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Columnist: H. James Harrington

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


Dust Off Those Creative Tools

Don’t reject radical ideas--put them to practical use.



When children are very young, they are naturally creative. But as they grow up, learning social conventions and accepted ways of seeing and interpreting the situations in which they find themselves, they seem to lose this natural creativity. What’s really going on, however, isn’t a loss of creative ability but rather a decline in the need to use that ability to get along in the everyday world.

This is unfortunate, because conventional approaches to dealing with experiences usually result in conventional, often mediocre, outcomes. We all still have the ability to generate novel, original and creative solutions that can help us solve problems permanently, improve our processes, dramatically increase customer satisfaction and sometimes open up whole new markets.

So how do we access our natural creativity? In a world filled with conventional thinking, it isn’t easy. Fortunately, many tools are available to help transcend the usual way of understanding problems--and opportunities--and come up with creative responses that can bolster success. I call those tools “mind expanders”--exercises, approaches or aids that help an individual or team think differently about situations and generate creative ways to deal with them.

Although it’s important to generate creative ideas, such efforts are for naught unless ideas are implemented in ways that result in desired outputs. I call these implementation efforts “innovation.” Creativity without innovation is wasted effort, yet innovation can’t occur unless the creative process has been fulfilled first.

Today, we are faced with an infinite amount of information. A single issue of the Sunday New York Times, for example, contains more information than a person a century ago might have acquired over a lifetime. No matter what situation we encounter, there seems to be data or techniques available to deal with it. But breakthroughs--truly creative approaches--are few and far between. Creative efforts today are more evolutionary than revolutionary. We tend to refine concepts and techniques.

In a way, we’re almost victims of our wealth of information. With this vast knowledge base, people today either already have answers to problems or will research current knowledge to find them. This isn’t bad. In fact, it’s smart to gather information about others’ approaches to similar problems and consider how their solutions might help us or our organizations.

However, this knowledge can also prevent us from taking advantage of our creative powers to invent entirely new ways of dealing with problems and situations. If less information was readily available, we’d be obligated to rely on our creativity. An inverse relationship exists between creativity and the amount of information and knowledge we have: the more information, the less necessity to be creative. But don’t overlook the fallacy at work in this relationship. There’s always room for creativity and the possibility of a breakthrough.

That requires suspending conventional thinking and engaging our creative power. How do we do that? Thomas A. Edison put it this way: “There’s a way to do it better; find it.”

Most managers--for that matter, most people--resist new, creative, often radical ideas. The following are some of the ones that were turned down in the past.

“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”

--Marshal Ferdinand Foch, French military strategist and future World War I commander, 1911

“The horse is here to stay, but the automobile is only a novelty--a fad.”

--A president of the Michigan Savings Bank, advising Horace Rackham, Henry Ford’s lawyer, not to invest in the Ford Motor Co. in 1903. Rackham ignored the advice, bought $5,000 worth of stock, and sold it several years later for $12.5 million.

“Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

--Charles H. Duell, U.S. commissioner of patents, 1899

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

--Harry M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927

“There’s no reason for individuals to have a computer in their home.”

--Kenneth Olsen, president and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

“What use could this company make of an electrical toy?”

--Western Union President William Orton, rejecting Alexander Graham Bell’s offer to sell his struggling telephone company to Western Union for $100,000

“[Television] won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

--Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, 1946


We should all keep an open mind to new ideas, even if they sound radical. Make it a point to generate one new creative idea every day.


About the author
H. James Harrington is CEO of the Harrington Institute Inc. and chairman of the board of Harrington Group. He has more than 45 years of experience as a quality professional and is the author of 22 books. Visit his Web site at www.harrington-institute.com.