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What if ….I did something different?

July 3, 2011

Sometimes when grappling with a problem, we find a solution to another. Time and again, people have accidentally encountered phenomena that were unexpected, recognised them as twists of fate, and followed their curiosity and taken their thinking in another direction. For example, Alexander Graham Bell was working on designing a hearing aid (all his family were deaf) when he accidentally invented the telephone., whilst Dmitri Mendeleev developed the Periodic Table of elements by playing around with packs of cards looking for number patterns. Both were accidents of discovery, but by being inquisitive and following their impulses, great results emerged from these two great pioneers.

Another good example of this is the Japanese inventor Soichiro Honda, who was a self-taught engineer. He was working on a piston design, which he hoped to sell to Toyota, but the first drafts of his design were rejected. Soichiro worked painstakingly to perfect the design, even going back to school and pawning his wife’s jewelry for collateral. Eventually, he won a contract with Toyota and built a factory to construct pistons for them. Some years later, due to a fuel shortage during World War II, Honda was unable to use his car and had the novel idea of attaching a small engine to his bicycle to power it along. This attracted much curiosity, and he established the Honda Technical Research Institute to develop and produce small two-wheel cycle motorbike engines. Calling upon 18,000 bicycle shop owners across Japan as investors and customers, Soichiro received enough capital to engineer his first motorcycle, the Honda Cub. This marked the start of the Honda Motor Company, which would grow to be the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles by 1964.

From rejection, to a spark of a new idea seeking a solution to a different problem, a whole company was born. Soichiro often said working in silence where I can hear myself think was the best way of focusing on his ideas, which often started out as a blank piece of paper, and were unclear, ambiguous and chaotic.

Often people limit their creative thoughts for fear of what others might think. However, when drumming up ideas, don’t hesitate to ask dumb questions and explore ridiculous proposals you may stumble of something that has been overlooked but was actually staring you in the face, as Soichiro found out. As Roald Dahl said in Charlie and The Chocolate factory, a little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest man. So start with the ridiculous! Learn to expect the unexpected, serendipity is where we find things of value when we’re not looking for them. Creativity is the defeat of habit by originality, go to where you are pulled and you’ll end up in the middle of the most marvelous conversations.

Our minds tend to get stuck in certain places, we start to accept familiar and adequate solutions when we could discover much better ones if we searched wider and stretched our thinking. In every good idea we have, we recognise our rejected thoughts more than the good idea we create. Savour your spilt milk, an ability to use accidental discoveries after a period of frustration and inertia is a characteristic of entrepreneurs. If you’re on the wrong track from where you started and where you wanted to end up, you could still be on the right track to something completely different – and potentially more exciting. The thinking journey is a worthwhile pursuit in its own right, as shown by Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who discovered LSD properties by unintentionally ingesting it at his lab, and Alexander Fleming – his discovery of penicillin where he accidentally left a petri dish of Staphylococcus bacteria open. Both took the opportunity to start from somewhere they didn’t expect to be, and just followed their instinct.

Take this approach to creative thinking – either problem solving or developing a new idea – into you day-to-day business activities. Accept that what lies around the corner is most likely to be unexpected, messy, frustrating and confusing. However, learn to look around corners and let others walk in a straight line. The business landscape is full of surprises, paradox, curiosity, fear, uncertainty frailty, bliss, connectivity, squabbles, drift and serendipity, so it’s no surprise when you find yourself wandering. But have no fear, learn to love breakdowns and crises. In response, shoot for the stars and think the unthinkable. As Einstein said, we can’t solve problems with the same level of thinking that got us here in the first place. So take a page out of Soichiro’s guidebook, accepting turbulence is part of the process of setting new horizons. Think beyond your current boundaries and reach beyond your expectations, after all recall that other famous scientist Louis Pasteur –  chance favours the prepared mind.

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