Open-Head Innovation: Lessons from the closed-head fire sprinkler system

closed-head fire sprinkler ... now open

closed-head fire sprinkler ... now open

Take a look up at the ceiling. Do you see them?

They’re not something I usually noticed — till recently. Lately I notice them all the time — at work, at home, in hospitals. They’re found on ceilings in buildings in locations that are otherwise hard to reach from the streets, such as large office confines, high-rises, underground dwellings, or houses that are set back from streets. Like my house. They’re called  “closed-head fire sprinklers” — things I’ve recently become intimately familiar with, if not fully understood. And as it turns out there’s a quite fascinating story of innovation behind them.

Here’s how it reared its open head: It was the day after the presidential inauguration. I was home alone in the evening on a rainy night and turned the heater on. Within a half-hour, I heard a BANG and then a great sound of rushing water, and ran out to see that the shed where our heater is was flooding with water. The fire alarm sounded, all our neighbors gathered, and about a minute later the entire local fire department arrived. Though we suspected it at the time, only later did we fully determine that the cause was the closed-head sprinkler, doing its job: “The glass bulb or link applies pressure to a pip cap which acts as a plug which prevents water from flowing until the ambient temperature around the sprinkler reaches the design activation temperature of the individual sprinkler head.” Basically, POP.  Fortunately the shed is outside and the water damage not terrible, and though it’s still a bit of a mystery as to whether there actually was a fire (since all the water took away any chance of that), it’s clear that the fire sprinkler did its thing after detecting an unacceptable level of heat, which is a good thing.

This brings me (naturally) to the question of innovation — especially innovation under pressure.

Back in 1874, Henry S. Parmelee, a piano maker in Connecticut, was not the first to dream up a sprinkler system that could protect property against fire, but it seems he was the first to create a sprinkler that worked. This was key to fueling the passion that drove him around the world to promote it: he clearly understood its value — he made precious pianos and he knew he was protecting them with his system. But he apparently had a hard time convincing others — at first. For one thing, he was touring around evangelizing his system to individuals, yet the system was too expensive for individuals to install. Once he realized he was targeting the wrong audience, he made progress with business owners via insurance companies instead. And he made sure that people with the “right connections” understood the value of his idea, bit by bit expanding his influence. Still this was not enough to make his idea catch on like — um — the wildfire he wanted.

In the end, it was a fellow called Fredrick Grinnell who took the design, improved upon it, and prevailed with a successful, patented invention.

So what is a “good” idea — what’s the “right” idea — and what does it matter? Both Fredrick and Henry apparently knew they had a good idea at the right time — and to Henry, the fact that people did not understand him or his idea was immaterial, since he knew its value himself. And then it was Fredrick who supplied some kind of magic ingredients that made it the “right” idea — making all the difference to the idea’s success. It would not have happened this way had Henry not toured around sharing his idea far and wide. And the result: a flood, a visit from the fire department, and I don’t need to have risked my life or understood the system to know that there’s no question it has saved lives.

As Tim O’Reilly would say, the world’s problems are quite hard at present. We have to make a critical choice to work on “stuff that matters” — but how?

breakthrough innovations don’t come from market research, even from “web 2.0” market research via deep customer engagement. They come from the singular vision of an inventor pursuing his or her own passion, cutting a Gordian knot that others simply accept as “the way things are.”

— Tim O’Reilly, from A Critical Choice Regarding Innovation

“Are we the first generation in many years incapable of true innovation?” the blog goes on to quote. Don’t let it be.

Here’s my point: The pressure has peaked; the glass has shattered; the head is open; the tide is high. Do you have a crazy idea — the idea that changes everything? If you do, chances are you are going to feel very lonely until you set out — and probably during and after, too. But you must set out. Said Joseph Campbell via O’Reilly:  “Each of us, alone, must go off into the deepest, darkest part of the forest, populated by monsters, on a quest to make the world a better place.”

And then you must set your idea free. And that will make all the difference.

PS: Tips on innovation, Henry-Parmelee-style:

  • Live your innovation — is it about something that matters to you? Begin there.
  • Knowing your target audience may be different from knowing your intended customer.
  • Your customer knows what is valuable — and your idea might not look anything like it. E pur si muove!
  • Connections and networks are essential to expanding your influence — yet still they alone don’t make the difference.
  • Maybe you can’t be the one, in the end, that breaks your idea through. Someone in the end may take your idea and improve upon it. Or you may take someone’s idea and improve upon it. Is that stealing, flattery, or the result of some kind of virus as common as the cold? In the end, do you really know whose idea it was to begin with? In the end, does it matter, if it’s a better world for our children and our children’s children because of it?
  • Ergo: If you love something, set it free. My preschooler knows that the hardest thing to learn is the thing that changes everything: You must share.
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