Cats, cigars and other secrets of innovation

My wife is taking a course in brainstorming, she told me today.  And I’m sure it will be  useful.  I once took a course in brainstorming and it helped a lot.

But I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes creativity doesn’t need a group or a storm.  It doesn’t need a process or a method.  All it takes is a cat or a cigar.

I ran across this paragraph from the Wikipedia entry for Reginald Fessenden (1866-1932), a Canadian inventor and personal hero.  (Fessenden is famous for having applied to work with Edison, remarking, “Do not know anything about electricity, but can learn pretty quick.”  Edison replied, “Have enough men now who do not know about electricity.”)

fessenden“An inveterate tinkerer, Fessenden eventually became the holder of more than 500 patents. He could often be found in a river or lake, floating on his back, a cigar sticking out of his mouth and a hat pulled down over his eyes. At home he liked to lie on the carpet, a cat on his chest. In this state of relaxation, Fessenden could imagine, invent and think his way to new ideas, including a version of microfilm, that helped him to keep a compact record of his inventions, projects and patents. He patented the basic ideas leading to reflection seismology, a technique important for its use in exploring for petroleum. In 1915 he invented the fathometer, a sonar device used to determine the depth of water for a submerged object by means of sound waves, for which he won Scientific American’s Gold Medal in 1929.  Fessenden also received patents for tracer bullets, paging, a television apparatus, turbo electric drive for ships, and more.”

We can’t organize or manage ideas.  We can’t regiment creativity.  But as innovation becomes increasing the first business of business, and the way we hope to survive a turbulent world, we are inclined to force the issue.

Cigars have gone out of fashion.  But are we spending enough time with a cat on our chests?  

4 thoughts on “Cats, cigars and other secrets of innovation”

  1. I’m a big non-believer in brainstorming – at least as I understand the process. In my line of work the good ideas tend to come during periods of defocus after you have been working extremely hard on a problem. Consulting with others here and there helps, but the good ideas are rarely (never in my case) seeded in collaborative task based get togethers. I have had several ‘cat on chest’ moments, although not that exact path.

  2. I have also thought that solitude and some kind of presence in the moment were the main factors for coming up with a great idea. No distractions. And I guess we’ve all had that “Eureka” moment when we came up with something by ourselves. However, being able to generate fast ideas, build upon them and get instant feedback is only possible through dialogue. And although at design agencies, for example, brainstorming sessions take up way more productive time than necessary, they successfully take advantage of people’s natural desire to communicate and exchange ideas… But again, it all comes down to personal preference.

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