Confusion about when to praise, when to probe, and when to argue with an idea is killing creativity in business. And the scary thing is some of the most innovative tools being put in place to increase the flow of ideas are just as effective at killing the spirit as in the old days of rapid confrontation.
I’ve been thinking about this as I read The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn By Louisa Guilder. Here key ‘conversations’ are reconstructed between some of science’s greatest. You get an inside peek at the way ideas can be had, proposed and defended in a very rigorous mathematical and experimental environment.
Now I’m not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV. But I do have quite a bit of experience shepherding breakthrough ideas through a system – and that is where Guilder’s book struck a nerve.
“Physics, in actuality, is a never-ending search made by human beings. … The schoolbook simplifications obscure the crooked, strange, and fascinating paths that stretch out from each idea, not only back into the past but also onward into the future. While we aspire to universality and perfection, we are lying if we write as if we have achieved it.” — The Age of Entanglement – Louisa Guilder
Each chapter moves us through a critical juncture in the growing comprehension of quantum physics and a spooky phenomena known as entanglement. (Star Trek and Stargate fans love this, as it appears to be a path towards the Transporter and Stargate.)
The entanglement idea has taken the following shorthand path:
- 1935 – Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen write a paper exploring this weird issue implied by early quantum theories. The paper was sneered at and ignored.
- 1964 – John Bell resurrected the ideas in the paper and ‘briefly, beautifully and conclusively’ demonstrated the existence of entanglement.
- Today – Work continues to understand what Bell’s and Einstein’s work unearthed. (Quantum computer anybody?)
One of humanity’s most brilliant identifies an issue and it takes thirty years for anybody to seriously follow up? Yup. Maybe because it took time for math, experiments, and quantum thinking to catch up. Maybe because there were other things to do that seemed to matter more. And, maybe because it was such an earth shattering idea no one even wanted to get their heads around it.
I’ve seen ideas take this kind of tortured path in the business world. The truth is, the most innovative, most creatively destructive ideas always take time. Always must be tested. Always destroy careers of the unlucky and make geniuses out of the lucky. (Eg. The Apple Newton was sneered at and failed to deliver what the iPhone used to transform the cell phone industry. Of course in this case Jobs was given two chances.)
I’m going to try and tie this into several other factors that hinder business creativity overall (and why creative folks flee from dealing with the ‘suits’ even when they are suits themselves.) These include:
- The damage caused by ‘faint praise’ and ‘nice try’ from childhood on.
- Strategies for probing and testing ideas.
- The difference between ‘all ideas are good’ in a brainstorm vs a proposal.
- The need to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty and before analytic tools catch up.
- Differentiating between saving old ideas vs living with the impact of new ideas.
- Difficulties in killing a bad idea.
Creativity is killed as effectively by miss-handling a bad idea as it is by refusing to recognize a good one. It is a tightrope managers must walk if they want to maximize productivity and innovation.
See why this all ties in with Uncertainty yet?
The conversations in Guilder’s book are ‘reconstructed’ from comments made in writing or reported by the participants. A creative way to inject life into a potentially dry subject. They also provide a glimpse into the process science takes to identify and vet ideas worth pursuing which I will explore in terms of business creativity. It involves personalities that range from rude, polite, condescending, brotherly, antagonistic… you get the idea. It’s your average workforce but with above average intelligence.
Understanding the path quantum theories have taken helps expose strategies that can help your great idea take another step in its path towards fruition, even when the odds are long.
I’m only about half way through Guilder’s book. But it has been such a rich resource I wanted to start sharing my thoughts. This being a blog – the ideas are going up as I explore them, so hopefully we’ll generate some arguments of our own that can be incorporated as we go along.
Thanks for reading!