Getting Better Is Messy

oscar pistorius blade runnerDo you know who Oscar Pistorius is? He’s a South African sprinter who has no legs; he uses prosthetics to run. These prosthetics are special because they don’t look like a normal foot, instead they look like a blade; which is why Oscar is called the Blade Runner.

Anyway, Van Phillips is the inventor of the Flex-Foot Cheetah; prosthetics used by paralympians like Oscar Pistorius.

Here’s a sample of his story:

Inspired by the C-shape of a cheetah’s hind leg, Phillips developed an initial design and began building a prototype. He searched for lightweight, durable, strong materials that also offered energy return. He settled on carbon graphite; with help of aerospace materials engineer, Dale Abildskov, he refined his prototype, testing hundreds of models himself.

The final design included an L-shaped foot; this shape gave the material a “heel.” When the wearer applied weight to the heel, it acted like a spring, converting the weight into energy as the wearer pushed off with each step. This meant the wearer could run and jump, just as he or she could with a real foot.

As soon as Phillips completed his design, he quit his job to work full time on the project, founding Flex-Foot, Inc., in 1984 with Abildskov and two other partners. His products were tested shortly thereafter by athletes at the Paralympics; popularity soared immediately. Phillips’ invention or some variation of the original Flex-Foot design is now used by some 90 percent of Paralympian athletes and by many others who can now enjoy more active lives as a result of his work.

Phillips idea took around 10 years to develop. He combined three ideas to come up with the design: the C-shape of a cheetah’s hind legs, an ancient curved chinese sword that was strong and flexible, and a diving board.

With the challenging times in the aerospace business, he created between 200 and 300 prototypes, most of them broke the first time he put weight on them but he continued improving them until he got it right; he was failing forward.

So what’s the takeaway?

Innovation is the opposite of predictable, it’s messy.

Being creative and innovative means that you’re going to try many things that don’t work. You have to develop prototypes that aren’t right and try approaches that bomb before you get to the combination that works. If you get your feelings hurt or throw in the towel because your first iteration was truly awful, you’re not going to be able to free yourself to be truly innovative.