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Thinking in the bath – what’s your Eureka moment going to be in 2012?

January 4, 2012

My plan for today:

1. Download some new iTunes and spend my Christmas gift cards…
2. Go to the gym…
3. Eureka! Think up a brilliant new business idea…

You don’t need a mobile telephone provider’s enthusiastic sales person to tell you we live in a pay-as-you-go world, where all businesses are seeking innovations to make themselves different in very cluttered markets, with a differentiated added-value offer distinct from their nearest competitor.

But big ideas can’t be planned like growing tomatoes in your greenhouse, we stumble upon ideas, and although we can sometimes recall how we got there, we could not have anticipated the discovery in advance. Now I’ve had plenty of baths this Christmas period, it’s a haven for tranquility where I get to relax with Sudoku, my Kindle and general reading (Jamie Oliver’s Christmas With Bells On being a particular favourite this year), but whilst I did some good thinking whilst paddling with the radox, alas I didn’t have one Eureka! moment to shout downstairs about.

The Eureka! exclamation is famously attributed to the Greek scholar Archimedes when he stepped into a bath and noticed that the water level rose – he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he had submerged. He then realised that the volume of irregular objects could be measured with precision, a previously intractable problem. He is said to have been so eager to share his discovery that he leapt out of his bathtub and ran through the streets of Syracuse naked!

Updating Archimedes thinking, The Innovators DNA: Mastering The Five Skills Of Disruptive Innovators – by Dyer, Gregersen and Christensen, was a book I got for Christmas and it gave me some useful insights whilst lingering Archimedesque-like. The key message from their work is that innovation is well within the reach of mere mortals not named Jobs, Bezos or Zuckerberg, anyone can innovate if they follow the five skills of disruptive innovators.

The Innovator’s DNA emerged from an eight-year collaborative study in which they sought to uncover the origins of innovative and often disruptive business ideas. They interviewed nearly a hundred inventors of revolutionary products and services, founders and CEOs of game-changing companies built on innovative business ideas. Their aim was to understand as much about these people as possible, including the moment (when and how) they came up with the creative ideas that launched new products or businesses. As they reflected on the interviews, they identified five discovery skills that distinguish innovative entrepreneurs from everyday folk. They are:

  • Questioning which allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities, often drawing connections between unrelated fields
  • Observing scrutinizing the behaviours in the activities of customers, suppliers, and competitors that suggests new ways of doing things.
  • Networking meeting people from diverse backgrounds, to gain radically different perspectives, including contradictions and paradoxes.
  • Experimenting constructing interactive experiences and provoking unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge, to relentlessly take things apart and test new ideas.
  • Associational Thinking – drawing connections between questions, problems, or ideas from unrelated fields – is triggered by questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting and is the catalyst for creativity.

When engaged in consistently, these actions – questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting – they triggered associational thinking to produce pioneering, original breakthrough ideas.

One interesting moment I did have was reading that scientists have discovered why Archimedes had to relax in a bath before discovering his famous principle. Psychologists have been interested in learning what thought processes are involved in those moments of clarity, when the solution to a vexing problem falls into place with a blinding flash. Now a study published in the journal PLoS ONE by a team led by Dr Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths College, London, and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna, reveals how relaxing the brain, and not being too focused, is the key to creativity.

The team studied brain rhythms while volunteers solved verbal problems. Often the participants reached a state of mental block and could not progress further, marked by excessive amount of gamma brain rhythm (one linked with focused attention).

This was confirmed when the volunteers were given hints. Researchers found that by studying brain rhythms, it was possible to predict the success or failure three or four seconds later. Those showing higher alpha brain rhythm (linked with a relaxed brain with free floating ideas) in the right side of the brain would lead to the correct solution. Those showing gamma rhythms and stuck in one particular way of thinking were less successful.

It was the great scientist Louis Pasteur who declared that Chance favours the prepared mind, and it seems that sudden flashes of insight don’t just happen, but are the product of preparation when the brain is relaxed and receptive to free floating ideas.

Air conditioning provides a useful way to support this hypothesis.  One night in 1902, an ambitious young American engineer named Willis Carrier was waiting for a train, watching fog roll in across the platform, when he had a sudden flash of insight: he could exploit the principle of fog to cool buildings. He patented the idea, protected it fiercely, put his new invention into production, and made a fortune. In 2007, the still-surviving Carrier Corporation generated $15bn sales. As eureka moments go, even Archimedes might have had to concede that Carrier’s was impressive.

So what’s going to be your Eureka! moment for 2012? According to the Mayans and their Mesoamerican Long Count calendar (did I tell you I got a book for Christmas….), 2012 is the year in which we all call it day. Just imagine for a moment that all the doomsday prophets are right and that in less than a year the South Pole decides to take a holiday somewhere near the Equator.  Apart from the obvious death, despair, heartbreak, texting and twittering that would go with such an event, it would also make the 2012 plan you’re working on right now your last. Your legacy. The sum of what you stand for.

So when you look at your plans for 2012, would you want it to be the one that defines you?  Is it the one in which your innovative thinking enables you to renew and accelerate the growth of your business? Or is it a cut and paste from the ones that have gone before – a Plan B (there isn’t a Plan A, so let’s settle for this…) who’s biggest achievement is that it maintains the status quo?

Make Eureka! your mantra for 2012. Be like Dick Fosbury, develop a be different revolutionary plan full of agile thinking and push your aspiration towards a Personnel Best. Remember, it’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be.

Be curious, adopt an innovation-fuelled mind-set. Curiosity moves you from the sidelines right into the game. It’s an entry ticket to the playing field, without curiosity, you are a mere spectator. Think of your business as a game of chess; at any point in the game, several ingenious and audacious moves may be possible, and at the same time, cautious and restrained alternatives will also present themelves. Be bold, relax (remember the research) and go for it. As Ernest Shackleton said, reach beyond your expectations.

Happy 2012! The dna 2012 motto is Innervation© Make it count, where it matters – inside. I wish you the very best with those ideas that you plan to pursue and make them a reality!

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