“The value of achievement lies in the act of achieving.”
Einstein’s theory of relativity was almost proven wrong. In 1914, relativity’s predictions were still wrong, even after years of work. That year, German scientists planned to verify the theory by observ- ing light being bent during an eclipse in Russia. The observation would have shown Einstein to be wrong because his theory would have incorrectly predicted the bending of light. His idea was still brilliant, but the details were incomplete. Relativity would have been discredited if World War I hadn’t postponed the planned test. Einstein spent four more years growing his idea into a real solution. His much-improved theory was validated during a 1918 eclipse.
Even brilliant ideas require much creative work to become solutions. Now that you have broken out of your rut, defied your rules, and created the seeds of some solutions, you must grow one of those seeds into a real solution. There is still much innovation to be done, and the first step is to focus on one idea.
SELECTING ONE SOLUTION
“God gave me the stubbornness of a mule and a fairly keen scent.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
You may be reluctant to focus on any single idea when you have many interesting options. But growing a solution requires laser-like intensity. You cannot “focus” simultaneously on multiple different ideas. You must choose one.
Selecting an idea is a form of judgment. Your judgment is biased by your rules. Using good judgment will quickly eliminate all the novel ideas. Instead, eliminate the solutions that conform to your rule rut. When you were defining the problem, you identified your best current options, the best but not-good-enough solutions. They are still off-limits. So are similar ideas. Unless you have a compelling twist, you will fall back into your rule rut by using them.
Choose to develop the idea that is most exciting to you. Your interest is the selection criteria. Don’t eliminate an idea because it is unworkable or weak. That may just be your prejudices again, veer- ing you away from a revolutionary thought. Reject boring ideas because you won’t work hard enough to make them successful. The seed idea that excites you is your target solution. Write it down. Focus your problem-solving energies on making this solution work.
GREAT IDEAS NEED TO GROW
“A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”
Congratulations! You have a potential solution. Unfortunately, you still face a few small problems—your solution doesn’t work and everyone thinks it is stupid.
Don’t worry! You are in good company. Breakthroughs seldom work the first time, and great ideas are initially rejected by almost everyone. It took the Wright brothers years after their first success- ful flight to interest anyone in their airplane, and their idea changed the world in their lifetime.
Your new thinking will be rejected for one of two reasons. First, you may be completely wrong. That is not as bad as it sounds. Useless ideas, or Chris Concepts, are fertile ground for new solutions. At worst you have created associations, connections, and ideas in your mind that can be used again on something that will work. Failure provides a clearer idea of where to explore next and a thorough understanding of something that doesn’t work. The only real tragedy of a failure occurs if it stops you from trying again.
The second possibility is that your idea may only look com- pletely wrong. A real breakthrough will seem useless because it has much growing and refining ahead of it. Great ideas do not spring forth fully developed. Instead they appear as conceptual infants, full of promise but far from ready to stand on their own.
Richard Feynman gave a classic example of why good ideas always seem so stupid. Mesoamericans were great astronomers. They had primitive ideas about the structure of the solar system, but generations of sightings and corrections allowed them to make accurate predictions of eclipses and other phenomena. Imagine going to the chief astronomer and saying, “I’ve got a great idea. We are on a planet that is one of many planets revolving around the sun. Let’s reconstruct astronomy around this beautiful concept!”
The chief astronomer would then ask, “Can your theory predict eclipses?”
You reply, “Well, no, not yet. But I am sure it will give us more accurate predictions after I have developed it over many years.” Imagine the response that would get!
You can be confident that your breakthrough ideas are either wrong or just appear wrong to others. Unfortunately, you cannot distinguish which without more work. You must grow your idea until it is robust enough to determine if it is a good one.
PATIENCE: SUSPENDING JUDGMENT
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
Growing an idea requires patience. Einstein’s theory of relativity was almost proven wrong before it could be made right, but many great ideas are not so lucky. After an early failure, they languish until someone picks them up and moves them a little farther forward.
There is record of an eleventh-century monk named Eilmer who built and tested a primitive glider. He is said to have glided for hundreds of meters. If true, it was a stunning breakthrough. But his contemporaries viewed the flight as a complete failure because Eilmer had trouble controlling his glider. He crashed and was injured. Therefore, in their minds, it must have been a stupid idea.
Facts and experts are deadly to new thinking. They highlight the flaws, gaps, and obstacles that abound in all great ideas. They can make anything seem ridiculous. You must suspend your own judgment and protect your idea from others until you can develop it into a robust solution.
Developing a brilliant idea takes much patient effort. Numerous obstacles will plague even the most promising ideas before they can become real solutions. Mahlon Loomis demonstrated a wireless telegraph in 1868. Guglielmo Marconi’s first wireless transmission wasn’t until 1895. But Loomis was unable to overcome the financial obstacles to promulgating his invention. He finally gave up. Marconi had the same problems. But he stuck with it and changed the world.
Ignore Inconvenient Facts
“How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct.”
You will find many reasons why your idea won’t work. You will be tempted to abandon your own breakthrough. Don’t let the facts get in the way of your solution. Adopt the attitude that you must make your concept work, regardless of obstacles. Every other assumption, rule, and convention can be ignored, except for your idea. If you find an obstacle to your idea, then the obstacle must go. Favor your new idea over all other facts.
Miranda Stuart did not let the facts get in the way when she decided to become a physician. Miranda was barred from studying medicine because she was a woman. But she wanted to practice medicine desperately and wasn’t about to let reality stand in her way. So she graduated from the University of Edinburgh Medical School as a man, James Barry. She then entered military service and even served as surgeon general of Canada. The fact that Miss Stuart could not be a doctor was irrelevant.
You must stick with your idea fanatically to find out if it is a good one. When you encounter a “fact” that makes your solution impossible, record it. Use rule-breaking techniques to make your solution work anyway.
When asked what he would have done if experiments had not confirmed his theory of relativity, Einstein responded, “Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.” This response exemplifies the attitude you must have to grow an idea into a solu- tion. You will never know whether you had a great breakthrough or a Chris Concept until you have persevered with your solution.
Challenging the Experts
“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.” LEO TOLSTOY
Experts are tough on new ideas. They prefer their facts. Ideas that challenge their facts are threats. If the new concept catches on, then they are no longer experts. Experts have killed many great ideas.
Alfred Wegener was a smart man. He was trained as an astron- omer and a meteorologist, and had practical experience as a polar explorer. However, he had no credentials as a geophysicist. This was unfortunate because he made one of the most remarkable con- tributions to geophysics.
Wegener had a great idea, a true breakthrough. He noticed that the continental shelves of North and South America and those of Europe and Africa fit together like the pieces of a puzzle. Even the geologic formations along the respective coasts matched. Wegner was certain that the continents had once been one large continent before drifting apart. It was brilliant thinking.
But as Wegener explained his infant idea to the experts, he made some mistakes. Expert geophysicists eagerly jumped on these minor errors. They tore apart the undeveloped concepts, completely discrediting the most significant advance in their field. As a result, Wegener’s breakthrough died with him.
Decades later, geophysical science had progressed enough that Wegener’s idea of drifting continents was again proposed, this time by geophysicists. By then the weight of evidence was indisputable. Wegener’s idea is now the basis of geophysics. Modern textbooks explain the theory but often fail to mention that a meteorologist first proposed the idea.
Even the smartest people can be very wrong. Isaac Newton forcefully opposed attempts to use clocks to determine longitude. He thought accurate seagoing clocks were impractical. Fortunately, John Harrison was not afraid to disagree with the greatest mind of the age. It took him several iterations over many years, but he ultimately perfected a small, accurate clock that was not affected by the rolling of ships, temperature change, or winding. It was the technology of choice for calculating longitude for hundreds of years until satellite-based positioning began to replace it.
Experts are proficient in conventional knowledge, but they have a poor record of recognizing great new ideas:
“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”—Pierre Pachet, professor of physiology, 1872
“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”— Internal Western Union memo, 1876
“Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”—Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, 1895
“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”—H. M. Warner of Warner Brothers, 1927
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”— Decca Records on the Beatles, 1962
Don’t despair when every expert ridicules your ideas. Once, one hundred Nazi professors wrote a book attacking Einstein’s theories. Einstein just shrugged it off saying, “If I were wrong, one would have been enough.” Experts will have plenty of reasons to discount your concept. They will convince themselves (and try to convince you) that you are crazy. You must be committed if you are going to grow your idea into a solution.
To deflect the derision of experts from your idea, don’t tell them.
If some do find out, call it a learning exercise. Say that you don’t expect it to succeed, but you do expect to learn something interest- ing from the failure. Shame them with their lack of curiosity. Then make it work. The experts will eventually come around, or they will just fade away into irrelevance. Dr. Barbara McClintock finally won the Nobel Prize in medicine after her revolutionary work on genes jumping within a chromosome had been ignored for thirty years. It took that long for the “experts” to understand what she had done.
“And, after all, what is originality? It is merely undetected plagiarism.” HERBERT PAUL
Sex is good for ideas. The overwhelming majority of ideas that have been developed on earth are in the gene pool, embodied in actual living things—their cells, eyes, and muscles. And the best genes are the result of sex, the exchange of those ideas between organisms. Even simple one-celled animals try to swap DNA whenever possible because sharing ideas is a powerful tool for improving those ideas.
Why is sex so great? Not because it is easy to do. Species that reproduce sexually incur huge risks and expend enormous amounts of energy or, in the case of humans, money for the chance to inter- mingle some genetic material. Even then, the need to perpetuate one’s DNA does not fully explain the need for sex. Asexual reproduction is simpler and passes on all of an organism’s genes instead of just half. It would seem the natural strategy for self-perpetuating DNA. Instead these selfish genes have selected sex.
A billion years of developing great DNA has shown that sex is worth the trouble. Organisms that reproduce sexually, sharing the precious DNA in their offspring with a mate, are much more advanced than species that reproduce asexually. And animals that can reproduce asexually, like bacteria and turkeys, favor some form of sexual reproduction when possible. Sex combines two success- ful sets of genetic material to create something new. Sometimes it is much better. These differences have been so successful that the natural world is solidly committed to sex.
Sex works for ideas too. The cerebral version of sex, or cerebral sex, is as important to creating successful solutions as biological sex is to successful organisms. Cerebral sex is a one-, two-, or many- way exchange of ideas. It includes collaboration, borrowing an idea, or learning from another’s mistake. It can be intentional or subcon- scious. And it is much more efficient and effective than developing your idea alone.
Great ideas are rarely the work of one person, though one person often gets the credit. Charles Darwin’s grandfather proposed an early theory of evolution. Alexander Graham Bell saw an early telephone similar to the one he invented, and the Wright brothers took advantage of years of aerodynamic research. Creative solutions have many parents.
You need outside thinking to grow your idea into a robust solu- tion. Fresh ideas strengthen promising solutions. They fill in the gaps and correct the weaknesses. Everything from democracy to grocery stores is regularly inculcated with new concepts that make better solutions. Cerebral sex makes ideas great.
Einstein benefited from sharing ideas. He grew and developed his great ideas with the help of many collaborators. He could never have done as much working alone.
One advantage that geniuses often acquire is access to more and better cerebral sex. They have the opportunity to talk with many other bright people. With frequent exchanges of ideas, their think- ing potential is expanded even more. To develop better ideas faster, you must do the same and engage in more cerebral sex.
Nature teaches us another important lesson about growing great ideas: avoid incest. Nature favors behaviors that avoid incest because inbreeding breeds poor genes. You must reduce intellectual incest as you exchange ideas to grow your solution. Collaborating with someone in your field or with your education background is sometimes good but highly incestuous. Seek advice from those with different opinions, professions, backgrounds, and biases.
Cerebral group sex is probably a great way to grow a good idea into a great idea. Groups with diverse backgrounds and skills are usually far superior to any single expert in evaluating solutions. Each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and biases average out into opinions that are surprisingly accurate.
Cerebral group sex is a bad idea if all of the participants are of a common opinion. These exchanges of ideas result in “group think,” a phenomenon that has caused more war, misery, and loss than almost any other group dynamic. People with the same opinions simply reinforce each other’s rule ruts, obscuring the facts and the possible solutions. This type of incestuous interchange must be avoided.
We are more attracted to people with a different set of immunity genes than we possess. This is one of nature’s many ways to help us have more useful sex. When selecting your cerebral sex partners, be certain that they think about things differently. If you always agree, they won’t help you avoid the dead ends of your own thinking.
Growing your idea into a solution will require lots of cerebral sex. Share ideas with at least ten different people and record the ideas that are conceived. You may want to keep track of your idea exchanges to help you recognize if your thinking is getting enough cerebral sex. For example, if you were working on some new airline routes into Europe, you might keep a log like the one in Figure 8.3.
Unfortunately, nature has not given us a sex-like drive to share ideas. Instead we hoard ideas. We are reluctant to discuss our think- ing because we fear theft or ridicule. You must overcome your inhibitions about sharing ideas if you are to grow a great solution. Cerebral sex must become as compelling as biological sex.
Safe Cerebral Sex
“None of us is as smart as all of us.”
It is difficult to share infant ideas, but there are some relatively risk- free ways to go about it. Try one of the following quiet, safe ways to strengthen your idea with other people’s perspectives.
Most people eat lunch. They also need something to talk about during lunch. They are relaxed, expansive. Lunch is not a formal meeting or presentation. The conversation can be entertaining. You will be forgiven if your ideas sound crazy.
Arrange to have lunch with someone new, someone with differ- ent backgrounds and perspectives. Explain the solution that you are considering. Don’t be too serious. Expansively explore new territory. Explaining will help organize your thoughts and let your guest eat. After you have finished your description, it is your turn to eat. Let your guest talk and listen carefully. Lunch is a good place for wild ideas.
Old friends are great sources of ideas. Consider them what-if ver- sions of you. You probably had much in common before choic- es and experiences changed your outlooks. Call an old friend and discuss your solution. Note how his experiences affect his view of your solution. Incorporate some of his ideas into the solution. Your friend living on a ranch in Montana may be the perfect person to evaluate your tactile virtual-reality shopping idea, since he spends less time in traditional retail establishments.
Experts in Other Fields
Experts are good problem solvers. But those in your field may not like your idea because it conflicts with their expertise. Instead, dis- cuss your solution with an expert in an unrelated field. This expert doesn’t need to know anything about your problem, but she must know a great deal about her own field.
As an expert, she will understand complex issues. She will be experienced in finding elusive, difficult solutions. However, she will not be tainted with the biases of experts in your field. And she will also not care if your idea shakes things up. Share your idea with an outside expert. If you want feedback on your tactile virtual- reality shopping idea, then talk with an accomplished pianist.
Promiscuous Sex (Cerebral, That Is)
“The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.” WINSTON CHURCHILL
Growing healthy ideas requires going far outside your normal circle of confidantes. But it is hard to overcome intellectual prudery and have some really random, promiscuous idea interchanges. Left to your own devices, you will probably share ideas with the wrong people simply because you select them. We have inborn prohibi- tions against incest. But we naturally exchange ideas with people that think like us. Growing great solutions requires greater promiscuity.
More cerebral sex is better. The more people you share ideas with, the more likely you are to have a brilliant insight. If you needed to develop a new category of hot beverages, promiscu- ous cerebral sex could help generate ideas you never would have thought of. Here are some ways to share your problem with lots of different people.
Online Cerebral Sex
The Internet has made it very easy to share ideas with people all over the world. You can easily query friends, experts, and total strangers for their opinions. The forums for sharing ideas are simply too many and changing too rapidly to list all of the options.
The Internet has another important advantage that most other idea-sharing techniques lack: it can be anonymous. I like to try out my wildest ideas anonymously. Of course I get flamed, mocked, and ridiculed. However, I also often get some thoughtful ideas in response that I would never have thought of on my own.
Random Cerebral Sex
The next time you talk with a stranger on a plane, standing in a line, or in a waiting room, ask how he or she would modify your idea so that it is a better solution. Strangers usually have the right intellectual chromosomes—their experiences are different from yours. And they haven’t been trying to solve your problem in the same tired ways. Ask a stranger. Strangers are perfect for the new hot-beverage problem. They are unaware of all the restrictions, biases, and failures that surround hot beverages at your company. Let them broaden your list of ideas.
The Party Solution
Forget about research. Have a party to develop your solution. Parties are fun, which should be reason enough to have one. Parties also have several advantages for growing solutions. First, parties bring people together to talk, focusing brainpower synergistical- ly. Second, parties reduce inhibitions and encourage wild thinking, something that rarely happens at meetings.
For your party, describe the kind of solution you need when you invite your guests. This gives them time to begin pondering the problem. If you were using a party to get ideas on hot beverages, then ask everyone to bring their favorite hot beverage. Give a prize for the most interesting offering.
After your guests have arrived and understand what is going on, explain that you are holding back the best part of the food and drink until after they have come up with a great solution. Give everyone an incentive to work together and get your ideas up front. Make certain the party is fun. Happy, excited people think more creatively. Recognize outrageous ideas as they happen to encourage diver- gent thinking. And when you have some good ideas, celebrate!
You can ask everyone that you meet to help you grow your solu- tion. Write your question on a large mailing label and wear it as a name tag. Simplify the question and write as large as you can so that it is legible at a distance. You should get lots of laughs, many suggestions, and a few great ideas. Don’t be shy—do it. Put the brainpower and connections of everyone you cross paths with to work for you.
You could wear a button asking, “How do we cut material costs 75 percent?” Everyone will be reminded of the problem each time they see you and apply a little more brainpower towards a solution.
If you are feeling shy, use the bulletin board to get solution sug- gestions. Post your problem anonymously in a conspicuous place. Leave blanks and markers so everyone will know that they can respond. Write the first response yourself to get the process rolling.
If you are looking for new demographic segments for your product, write on the bulletin board: “Who should we be selling to that we don’t sell to now?” You will find that your colleagues are much less inhibited in their anonymous suggestions.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” HELEN KELLER
Everyone has weaknesses and areas where they lack insight. The right partner can make up for these deficiencies and be a great long- term support. Together, well-matched partners make a more per- fect problem solver.
Einstein needed many partners in his life, particularly wives, secretaries, collaborators, and assistants who wrote and corrected papers, solved equations, and kept him fed and clothed. Einstein’s ideal partner would have been someone who could have freed him from all outside concerns, including completing mathematical prob- lems, leaving him to focus on his single-minded pursuit of solutions. Einstein’s first wife fit many of these criteria. She took care of his needs while solving his toughest equations.
Many of the most famous names in problem solving are pairs of names like Rolls Royce. Charles Rolls was the daring entrepre- neur, boldly striking out into new businesses. Henry Royce was the practical detail man who made sure Rolls’s vision was carried out. Together they were a brilliant pair.
There are many geniuses who could have used a partner. Rudolf Diesel was a mechanical genius. His inventions, including the ubiq- uitous diesel engine, made him a fortune, but his financial stupidity lost it all. If he had worked with a financially savvy partner, things would have been different.
If you think a partner would benefit your solution, look for a good match. Analyze the skills and personality traits that you have and record them. Determine what skills and traits you lack but will need to be successful. Then find a partner who fills in your blanks. Your partner must be strong where you are weak.
You and your partner should be tolerant of each other. This is more important than finding a smart partner. Einstein left his brilliant first wife for one who was much more tolerant of his inattention and philandering. Partnerships are never easy. You may not ever find a good partner. But it is worth looking. When partner- ships click, they are extremely productive.