The Secret to Unleashing Creative Insights

Have you ever wondered why some companies always seem to come up with radical new products and ideas and others just follow with copy-cat versions? There’s got to be something they do that we can learn. There must be certain principles that are universal to the creative process.

Here’s a couple of brain teasers:

  • What’s the link between bicycles and airplanes?
  • The link between winepresses and books?
  • Mountain burrs and Velcro?

According to Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works, the act of invention is really an act of recombination.

The 18th century philosopher David Hume wrote about this 250 years ago:

“All this creative power of the mind amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the senses and experience.”

So how to some teams and companies excel at innovation? The most successful creative minds are those that master this part of the creative process: tying together ideas from other fields into new products and services.

Johannes Gutenberg transformed his knowledge of winepresses into an idea for a printing machine capable of mass-producing words. The Wright brothers used their knowledge of bicycle manufacturing to invent the airplane. George de Mestral came up with Velcro after a hunting trip in the Alps when noticing burrs clinging to the fur of his dog.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin developed the search algorithm behind Google by applying the ranking method used for academic articles to the sprawl of the World Wide Web: a hyperlink was like a citation.

These radical concepts all started with old ideas mixed into a new field. But here’s the tricky part of coming up with radical new solutions and products: You can’t get there with relentless focus. While intense focus and attention is necessary when solving analytical problems, it prevents us from detecting the connections from diverse fields that lead to insights.

A relaxed state of mind is crucial for creative insights. That’s why so many new ideas come to us away from the office, doing activities such as daydreaming, exercising, or in the shower.

Yet we don’t remember to take time away from a problem when it’s most needed. We hunker down, stay at the office late, and ruminate when what we really need to do is take a break. We need to un-focus, change our environment, do something entirely unrelated and relaxing.

In the work I do with some pretty smart executives, I learn that many of them skip vacations. But here’s what the inventor of Velcro advised:

“If any of your employees ask for a two-week holiday to go hunting, say yes.”

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