Thinking places

Where are you when you get your best ideas?

The story below (Financial Times) is a bit whimsical but I was surprised to learn that, in a recent survey, people reported that only 1 in a 100 ideas happens at work.

Sparking creativity
By Lucy Kellaway
Published: February 29 2004 15:43 | Last Updated: February 29 2004 15:43

Where do managers generate their finest ideas? Assorted surveys have
shown that the bath and shower are top creative venues. So too are the
train and the car. The golf course is meant to be good as well, as is
the gym. In fact most places are fine for ideas – up a mountain, in
bed, on a beach, in an art gallery, etc.

The only place that seems never to produce any is the office. I have
just read a survey on saying that only one in 100
ideas happens at work.

This is generally thought to be alarming. Companies go to extraordinary
lengths to make their offices conducive to creativity – let’s have a
cappuccino bar! Let’s make all the walls curly! – but it seems to make
no difference at all.

I find these surveys alarming too – though for other reasons. Partly it
is the vision of all those managers having their eureka moments in a
froth of shower gel. But mostly it is that the findings do not square
with my own experience. I cannot remember ever having had an idea in
the bath, even a bad one. At the risk of telling you more then you need
to know, when in the bath I listen to The World Tonight on Radio 4.
When on the train I either read the paper or try to imagine that I am
lying on a beach in order to forget that my nose is thrust into someone
else’s armpit.

In fact, were I asked to name the place where I have most of my ideas,
I would be unable to answer. Part of the difficulty is that I am seldom
aware of having ideas, as such. When occasionally I do have one, it is
something I have in part borrowed from something or someone. That means
I have them when I am reading or chatting. All of this makes the office
as creative a place as any.

Until recently I felt sheepish about my low-idea state. However, last
week I received a book called The Big Idea – 500 New Ideas to Change
the World in Ways Big and Small, and any such shame has gone. This book
is a list of ideas that have been chosen from a website called

“I love this book!” begins the foreword by Seth Godin, a marketing guru
whose own book is called The Purple Cow. (He must have had a great many
showers to come up with a title like that.) “What I love is how many
ideas there are. And these ideas are free, for God’s sake!” This is
just as well when you see what the ideas are like. Here is a sample.

“Idea 2. Design a baby’s plastic bathtub that changes colour according
to the temperature of the water (red – too hot; pale green – just
right; blue – too cold).” Reading this idea gives me another one. Would
it not be even better to design something that the adult could carry,
to test if the temperature is right? On second thoughts, that has been
done. The something is called an elbow, which when dipped into the
water will tell you if the temperature is right.

“Idea 74: Design a riding saddle for young children to ride on the
backs of adults. The saddle, complete with reins and stirrups, would
improve the safety of a popular toddler entertainment and act as a
perfect introduction to horse-riding proper.” I am not even going to
comment on this idea.

Picking off individual ideas and saying what rubbish they are is
perhaps not the point. Even David Owen, the editor of the book, does
not claim that all these ideas are good; he just wants us to rejoice
that there are so many of them. I do not see this as a cause for
celebration. If any old thing counts as an idea, then even I could
generate millions of them, if I could be bothered.

If you limit yourself to relatively decent ones, the flow of ideas
becomes a trickle. If you look for excellent ones it all but dries up.
Even a good idea alone is not all that impressive. A good idea must be
at the right time. And even then, the largest mountain to climb is
still ahead: making it work.

Given this, it is hard to see why companies worship at the temple of
the big idea. They go all dewy-eyed when they talk about innovation and
creativity but what they have to say about these subjects is hardly
ever sensible.

In a special issue dedicated to innovation, the Harvard Business Review
recently asked 18 chief executives for their top tip on how to make
their companies innovative. Here are some of them. Ask “What if?”.
Merge patience and passion. Experiment like crazy. Make it meaningful.
Always make new mistakes.

Some of these tips are dafter than others. I have a particular aversion
to being told to make new mistakes. The point about mistakes is that we
all make the same old ones over and over again. I am not likely ever to
give up making my time- honoured mistakes, and I do not see how adding
some new ones will help at all.

The fact that every expert gives a different answer to the how to be
more creative question could mean that there are many ways to skin a
cat. I suspect it means that none of them has any idea.

The only sensible voice in the Harvard Business Review was that of
Esther Dyson, internet visionary, who said that companies should stop
fussing about ideas or innovation altogether. Instead, what we should
do is concentrate on solving particular problems. This is the sort of
creativity that I like. Find a problem and try to solve it. There is
nothing mysterious about the process. It does not matter where it takes
place. And it does not involve saddles for human beings.

One thought on “Thinking places

  1. i disagree strongly with Lucy Kellaway. The astounding thing for me about corporate creativity is that most everyone seems to have at least a handful of great ideas for new products or for better ways to organize their workplace, and yet so little of this potential innovation is realized. My feeling is that there’s just something about our present-day structures of capitalism that badly misallocates capital in such a way that most good new ideas don’t get implemented.

    And from what I hear from friends, the 1/100 stat could be accurate. Imagine if people were even actually inspired enough by their jobs to go on brainstorming sessions. There would be 10 times more ideas.

    So, I am not as complacent as Ms. Kellaway on the topic of corporate creativity.


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