“The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas.”

Chemist Dr. Linus Pauling (1901-1994)

via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Edison has always been widely known as one of the great innovators with nearly 1100 US and global patents to his name, but he actually sits in 4th position after Australian Kia Siverbrook (4360), Japanese Shunpei Yamazaki (2744) and another Aussie Paul Lapstun (1154). I understand that this identifies prolific inventors rather than necessarily inventors of significantly important items, but it is still an important indicator of great thinking skills.

It has made me wonder why some people can be such creative and innovative thinkers whilst others can go through life without one single original thought ever coming into their heads.

The reality is that for many senior business people, never having an original idea can be quite a serious advantage to their careers, as promotions in many companies go more often to those who can show that they are able to protect the status quo, rather than to those who threaten their colleagues with anything as dramatic as creative thought and change.

via Wikimedia Commons

I have come to understand that inspiration, let’s call it “great ideas”, must come via a number of other possible avenues beyond just experience, education and high intelligence.

1. Becoming obsessed with something

Success can more often than not be a direct result of a serious, driven obsession. Edwin C. Barnes was obsessed with becoming a business partner to Thomas Edison, and travelled by freight train to Edison’s offices starting work as a general “dogsbody” doing things that no-one else wanted to do. But Barnes’ relentless obsession drove him to prove his worth by taking on the selling the “Ediphone” dictating machine that no-one else had ever been able to sell. Edison was so impressed that he made Barnes his business partner. Mission accomplished.

2. Problem solving mindset

Some people can identify an obstacle and see only the obstacle, while others have an ability to see an obstacle and immediately start devising solutions to overcome it. The skill to be able to see a way to overcome a problem is a great starting point for innovation, and despite the plethora of creative thinking programmes, such as making people pass their colleagues through a rope maze, is still a rare commodity.

3. Ability to improve on what already exists

I have always been impressed with James Dyson, best known for his invention of the dual cyclone bag-less vacuum cleaner, which has helped him build an estimated net worth of over $ 1.5 B. He took a concept that had been around for about 100 years and changed it for the better, in the same way that he has done with the contrarotator washing machine, ballbarrow and his latest, the airblade, which unlike previous hot air hand dryers does not necessitate finally wiping one’s hands on one’s tie to actually achieve dry hands.

Author: Nobuyuki Hayashi; via Wikimedia Commons

4. Having great intuition

It’s hard to be able to quantify how much actual “gut feel” or intuition plays in the generation of creative thought but I have little doubt that we are becoming less intuitive as we start to rely more and more on electronic gadgetry and the push towards logical thinking as a critical skill. However I feel that intuition can play a significant role in having some people push on in a specific direction, believing that they are right, when everyone around them tells them that it can’t be done.

5. Ability to focus without being distracted

Some people have a wonderful ability to stay focussed on what they are doing no matter what is happening around them. When it comes to admiring this ability to focus, I always think of Johnny Wilkinson lining up a penalty kick or a conversion in that unusual “praying on the toilet” stance, in front of 80,000 screaming spectators at Twickenham. I have no idea what he uses to disregard everything around him and to stay focussed on just the task at hand, but I believe that it is that same level of concentration that can be the right environment for great thoughts to be able to flourish.

6. A great team

I strongly believe that working in a high performance, exciting team of creative, questioning people, under skilled leadership is exactly the breeding ground for innovation and the generation of great ideas. I am not a big fan of brainstorming sessions (See “Innovation and Brainstorming” posted May 16, 2011), but I do believe that the passion and energy that can be generated by a great team is a potential innovation powerhouse.

7. Having some successes

Success breeds success, and the more successes that can be had will help to spur any group to achieve more. Xerox PARC was just such a place in the 1970s and they developed significant breakthrough technologies such as laser printing, Ethernet, personal computing and the graphical user interface (GUI) just to name a few. Knowing that you can do it is a wonderful springboard for doing it again and again. However, it doesn’t hurt to have some failures as well along the way as, if correctly handled, we can learn a lot from a few screw-ups. James Yorke (renowned mathematician) had it right when he said “The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B”.

8. Doing something you love

Being able to do something that you are really passionate about is the best starting point for any endeavour. Sometimes having tunnel vision and getting too close can get in the way of creative thought, but it is rare to see people who have been successful in some area of activity that they actually hate.

As was so well said by Harvey Firestone (1868-1938), founder of Firestone Tyre Company,

“Capital isn’t so important in business. Experience isn’t so important. You can get both these things. What is important is ideas. If you have ideas, you have the main asset you need, and there isn’t any limit to what you can do with your business and your life.”



  1. Frank says:

    Les, 8 out of 8..enjoyable read and thought provoking. Regards, Frank

  2. Günter says:

    Les, thanks for the ingredients for a tasty inspiration menu. I wonder, what are the implications for corporations? Companies are facing fierce competition in innovation. Competitive advantage is increasingly a matter of inspiration and creation of relevant knowledge. To exploit the firm´s potential of inspiration, knowledge and innovation , leadership skills are required that facilitate and utilise inspiration and the knowledge creating process.

    • leshayman says:

      Gunter … you are 100% right and the problem is that building a culture of innovation is a much about behaviour (for example how does a company handle failures) as it is about intelligence and education. The biggest barrier is that many (most ?) senior execs don’t trust creative people as they threaten the status quo … bit of a catch-22. Les

  3. Heinz Roggenkemper says:

    One small objection: the number of patents measure inventions, not innovation, and there is a big difference between the two.

  4. Adriana says:

    I’ve read about an experiment done in the art section within a college in the US. Students were divided in two:

    1. The first team will get a grade for creating as many pots as possible during a semester, no matter how inspired or not, no matter the quality. They were explicitly told that the quantity of the pots is the only evaluated criterion.

    2. The second team was asked to do design only one perfect pot. They were explicitly told that the quality of design will be the only criterion of evaluation.

    The result was that after one semester, the team that had created an enormous number of pots, had also designed some extraordinary art pieces, that couldn’t be compared with the mediocre one designed by the second team.


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