Steve Crandall and I took the train to Rochester last week. NBC was so excited by the idea of a physicist and an anthropologist investigating the universe by train, they optioned the concept without ado. They kept using phrases like "high concept" and "Lorre-esque" but I don’t think we said one funny thing the entire trip. I guess that’s what writers are for.
Steve and I were off to Rochester to join Pip Coburn and Dave Bujnowski for a brain storm. As Steve and I made our way from Penn Station northward, the topics of innovation and idea generation were very much on our minds. (Yes, and come to think of it, our preoccupation may also have had something to do with the fact that we were travelling on rolling stock that hasn’t been updated for several decades in an industry that continues to use the term "rolling stock.")
Steve had interesting things to say about the role of serendipity at Bell Labs, a place he worked for some 20 years. People applied themselves to Lab problems around the clock, but sometimes, and strangely, it was when they went to lunch that some of the best progress was made.
The creative world is familiar with this paradox. For some reason, it is when we are free to stop thinking about the problem that we sometimes manage our best work on the problem. And it is especially when we are free to think about something unrelated to our problem that our problem stops being a problem.
This is another way of saying that we are terrible at problem solving. We are those little wind up toys spinning our wheels and giving off that horrible, metallic, wind-down sound.
What does lunch do? It gives the world a chance to supply it’s "metaphoric materials." Cause that’s what’s happening, isn’t it? We are working on a problem to do with logistical systems and someone starts talking about the organization of ganglia in the brain and we go, "But of course. That will do, nicely. Thank you."
I blame the Dewey Decimal system. (And frankly it’s done so much harm in the world, I am pretty sure no one is going to mind me adding one more accusation.) The DDS clusters like minded things together. And that’s what we always do when trying to solve a problem. We cluster the data, theories, methods, colleagues we think we’ll need when in fact we should be invited serendipity into our lives to give us the chance for those metaphoric materials.
This leaves us with a problem. To harness the innovation paradox, we need ideas we can’t possibly guess we need. We must canvass concepts that are entirely unrelated to our present problem set. We need to find away to get away from the problem the hand and to give our deeper powers of pattern recognition a chance to work.
In sum, we have to go somewhere, and we have no clue where. We have to engage new ideas, but we have no clue which.
Every lunch table, especially when staffed with smart, interesting people, can serve to help us harness the Innovation paradox. But surely, we can do a little better than this. Surely, there is some way of narrowing the range of our stimuli in order to increase the chances of "contact."
Your thoughts, please.