Where do ideas come from?

Guest post by Laurent Simon, Associate Professor of Management, HEC Montreal MosaiC

“Everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.” – Atari Inc. founder, engineer, entrepreneur and Video Game Hall of Fame inductee, Nolan Bushnell

We are all, potentially, great generators of ideas. Just as we are all potentially, as Mr. Bushnell notes, great takers of showers. The real challenge lies in giving expression to these ideas, in sharing and enriching them, and ultimately making them happen. Linux’s story is one of the great creative stories of our time – it’s the story of giving life to ideas. With that in mind, we offer three key insights into the creative lifecycle of ideas…

Ideas come from itches…and dreams

“It started from an itch,” recalls Linus Torvalds, head of the Linux initiative. And like any small itch, the longer you leave it the bigger it gets – and the more it needs scratching. So it is with creative thinking, which often originates in the discovery of solutions to minor, day-to-day problems, practical frustrations and dissatisfactions rather than any kind of earth-shaking, revolutionary vision. Though that’s good, too.

Linux’s real-life creative contribution goes further than mere software development – it speaks to a dream of freedom, autonomy, ingenuity and the belief that it’s possible to play with the big boys on the programming block. The evolution of Linux parallels the evolution of ideas generally: from the problem comes the idea, which then ignites the dream and fuels the project. The larger and crazier the dream, the more inspiring and mobilizing the project becomes.

Which brings us to the second key to capitalizing on creativity: you can dream small or dream big, just don’t dream alone.

Ideas come from people

To blossom and to spread, an idea needs to be nurtured. And more than anything, it needs to be shared. It’s time to let go the myth of the lone creative genius and acknowledge that great creators, discoverers and inventors are also social connectors and activators. Linux initially emerged from networks of hackers, hobbyists, militants and activists, but only really started growing as a community of believers. At the urging of Torvalds, the active core of programmers quickly expanded as a loosely structured ecosystem of many satellite communities – each contributing its micro-creativity to advance and enrich the central, kernel idea – while “seducing” new contributors with the sexiness of this new science of ideas. It’s a process that’s not unique to Linux.

Major breakthroughs in arts, science and technology – Picasso did it for Cubism, Alexander Fleming for penicillin, and John Dyson for the vacuum cleaner – are almost always characterized by a pivotal “social moment,” at which point the idea gains traction with potential supporters and contributors. This moment has much to do with the ability to generate excitement around an idea and grow it until it reaches a general threshold of recognition and acceptance. But in order to convince people, the idea also needs to become tangible and concrete. In short, it needs to get its feet on the ground. And then it needs a push.

Ideas come from actions

Programmers embarked on the Linux journey as soon as they saw that the operating system – despite the flaws inherent to a work-in-progress – would actually work. Thomas Edison, who didn’t invent the light bulb, but improved its filament and held its patent, was recognized for his ability to prototype, test and gain knowledge from his experiments. In the present day, sketching, blueprinting, building mockswww.c2montreal.comps and prototyping, for example, appear as standard practices in the most innovative organizations.

“Build and analyze,” say the web pundits. “Release early and often,” say the software developers. IDEO, the industrial design firm, recommends developing concrete scenarios, giving them flesh through fast prototyping, and then “building markets” around the prototypes. Showcasing and test-driving prototypes facilitates fast learning, which in turn accelerates creativity and drives the actualization of functional solutions. Putting ideas into action also functions as a guarantee of new and more ideas – a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of progress.

As managers, movers and shakers, addressing the tough challenges of our times will require rethinking strategies, processes and products/services. There are no recipes or cookbook required, just a profound and collective desire to act. We need to rethink our thoughts through others; we need to “hack” our own practices. We need to reset, reframe and re-launch our organizations and institutions.
But most of all we need to remember that the idea is only as good as the action that follows it.


Guest Post by Laurent Simon, Associate Professor of Management, HEC Montreal MosaiC

Photo: © Jean-Francois Frenette / C2MTL

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