Thoughts on quality & productivity, in and out of the office.

Innovation through bad ideas and hard work


The creativity misconception

Everyone is born creative. Watch a child play with Lego and you’ll see them come up with hundreds of ideas, shapes and structures in a short space of time.

We consider this creativity to fade with age. Real innovation in adults is thought to be reserved for a select subset of us that come pre-configured with some sort of magic spark for exactly this task. But there’s no proof of physiological change with age to support this degradation of creativity, at least not until very late in life. As it turns out, it’s only our expectations that change.

Put an adult (particularly a programmer) in front of a pile of Lego and they’ll find themselves hamstrung by the vision of a finished race car, complete with gearing and realistic steering camber. Delivering anything less would be a failure. After all, we’re adults and we should be able to think up a perfect idea and a plan to execute on it on the spot and if we can’t then we’re not the ones who should be doing the work.

We shy away from the creative work of exploring the possibilities and gradually refining an idea until it works.

This mindset holds true for any tasks involving creative thought and its partly because we’ve been groomed to think this way. In our earlier years at school we’re rewarded for consistent scores in standardised tests. At work we’re driven toward process and efficiency over out of the box thinking, which is generally considered risky. These frameworks add value where consistent results are the goal but they actively stifle innovation.

Creativity does not fade with age, we just fall out of practice.

Hard work over epiphanies

History lessons perpetuate the myth of instant perfection by presenting popular innovations as the result of epiphanies. World changing ideas conceived and implemented on the spot with little or no lead up. These are the versions of history that we’ve come to accept because they sell the dream of opportunity. The one that allows the average Joe to imagine a sudden lighting bolt of inspiration instantly creating fame and fortune.

Innovation does not work this way. Big ideas are not simply discovered, they are the culmination of hard work and sacrifice by the truly determined.

Epiphanies in the context of innovation are a lie, but they do sell newspapers.

Isaac Newton was not in the right place at the right time when he supposedly stumbled upon gravity, nor did an apple strike him. Dig deeper and we find that the concept was well understood by the ancient Egyptians some time before him. What he did do was work tirelessly for 20 years to explain it using math. A commendable effort but one clearly distinguishable from the myth we’re led to believe.

Tim Berners-Lee didn’t create the World Wide Web overnight either. Instead he is quoted as labeling the invention a process of gradual accretion, not an overnight success.

Look at any major innovation from the wheel to the lightbulb to the personal computer and you’ll see epiphany replaced with ideas that failed at first. Success comes when bad ideas are refined and iterated on over and over with grit and tireless dedication.

Hard work is the catalyst.

Start with more bad ideas

An innovation is the realisation of an idea that creates significant positive change. The execution part requires hard work as we know, but effort needs direction in the form of an idea.

In trying to come up with ideas for a given topic or problem, much like with our Lego race car metaphor we’ll find ourselves agonising over a fault-free solution, imagining that there is one and only one “right” way. But innovation is not binary. Instead we should think of it as a continuum or a pathway. There are no bad ideas, only those that progress us toward better ideas. Each idea in the lead up refines the scope, narrows the boundaries and fuels subsequent ideas, each pushing us closer to where we need to be.

Idea progression tree

Sometimes we may reach a great idea, often not, but the only way to get there is through bad, unworkable, dangerous, silly and just plain embarrassing ideas.

The very best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas
– Linus Pauling (winner of 2 solo Nobel Prizes)

Thoughts on quality & productivity, in and out of the office.

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