Thursday, March 29, 2012

Where to get ideas


Standing on the station platform, waiting for the Philadelphia train one night in the summer of 1902, Willis Carrier was about to have his 'eureka moment'.

As the fog rolled in across the track, he suddenly realised how he could fix the nascent air-cooling system he'd been working on, using water as a condensing surface.

This sudden moment of inspiration led to the invention of modern air-conditioning, a fortune for its inventor, and the foundation of a multi-billion dollar company.

The lone genius, beavering away in the seclusion of his lab, is how most of us imagine the great moments of innovation have come into being. But is this really the whole story?

Not entirely, according to author Steven Johnson. He believes Willis Carrier is very much the exception rather than the rule. He has written seven books on how science, technology and human experience interact, including the best-selling Everything Bad Is Good for You:How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.

"When you go back and you look at the history of innovation it turns out that so often there is this quiet collaborative process that goes on, either in people building on other peoples' ideas, but also in borrowing ideas, or tools or approaches.”

So what should companies be doing to foster innovation in their workforces? Mr Johnson argues that creativity is a continuous process.

"Part of the problem is that one day a year they have a corporate retreat and they all go into the country, and they do brainstorming sessions and trustfalls and then they go back to work.

"But equally you don't want to have a non-stop creative process where nothing gets done.

"Corporations have an opportunity to cultivate hunches and hobbies and the sideprojects of their employees because those are such great generators of ideas."

Google is one company that has famously capitalised on giving space for workers to innovate, with its 20% time system. Employees are required to allocate 20% of their time working on their own pet projects.

According to the company, about 50% of new features and products have resulted from it, including Adsense, Google Suggest and Orkut.

If you don’t work for Google but want to develop your creativity gene, Johnson has a number of suggestions.

"Go for a walk; pursue a number of hobbies (the one trait creative people such as Darwin) shared in common; cultivate hunches; write everything down; but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; frequent coffee houses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent."

So what brilliant suggestions do you have to develop your creative spark? And what are organisations out there doing to promote creativity and innovation?

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