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  • Writer's pictureRobert Cantrell

Don’t Kill Your Horses

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

July 7, 2022

By Robert Cantrell, Registered Patent Agent

I teach how to accelerate inventing. The title of my book Outpacing the Competition reflects that notion. But I also recognize that the opportunity to invent requires time to mature. You can accelerate inventing, but you cannot force it.

For example, the trend toward electric cars as a substitute for gasoline-powered cars has been underway for decades. Throughout that period, inventors have created ways to make electric cars better, longer-ranged, and more cost-effective to manufacture and maintain. Alongside electric cars is an emerging infrastructure able to support electric cars, and with that infrastructure, another body of inventions. As that infrastructure grows, it, in turn, widens the number of people who can use electric cars and provides more opportunities for inventing. The trend mirrors, in a way, how inventors from the previous century improved gasoline-powered vehicles so cars and trucks could displace horses and carriages. Innovators such as Henry Ford and Alan Sloan accelerated inventing of improved automobiles, associated factories, and infrastructure, much as Elon Musk is accelerating the acceptance of electric cars in the present era.

At the turn of the last century, gasoline-powered vehicles promised reliable travel and streets free from piles of filthy horse manure. People could travel farther faster with these vehicles while carrying heavier loads, and such improvements offered fantastic potential for economic growth. The sooner people adopted cars and trucks, therefore, the better. But the transition took time, one invention setting the stage for the next. Early cars underperformed, the infrastructure needed to evolve, production methods needed to improve, and even with the adoption of Ford’s assembly line, factories would take years to produce enough cars for the population. During that time, no one sought to speed the transition by killing all the horses.

Killing the horses is a heavy-handed strategy that goes by other names: burning the ships, burning bridges, kicking away the ladder after the ascent, or, in Sun Tzu’s lexicon, putting your Army on dangerous ground where soldiers either win or die. The strategy forces people to go forward by eliminating the possibility of going backward or maintaining the status quo. The strategy is bold, it can produce outstanding successes, but it is exceedingly dumb if your path forward has yet to be prepared.

Myriads of reasons exist to accelerate inventing. You have a race to create new solutions, a race to file patents ahead of rivals, and may have set yourself on a race to change the world—hopefully for the better. And while a good enough invention used right now may be better than a perfect invention used next week, moving forward with an underperforming concept can be a disaster, especially if you kill your horses. The best way forward is to prepare the path at due speed where the horse, even in its best form, is no longer good enough when compared to your next new thing. Do that, and your sought change will happen on its own accord.

Keep what works until you have something better. Pace yourself and save the sprint for the end!


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