is the new capability AND communicating the way that others can use the new capability to benefit their lives.
In the end, when you benefit others, others will return the favor and recognize you for your contributions. That’s how to make a lasting impact within the science and technology fields.