Creative Genius? Rubbish! 
by Malcolm Macpherson

Creativity is a work of lonely genius, right? 

Stickyideas’ Director of Infectious Enthusiasm Peter Kaufman says “The idea for this site hit me on the 3½ minute ride to work.” We’ve all had great ideas while standing in the shower.

So isn’t that how it usually happens? The garage inventor: Click, on goes the light bulb – yet another great idea. Well, actually, no. And if it did, wouldn’t that be a bit capricious? A bit random? 

If your organisation needs a continuous flow of new ideas to compete and survive, aren’t the ride to work and the shower just a tad unpredictable? Sure, great ‘bolt of lightning’ ideas can and do come thundering out of the blue. But would you, should you, bet the company on bolts of lightning?

Turns out, you don’t have to. Andrew Hargadon and Robert Sutton have spent the last five years studying businesses that innovate brilliantly, and they’ve got some good news (Harvard Business Review, May-June 2000). The best innovators aren’t lonely geniuses, AH and RS say, they’re people who can take an idea that’s obvious in one context and apply it in not-so-obvious ways somewhere else. And the best companies (this is the good news) have learned how to do it again and again – how to systematize that process.

Knowledge brokering is the name given to the people and organizations that collect and re-work old ideas. It’s not a new process, of course – steam engines were used to pump water in underground mines for 75 years before Robert Fulton tried one for propulsion and invented the age of the steam boat. 

The process of managing innovation – the knowledge brokering cycle – has four steps: capturing good ideas, keeping them alive, imagining new uses for them and testing the best to gauge just how useful they are.

Capturing good ideas
If old ideas are the best source, then knowledge brokers need to be organised about where to look for them, how to look, and what to look for. Engineers at product design firms like IDEO Product Development of Palo Alto, Ca, noodle endlessly with anything they can lay their hands on – napkin containers, digital cameras –  and field trip to unlikely places – The Barbie Hall of Fame, an airplane junkyard – in search of old ideas that might spark something new.

Keeping ideas alive
Collecting the stuff is one thing. Remembering where you put it is quite another. It seems bizarre, but IDEO engineers keep boxes of cool things, from glow-in-the-dark fabric to silver-plated walnuts, collected over the years (and curated just like museum pieces – documented on the firm’s intranet), and constantly play with them. The head curator (head curator!) of this ‘idea library’ calls branch offices every week to track who’s been playing with what, and to keep the collection records up to date.

Imagine new uses
Why is it that the best ideas seem so simple: the threaded socket that holds light bulbs, designed by an Edison inventor after screwing the cap onto a kerosene can way back at the beginning of electric light, still in use today; the inexpensive pump from a kid’s squirt gun used to power a medical lavage; Reebok’s Pump shoe, derived from inflatable splints, IV bags and powered medical equipment? 

Testing the best
Brokers with the best track records go through lots of ideas, quickly and painlessly discarding the dogs. Hargadon and Sutton call this the ‘nothing-is-invented-here’ attitude – help is accepted from any quarter, no-matter who offers it. Testing might involve physical prototyping – like IDEO’s full-size foam Amtrak train used to test internal layouts – or virtual, like Idealab!’s on-line car dealership that accidentally sold four cars on day one of a 90-day experiment and spawned CarsDirect.com. 

The detail and the case studies are not important. They’re fun, but they’re not important. What matters is that you change how you think about innovation and creativity. Don’t be afraid to borrow, imitate, and copy shamelessly (but legally). Reward the people who do any of those things successfully. Make it everyone’s job to collect new stuff, but put someone in charge so none of it is lost. Finding new ideas and making them pay is not a work of lone romantic genius, it’s an organised, systematic business process. 


Malcolm Macpherson is an independent publisher, communicator and writer with a long-time professional interest in organisational excellence. He’s a six-year veteran assessor/examiner for the New Zealand Business Development Quality Award, a national government/private enterprise partnership closely based on the US Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.

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Copyright 2000 by Malcolm Macpherson. All rights reserved.

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