Inventions by women

When organisations, countries or individuals don’t grow and change, they stagnate, decline and eventually die. Here are some amazing inventions that have helped us all. And they’re all inventions made by women.

  • Some of the telecommunications technology developed by physicist Dr Shirley Jackson in the 1980s and 1990s include the portable fax machine, the touch tone telephone, solar cells, fibre optic cables and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Dr Jackson is currently president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university and one of the top 50 universities in the United States.
  • Marie Van Brittan Brown invented closed-circuit television security (CCTV) in 1969 to help people ensure their own security and to counter the slow response of police officers; this invention influenced modern CCTV systems used for home security and police work today.
  • In 1965, Stephanie Kwolek invented kevlar, the life-saving material that is more than five times stronger than steel and used, for example, in bulletproof vests and as a replacement for steel in racing tyres.
  • Residential solar heating, invented by Dr Maria Telkes in 1947; Dr Telkes was a psychiatrist as well as a solar-power pioneer.
  • Hedy Lamarr (the world famous film star) and co-inventor George Anthiel invented a secret, wireless transmission technology, patented in 1941; it was used during World War II for radio-controlling torpedoes and paved the way for everything from Wi-Fi to GPS.
  • Dr Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist, invented COBOL, the first user-friendly business computer software system, in 1940. She was also a rear admiral in the US Navy and the first person to use the term ‘bug’ to refer to a glitch in a computer system – she literally found a bug (a moth) causing problems with her computer.
  • Alice Parker invented a gas powered central heater in 1919, the first to use natural gas to heat a home; it was never manufactured but it did inspire today’s central heating systems.
  • The modern electric refrigerator was invented by Florence Parpart in 1914; she also created an improved street cleaning machine.
  • Elizabeth Magie invented a game she called the Landlord’s Game in 1904 to expose the injustices of unchecked capitalism. Charles Darrow saw the game and sold it as his own invention to Parker Brothers 30 years later, who called it Monopoly. Parker Brothers later paid Elizabeth $500 for her game.
  • The medical syringe that could be operated with only one hand was invented by Letitia Geer in 1899.
  • Margaret E Wilcox invented and patented the car heater in 1893; she also invented a combined clothes and dishwasher (which goes to show that not all inventions take off).
  • The fire escape was invented and patented by Anna Connelly in 1887.
  • Josephine Cochrane invented the dishwasher in 1887; she even marketed it to hotel owners and opened her own factory (without the help of a man!)
  • The life raft was invented by Maria Beasley in 1882; she also invented a barrel-making machine that made her very rich.
  • The machine that makes square-bottomed paper bags was invented by Margaret Knight in 1871; she almost didn’t get credit when Charles Anan tried to steal her work, claiming it wasn’t possible for a woman to create this brilliant invention. Margaret Knight also invented a safety device for cotton mills when she was 12 years old, an invention still used today.
  • Nancy Johnson invented the ice cream maker in 1843; her patented design is still used today.
  • The computer algorithm was invented by Ada Lovelace, who is essentially the first computer programer due to her work with Charles Babbage at the University of London in 1842; her notes were essential in helping Alan Turing’s work on the first modern computer in the 1940s.

And last but not least:

  • Beer: According to Beer Historian Jane Peyton, Mesopotamian women were the first to develop, sell and drink beer!

Building a culture of trust

Do you want to build a culture of trust in your team? Here are eight neuroscience-backed ways to do just that. The eight behaviours below  aren’t just common sense; they also release neurochemicals in peoples’ brains that build trust and other good things like engagement, job satisfaction, loyalty, motivation and productivity.

  1. Say thank you and show your appreciation. This works best just after someone reaches a goal or does something you want them to keep doing.
  2. Set clear and specific goals that are challenging, but make sure they’re achievable. This generates moderate stress that releases neurochemicals that help people focus and that strengthen social connections, helping people work well together.
  3. Let people work in their own way as much as possible. Knowing how to do a job and deciding how best to get on with it is motivating and promotes innovation. Bringing the team together to use the learning cycle in an after action review often leads to continuous improvement, too.
  4. When you can, let people select the projects they work on. That way, they work on what interests and inspires them most, leading to job satisfaction and high performance.
  5. Keep people informed about the organisation’s goals and strategies. Unless people know they’re working for an organisation that has its act together, their stress levels increase and their ability to work as a team deteriorates.
  6. Build relationships with your team and help them build relationships with each other. They don’t all need to be best friends, but they need to know each other as individuals to work well together and they need to care enough about each other that they don’t want to let their teammates down.
  7. Help team members develop personally and professionally. The best performers are well-rounded people, so show consideration for their work-life balance or work-life blending and don’t work people so hard that they have no time for personal rest, recreation and reflection.
  8. Don’t pretend you know everything. Ask for help when you need it; it’s a sign of a secure leader whose main aim is to perform well and help their team perform well.

As you can see, these eight behaviours aren’t difficult or even particularly time consuming. You can find out more in the Jan-Feb 2017 Harvard Business Review in an article by Paul Zak called ‘The neuroscience of trust’.

Do you kaizen?

Kaizen: A new religion? Speed dating?  An extreme sport? No. Kaizen is a Japanese word that means ‘continuous, incremental improvement’. It’s about doing lots of things just that little bit better. This is smart, because it’s a lot cheaper, easier and faster (and still very effective) to do 100 things one per cent better than one thing 100 per cent better.

Here are four ways you can kaizen:

  • Regularly review your performance. Whenever you do something, especially something you do a lot or something that’s important to do well, get in the habit of reviewing what you’ve done and how you’ve done it to see what you can learn from it. Whether you’ve done it well, poorly or in between, think it through. What exactly did you do? What were the results – How well did it work? What can you conclude from that? How can you use that information to do it even better the next time?
  • Take responsibility for making the changes in yourself or your surroundings that will help you do things better, cheaper, faster or smarter, or more easily, reliably or safely.
  • Watch how others do things to see what you can learn or adapt from them.
  • Think creatively and innovatively.  There is probably a better way and a different way to get the same result or a better result. But you need to search for it.

Here are some great questions to ask to help you kaizen:

  • How can I do this BETTER?
  • How can I do this EASIER?
  • How can I do this FASTER?
  • How can I do this MORE ECONOMICALLY?
  • How can I do this MORE SUSTAINABLY?
  • How can I do this MORE SAFELY?
  • How can I do this MORE RELIABLY?
  • HOW ELSE can I do this?

Innovation Nation

Antibiotics from bread mould, light bulbs, the PC and refrigerators were all scoffed at. The doctor who realised that washing your hands before an operation would prevent spreading infection and keep patients alive was laughed out of town. It takes the same brave soul who first ate an oyster that it takes to innovate. And yet, without innovation, an organisation, society or country withers away.

The government has put national innovation high on its priorities and even set aside $9.7 billion to encourage science, research and innovation. So I thought we’d take a look at how we can all become more innovative and increase our own and the country’s prosperity and productivity.

For the most part, new ideas don’t suddenly pop into our heads, although there’s no doubt that chance favours the prepared mind. Recall Isaac Newton: He observed an apple falling to the ground, or possibly onto his head, and into his mind popped the idea that the earth’s gravity can also attract a larger and further away object (the moon). A sudden realisation, yes, but only after Newton hat spent several years working on the mathematics of how the earth could attract its orbiting moon.

But mostly, new ideas are built on knowledge, applying idea-generating techniques and then refining and applying the best ones.

There are many innovation techniques we can all use to become more innovative in our personal and working lives. One way is to look at a product and figure out how to make it better, faster, more reliable, easier to make or to use, cheaper to make or to use, or safer to make or to use. Or work out how to remove the need for it altogether and replace it with something different. Or how to use it in a completely different way. Or how to combine it with another product to form a brand new product.

You can do the same with a process or a service by examining the steps you go through to make something or offer the service. Work out how to do it better or more quickly, easily, economically, safely or consistently.

Or you can pick a problem and work out how to stop it occurring in the first place or how to deal with it quickly and easily when it does occur. Or you can change the way you frame it and think about it to help you innovate your way out of it. Every problem is an opportunity to innovate.

Another way to innovate is to take the basic concept of an existing product, process or service and apply it to another product, process or service. You can talk to your phone to send message or to phone home. What else could you talk to so it’s easier to operate? Your calculator? Your TV? Your radio? Henry Ford first saw a production line in a meat packaging plant and applied the concept to car making and is credited with ‘inventing’ the assembly line.

Or may be you could combine two products to come up with a brand new product. Combining a camera with a pilotless plane gives you a drone that takes photographs, checks out bush fires, flies along pipelines to spot leaks and potential leaks, and all sorts of other applications.

That’s just a few of the many ways to innovate. The trick is to prepare your mind, get started and make innovation a habit.

Changes in the business environment and how they affect you

I was asked the other day how trends in the business environment are affecting managers. Where to start …

Business complexity is increasing exponentially, so understanding the big picture and using systems thinking are becoming more important. Risks are increasing, too, so you need to know how to build a sound risk culture to protect your organisation and its assets. And the pace of change is quickening.

Each of these three factors mean that you won’t–you can’t–always know the answer. Many problems you face and will face are new and many are unpredictable. You probably can’t do what you’ve always done, or even what you did before in a similar situation that worked, because so much will have changed in the meantime.

This means you need to be good at problem solving and coming up with unique and unexpected solutions to problems and situations, ways to meet customer demands, and ways to respond to a changing marketplace. This has three implications:

  1. You need to know how to ask the right questions, questions that help you explore and analyse situations.
  2. You need to know how to apply the scientific method and use data so you can get a good grip on situations.
  3. Learning to think in scenarios is probably a good idea.

New and disruptive business models, share price volatility and diminishing corporate profits may all put your organisation at risk. Therefore, you want to protect your career and see yourself as ‘Me Inc’:

  1. Develop solid, wide and deep networks.
  2. Build a professional image (on social media, with your professional bodies and networks, in your organisation, with suppliers and customers, etc.).
  3. Keep your skill base up-to-date.
  4. Broaden your experience base.

Organisations are likely to increasingly move to capabilities-based competition: creating value and competitive advantage through capabilities in processes rather than through capable functions. We’re likely to see more strategic alliances, too: collaborating with non-competitor organisations to combine strengths to produce a better product or service. And the supply chain is becoming more important.

These three factors mean:

  1. Big picture and systems thinking is important. Get in the habit of considering the upstream and downstream implications of every your action and decision.
  2. You’re likely to find yourself working in cross-functional teams, so hone your people and team-working skills.

Cheap wages are moving from China to Cambodia, Eastern Europe and South America. This means you can benefit from polishing your cultural intelligence, learning about other cultures and learning to work, virtually and actually, with people from other cultures.

Employees and the way they work are changing. Baby Boomers are moving out, Generations X and Y are taking over and Generation Z is entering the workforce, making it age-diverse as well as culturally-diverse and life-style diverse. People’s motivations for working, what they want from work and how they work are vastly more diverse than was the case even 10 or 15 years ago.

The changing workforce means we’re seeing more team-working, more flexible working and more virtual working. Jobs themselves are changing: we’re seeing more cross-functional team work, as mentioned above, more projects and more fixed-term contracts. We’re seeing roles, more than jobs–roles are looser and more open, not as prescribed and rigid as jobs.

This means the way you lead and manage people is changing. Here’s what I think is really important:

  • skilful leadership
  • skilful communication
  • engaging with team members in terms of motivating and coaching
  • flexibility in your management and leadership style
  • clear, logical thinking informed by an understanding of the big picture issues of the environment you’re operating in externally and internally.

Since industry isn’t spending a lot of time and money on learning and development, you’re probably left to your own devices to keep upgrading your skills and knowledge. All while being, no doubt, mind-bogglingly busy in your day-to-day role. A big ask.

This means applying the learning cycle is a good idea, lest you get caught up on the treadmill and fail to improve yourself, your performance or your work procedures.

How to not lose your job to a computer

Digital disruption seems to be the buzz-word at the moment. Technological leaps are enabling entrepreneurs and innovators to develop new and unexpected business models (think, for example, Airbnb and Uber). The number of jobs at risk of being automated is astounding (up to 5 million by 2030 in Australia alone, according to Australia’s Future Workforce report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia), while other jobs will soon need job holders who know how to work effectively (interface?) with computers.

Artificial intelligence. Automation. Advanced robotics. Digital technology and the Internet of Things. Redefined business models and jobs. Pretty mind-boggling yet, as the Prime Minister would no doubt say, very exciting.

Research by McKinsey & Company indicates that existing technologies can automate 45% of the work done in the UASA and a further 13% can potentially be automated. Australia’s Future Workforce report estimates that nearly 40% of today’s jobs in Australia are at risk of being automated and turned over to computers; worst hit is predicted to be jobs in regional and rural Australia, where more than 60% of jobs are set to be swallowed by computers.

And it isn’t only the routine jobs and tasks technology is set to swallow up. By adapting current technology, computers can take on many of the more predictable tasks of highly-paid knowledge workers such as executives, financial planners, ‘techies’ and doctors.

Mental processes such as remembering and making decisions, can be transferred to computers, microchips and networks. Richard Samson, writing in The Futurist, calls this automation ‘off-peopling’. Electronic intelligence, he says, already does a lot of the mental work that accountants, administrators, bank tellers, corporate planners, farmers, middle managers, product designers, salespeople, secretaries and soldiers used to do.

But there is still work that we can do and enjoy, provided we hone and use our non-programmable ‘hyper-human’ skills like caring, communicating, creating and taking responsibility. And provided we learn to innovate and create – products, processes, business models – it matters not what, as long as it’s viable, we can put those skills to work in jobs that electronic systems can’t perform now or any time soon.

Since computers don’t get bored and let their attention wander, they’re generally better than us in defined, predictable, repetitive and structured work. But we’re better than computers at hyper-human tasks that involve emotions, imagination, sensory perception and social skills and decisions that need intuition as well as logic and fact. These are prized abilities in some workplaces of today and probably most workplaces of the near future.

Many of these jobs are waiting to be created. You can do that by transforming and upgrading your current job so that it really benefits from your human skills. A good place to start is by letting go of last-century thinking about a job as functional activity, since these are the ones automation is taking over.

Use your skills to build relationships with colleagues, customers and suppliers. Stay alert to what’s going on around you so you can notice problems and fix them, find opportunities and work out ways to make the most of them, and prevent mishaps and mistakes.

Honour your commitments. Innovate new and improved ways of working by making tasks and processes easier, cheaper, faster or safer to do, or result in greater reliability or improved quality. Small adjustments here, little tweaks there, all add up to making you an invaluable employee.

Learn to work collaboratively in virtual teams, especially virtual project teams. Or build your skills so you’re indespensible to a process-based team (rather than a functional team).

You can also learn to work in tandem with computers (called ‘augmented intelligence’). Instead of being replaced by a computer, you’re supported by a computer in your analytic, creative and decision-making efforts. The computer supplies the raw data, options and conclusions and you do what the computer can’t – use good judgement to make the final decision. To do that, you need the thinking and judging skills to filter a deluge of information.

Okay, now that you’ve waded your way through the backlog of post-Christmas administration, what is the most important step you can take in the next five days to protect your job and your career from digital disruption and advanced robotics?

(This is longer than usual but hey, it’s important – it’s your future.)

Diamonds from the sky

Carbon nanofibres. Extremely tiny; submicroscopic, in fact. Extremely strong. Very valuable. But what would you do with them? We’ll come to that in a minute.

Carbon nanofibres can be made using the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change and global warming. Wow, imagine pulling huge chunks, for want of a better term, of this nasty greenhouse gas out of the sky and transforming it into strong and highly useful material. The mind boggles.

‘We calculate that with a physical area less than 10 percent the size of the
Sahara Desert, our process could remove enough CO2
to decrease atmospheric levels to those of the
pre-industrial revolution
within 10 years.’
Stuart Licht, PhD, leader of the George Washington University research team

But wait — there’s more. Carbon nanofibres are really cheap to make — hundreds of times less than the value of the carbon nanofibres produced, a ratio to be more than proud of. The process, developed at George Washington University, uses only a few volts of solar-generated electricity mixed with lots of carbon dioxide. (You can read more about the process here.)

And this is not the future. Scientists can do it now. But back to our earlier question: What do you do with these carbon nanofibres? Well, if you’re into building airplanes, cars or submarines, it keeps them light but strong. Or if consumer products is more your thing, they’re really handy in high-end sports equipment like racing cycles. Or maybe your organisation is in the sustainability industry itself, in which case, you might be interested in using carbon nanofibres in wind turbine blades.

Technology has advanced more in the past 30 years than in the past 2,000, and great leaps forward can bring unexpected and unimagined benefits. We just need to keep thinking and keep innovating.