Boeing's top exec explores the realities of innovation.

Position:News & analysis - Cover story

Earlier this year, Jim McNerney, chairman, president, and CEO of The Boeing Company, gave the inaugural James R. Mellor Lecture at the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan. Excerpts of that lecture follow.

Long before the Wright brothers invented it, people dreamed of human, powered flight. We know that from the many myths and fables about flight.

In ancient Greek mythology, Daedalus built the famous Labyrinth in Crete--and was later imprisoned in his own invention. Ever resourceful, Daedalus made wings out of feathers tied together with linen threads and fastened with wax. Rising on their wings, Daedalus and his son Icarus escaped the Labyrinth.

But you all know what happened next. Icarus not hearing his father's pleas (or, more likely, simply ignoring them)--soared higher and higher. Soon, the blazing sun melted the wax in his wings and caused the feathers to loosen and fall. Though Icarus continued to flap his arms, they no longer caught the wind, and the poor boy plunged into the sea.

In the language of engineering, Icarus exceeded his thermal limits leading to structural failure and a subsequent loss of control. Ladies and gentlemen, students and members of the faculty, that is the wonderful--but unforgiving--world of engineering!

This morning, I'll attempt to provide a view (and, candidly, it is no more than one man's assessment) of the impact of engineering on the world at large--looking at what has changed, what is changing, and what has remained the same over a long period of time.

In so doing, I will compare the concepts of invention on one hand and innovation on the other. And I will examine a few other myths specifically, modern-day myths about innovation that I believe are relevant to engineering in a business environment. They are my own list of five common misperceptions that can cause even the brightest of minds to become trapped (just as Daedalus was) inside one of their own inventions.

To my mind, the late Jacob Bronowski, who wrote and starred in a television series titled The Ascent of Man, got it exactly right when he said: "We have to understand that the world can only be grasped by action, not contemplation. The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well, and having done it, he loves to do it better."

That's how mankind keeps making progress. We love to invent things--and then make them better. That has not changed. And I don't think it ever will. Another thing that hasn't changed is the love of invention and innovation that impels people to take up careers in engineering. In more than 35 years of working closely with all kinds of engineers, l have never yet met an engineer who did not regard invention and innovation as anything less than two of the principal engines behind both personal and societal growth.

Now let's try to differentiate those two concepts. Both are important--and complementary. But they are different.

To "invent" means to find, or discover. Invention involves major discovery--those "eureka" moments or big, conceptual breakthroughs that, by definition, are few and far between.

Let me relate the legend behind the "eureka" moment itself: When the ancient-Greek mathematician, physicist, and engineer Archimedes got into his bath and saw it overflow, he had this dazzling insight. He'd been puzzling over the problem of determining whether an irregularly shaped object--the king's crown--was made of pure gold. If it was not fake, Archimedes suddenly realized...

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