rock the boat

March 16, 2018

Ideas—creating and understanding them is one of the marks of being human. They help us make sense of the world around us. When we are faced with problems, ideas bring us the solution. Most important of all, they allow us to explore new realms of thought and action. We think about things, we imagine things that might be possible, and then we test them in practice. It is thus that innovations are born.

Psychologists tell us that, if left to ourselves, our ability to think and create ideas is limited only by our mental capacity. Within every organization, within every business, people are thinking about ideas, creating them, reflecting on them, understanding them, sharing them, every minute of every day. Taken together, this vast reservoir of ideas represents a wellspring of creativity and innovation that every organization can harness.

Yet, all too often, organizations discourage ideas. Those who think too much—especially those who think creatively—are suppressed, stifled, even forced out. How often does it happen that the person who has the big idea—‘why do we not do things another way?’ or ‘what if we tried this?’—is shunted to one side, while the ones who keep their mouths closed and their ideas to themselves get promoted? The answer is, too often.

People with good ideas are told to keep quiet because their ideas represent something new, and anything new is often considered to be dangerous. No one should rock the boat. IBM in the 1960s and 1970s is a famous example of this, and other technology companies since have experienced similar problems. IBM was the biggest and most powerful company in its sector, one of the most powerful in the world. It became convinced that no one could teach it anything—the company already had the smartest people in the room. Its research staff worked on Nobel Prize-winning projects. So, after a time, new ideas became equated with dissent. People who proposed new ways of working, for example, were passed over for promotion and quietly eased out of the organization. Individual thinking became a punishable crime.

What happened next, of course, is well known. Other companies where innovative thinking and new ideas were prized overtook IBM and ate into its core
market. By the 1980s, IBM was nearly bankrupt, and it took a long and painful process to turn the company around. The lesson from this example is clear. Companies that shut out new ideas are painting themselves into a corner. Only by constantly encouraging the flow of ideas can companies continue to move in step with the times, survive, and prosper.

That lesson is driven home by Andrew Grove, the former chief executive of Intel, in his book Only the Paranoid Survive. He made the point that only by constantly thinking and discussing ideas and possibilities can companies become nimble enough to survive in the ever-changing business landscape. In particular, new thinking and new ideas are of paramount importance if companies are to survive the inflection point challenges that come along every so often—usually unexpectedly—and rock companies to their foundations. It was Intel’s ability to think on its feet, said Grove, that enabled it to survive a massive reputational challenge when one of its microprocessors was found to be faulty.

where do ideas come from?

So, having asserted the importance of ideas, where do they come from? The first rule is that ideas come from people. Even if they have been written down and diffused in the form of books, articles, PowerPoint presentations, etc, ultimately every idea can be traced back to its source in a person or a group of people.

When writing this article, I went back and looked at some of the literature on the philosophy of ideas, and I was struck at once by how little we know about how ideas are created. In particular, despite recent advances, we know very little about the thought processes inside the brain. We know how neural pathways work, but yet, we do not know why. One thing we have learned, though, is that all brains are individual. None of them work in quite the same way. This means that the processes of idea generation and understanding are individual too, unique to us. One of the splendid, magical things about the human race is that no two of us think alike.

What we do know suggests that idea formation relies to a great extent on past experience and prior knowledge. We base our ideas on things we already
know, or have seen, or heard. The old idea that the more you know, the easier it becomes to learn, still holds valid. The same is true of ideas. The more you
think, the easier thinking becomes and the more ideas you will generate. Japanese strategy guru Kenichi Ohmae compared the brain to a muscle. The more you use it to do certain things or think in certain ways, the easier that type of thinking becomes. For example, if you think about strategy every day, coming up with and considering ideas, after a while thinking about strategy becomes second-nature and you begin to do it almost without conscious awareness.

This is not the only source of ideas, of course. Small children, who lack life experience and prior knowledge, are also very good at coming up with ideas. In their case, the process is much more one of invention and experimentation. Children try things to see if they will work. If they do not, they consider the alternatives and then try them one by one until they find one that does work. In Sugata Mitra’s famous Hole in the Wall project, for example, children with no prior experience taught themselves to use computers by trial and error, over a remarkably short space of time. It is important to remember that adults can use the same kind of heuristic processes to generate and test ideas—provided they are given the creative space to do so, and are not punished for the inevitable mistakes and failures that will result.

Often, idea generation is a matter of knowing what questions to ask. We might look at a machine and ask how it works, but in understanding the mechanical process, we are not digging deep enough. We need also to ask why it works. It is in trying to answer these deeper ‘why’ questions that we generate more powerful and more long-lasting ideas.

To illustrate what I mean, I want to discuss a couple of inspirational examples and how they came up with the ideas that changed the world. I should point out too that there is nothing new about these processes of idea generation; they are a constant that has been with us for centuries. For that reason, I have deliberately chosen examples that come from before our own time.

William Caxton

The father of the printing and publishing industry, as we know it today, was not Johannes Gutenberg, as is so often stated, but an obscure Englishman named William Caxton. Gutenberg did indeed perfect the art of moveable type printing, but that was where his idea ended. In choosing the Christian Bible as his first printed work, Gutenberg stepped into a highly contested space. Religious orthodoxy at the time did not believe in making the Bible more widely accessible; they were chained up in churches so that lay people could not read them. Gutenberg set off a political landmine that affected him and his business, and he died bankrupt.

It was William Caxton who saw the true potential of Gutenberg’s invention. With rising prosperity and better education, the demand for books was increasing; not just devotional works but romances, poetry, and novels. Manuscripts of these were available, but they had to be copied by hand and were extremely expensive. Caxton began to print books that people wanted to read for pleasure, and selling them at a price that was available, at least to the classes who could afford the education that enabled them to read. As a result, books themselves became more popular. Private collectors established their own libraries. The book market took off. The Uber of its day, Caxton’s printing business invented an entire new category on the back of an idea; that printing could make books affordable to the leisure classes.

Thomas Cook

Tourism today is one of the largest industries in the world. Entire national economies in some parts of the world are almost entirely dependent on it. But the entire mass tourism industry was invented fewer than 200 years ago by a carpenter from the English Midlands, Thomas Cook.

Before him, tourism in Europe did exist but it was the privilege of the wealthy. Men, and a few women, went on the Grand Tour, collecting works of art and seeing the ruins of ancient civilizations. Otherwise, the closest thing to tourism was religious pilgrimage.

Cook’s inspiration was the railways. He saw how it had made personal travel not only much cheaper but also much faster than before. Journeys which had formerly taken days by road could now be accomplished in a single day or less. He also saw that by encouraging hospitality businesses—hotels, inns, restaurants, country houses—to work together, the price of travel could be brought down still further. Cook began organizing package holidays, excursions to local beauty spots, or the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. Customers paid a single price, which included transport, accommodation, meals and entrance tickets, the whole package organized by Cook.

The experiment was so successful that railway companies decided to enter the game, and attempted to organize their own package tours. They failed because they did not really understand Cook’s idea. Cook had got inside the head of the customer. He knew that what most people want when they travel is certainty. They want to know exactly what they are getting. The railway companies did not know how to provide that. Cook did. Within a few years, the railway companies had exited the package tour market, leaving Cook a clear run. By the end of the nineteenth century, his company was running package tours across Europe, parts of Asia and Africa, and North America.

lessons learned

There are of course many modern businesses created out of nothing but the power of ideas: Google and Facebook are perhaps the two most famous. But what can we learn from companies like these? How do they help us to use ideas more creatively?

The first point is that in order to generate those ideas that are so necessary for success, people need freedom to think. They need to be given the space to reflect, to study possibilities, to look at alternatives, rather than being forced into making snap decisions. Second, people should be encouraged to create, to test ideas and carry on doing so even if not every experiment works out. Third, there must be a spirit of boldness, the audacity to think about new things, not just stick to ‘the way things have always been done around here’. People should be encouraged to rock the boat.

Companies also need to develop the ability to identify ideas that have potential and then pounce on them, quickly. 3M remains very proud of the legendary Post-It note, a product that came out of a series of inspirations on the part of its researchers. The company keeps rather quiet about the fact that it took ten years to bring Post-It from genesis to a market-ready product. That is too long. Companies need to learn to move faster than that. So the answer is: give your people space, back them with resources, then be prepared to move fast to take ideas forward when they
are ready.

Victor Hugo also wrote that “a day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas.” Having ideas is not just about thinking of new ways to make money. It is also about making the world a better place.