In an economy based on innovation — an economy in which you can win big just by outthinking the competition — those three words form what might be the most important phrase in business. But what does it take to come up with an idea? How can some people and some organizations generate a seemingly endless supply of ideas, while others struggle to come up with anything fresh, creative, or out of the ordinary? We put that question to some of the most innovative minds in the world — inventors, artists, writers, business-model makers — and guess what they all said? "Here's an Idea!"
Frederick W. Smith
Chairman, President, and CEO
There are two keys to innovation. The first is the ability to think beyond relatively conventional paradigms and to examine traditional constraints using nontraditional thinking. You have to be able to go outside your own frame of reference and find another way to look at a problem. Before I founded Federal Express, overnight delivery didn't exist on a national scale. My innovation involved taking an idea from the telecommunications and banking industries, and applying that idea to the transportation business. Using a central clearinghouse, along with a hub-and-spoke system of dissemination, enabled us to deliver, point-to-point, anywhere in the United States — absolutely, positively overnight.
The second key to innovation is the ability to discern the important issues and to keep your real goal in view. I don't think that we understood our real goal when we first started Federal Express. We thought that we were selling the transportation of goods; in fact, we were selling peace of mind. When we finally figured that out, we pursued our goal with a vengeance. We provided each of our drivers with a handheld computer and a transmitting device. We made it possible for our customers to track their packages right from their desktops. Companies get into real trouble when they see a means as an end — when they fail to change their business processes: That's when some interloper comes along and does it for them.
Frederick W. Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) first proposed the idea of overnight delivery in a paper that he wrote as an undergraduate at Yale University. (The now-famous paper earned him only a C from his
professor.) Smith founded Federal Express in 1971, and he is now chairman, president, and CEO of the $17 billion company. FedEx Corp. delivers nearly 5 million packages worldwide each business day.
Saint Paul, Minnesota
Innovation requires a fresh way of looking at things, an understanding of people, and an entrepreneurial willingness to take risks and to work hard. An idea doesn't become an innovation until it is widely adopted and incorporated into people's daily lives. Most people resist change, so a key part of innovating is convincing other people that your idea is a good one — by enlisting their help, and, in doing so, by helping them see the usefulness of the idea.
When I first started telling people about my idea for Post-it Notes, no one understood what I was talking about. People had never heard of a "repositionable note," and they couldn't conceive of such a phenomenon. So, of course, no one believed that there was a market for it. Formal research showed a potential for only about $750,000 worth of business. I had to launch my own campaign to get the project off the ground. I gave away repositionable notes to secretaries and other key people in the company, and I kept track of usage and feedback. If someone felt that the notes were unnecessary, then I'd stop giving away samples to that person. Within a short time, everyone realized how much they had come to rely on those notes: They had become addicted to them.
We went through the same process in marketing Post-it Notes. At first, advertising didn't work — because people had no idea what the product was. I had to plead with management not to kill the idea. In the end, we marketed the notes by giving out samples. We realized that people had to try the product in order to appreciate it.
Art Fry (email@example.com) came up with the idea for Post-it Notes during church-choir practice. It's a story that has become almost a legend in the annals of innovation: The scraps of paper that he used to mark his hymnal would constantly fall out, and he felt the need for a more cooperative bookmark. At the time, he was working in new-product development for the retail-tape division of 3M and had been trying to figure out what to do with a new, low-tack adhesive that a coworker, Spencer Silver, had invented. The result, Post-it Notes, celebrates its 20th birthday this month.
Mary Ellen Heyde
Vehicle Line Director of Lifestyle Vehicles
Ford Motor Co.
At Ford, we always try to hire people from diverse backgrounds. We do that because we realize that good ideas come when people with different perspectives work together on the same problem.
If you have a diverse workforce, then you know that the customer's point of view will always be represented. When we created the Windstar minivan, we had a lot of women both on the design team and on the marketing committee — which was good, because the Windstar is used mostly by women. On Take Our Daughters to Work Day, kids give us feedback on our products. We also have a car-lease program for our employees, and we ask the spouses of the lessees for their thoughts about various cars. If we didn't get that kind of input, then we'd miss out on good ideas.
For example, with the Windstar, we created what we call "sleeping-baby mode" for the overhead light. One of the women on the Windstar electrical team has young children, and she said that her car's overhead light always wakes them up after a night drive. So, when we designed the Windstar, we provided an option for having only the floor lighting turn on when you open a door.
Mary Ellen Heyde (firstname.lastname@example.org) was responsible for the engineering and planning of the 1999 Windstar, and oversaw the development of the "Windstar Moms" advertising campaign. She has been in charge of the Windstar, from concept to customer, since 1995. She is also the product manager for three other models: the Mercury Villager, the Ford Mustang, and the Ford Thunderbird.
Senior Vice President for Internet Architecture and Technology
MCI WorldCom, Inc.
I'm a proponent of the jujitsu method of innovation. Jujitsu teaches you to take advantage of your opponent's momentum. I like to take advantage of what already exists — to grab the intellectual momentum and then use it to advance an application into the mainstream. When Robert Kahn and I were creating TCP/IP (a set of protocols that makes it possible to link various networks around the world), we decided not to require the networks that support it to change in any way. Instead, we took advantage of what already existed, and we avoided adding another layer of complexity.
People often take the view that standardization is the enemy of creativity. But I think that standards help make creativity possible — by allowing for the establishment of an infrastructure, which then leads to enormous entrepreneurialism, creativity, and competitiveness.
When it comes to innovation, the question is not how to innovate but how to invite ideas. How do you invite your brain to encounter thoughts that you might not otherwise encounter? Creative people let their minds wander, and they mix ideas freely. Innovation often comes from unexpected juxtapositions, from connecting subjects that aren't necessarily related. Another way to generate ideas is to treat a problem as though it were generic. If you're experiencing a particular problem, odds are that other people are experiencing it too. Generate a solution, and you may have an innovation.
Vinton Cerf (email@example.com), together with Robert Kahn, devised TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), a set of standard protocols that serves as the common "language" of the Internet. TCP/IP enables networks to communicate with one another and to share information through "gateways" that process information according to a single standard.
Dancer, Choreographer, and Director
New York, New York
In much of my work, creation comes from studying relationships between movements and dancers. It also comes from believing that even the most outrageous associations can be valid. Creativity requires quite a lot of faith — not just in yourself but also in the knowledge that you have the right to proceed, even when you may not know exactly what you're doing.
You also need to have faith that life is composed not of alien or segregated elements but of related components. Creativity comes from having an inquisitive mind, from being easily bored, from wanting to challenge the status quo. It comes from people who look for alternatives.
My parents were successful businesspeople — precisely because they embodied those qualities. They had faith in their ability to see broad and profound connections. They started out on dirt farms in Indiana, and, having built business after business (a car dealership, drive-in movie theaters, a construction company), they ended up in southern California. They put four kids through college at a time when it was very difficult to do so.
How did living on dirt farms in Indiana teach my parents how to run a drive-in theater? It allowed them to see the relationships between dirt, earth, land, and property. Some farmers look out, see earth, and think of it only in terms of their crops. Other farmers look out, see earth, and perceive many different possibilities — from farming, to owning land, to building drive-in theaters. They don't limit the meaning of what they see; they're willing to change the way they think. They have faith that what they know today will be relevant in a totally different way tomorrow.
Twyla Tharp (firstname.lastname@example.org) was born in Portland, Indiana. Her mother, a piano teacher, began teaching Tharp how to play the piano when she was two. A dancer, choreographer, and director, Tharp has an inventive, spirited style that combines elements of jazz, tap, ballet, and modern dance. She has choreographed for the American Ballet Theatre, the Royal Ballet, and the Paris Opera Ballet, and she has collaborated with such artists as composers Philip Glass and David Byrne, and film director Milos Forman (on "Hair," "Ragtime," and "Amadeus"). In 1985, Baryshnikov by Tharp, which aired on PBS, earned Tharp two Emmy Awards. And in 1992, she received a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant."
New Enterprise Associates
Menlo Park, California
What you really have to do, if you want to be creative, is to unlearn all of the teasing and censoring that you've experienced throughout your life. When I was chief scientist at Bell Labs, I tried very hard to rid the company of lawyer jokes. Lawyer jokes put people down, and putting people down stifles creativity. I think that society has done a pretty good job of ridding itself of anti-Semitic jokes and anti-black jokes. Now we have to get rid of other critical jokes — anti-woman jokes, homophobic jokes, and, yes, anti-lawyer jokes.
People are always looking for reasons to tease someone, and anyone who is the least bit different is fair game. The threat of being teased keeps everyone conforming as much as possible. It also creates strong barriers to creativity. Corporations spend a lot of money encouraging people to be creative, while tacitly ensuring just the opposite. They operate with a men's locker-room mentality: a bunch of guys snapping one another's bare buttocks with a towel.
Has anyone ever told you that you shouldn't do something because it's not ladylike or gentlemanly? If you were smart, you didn't listen. But I'll bet you still wonder about it sometimes. Once in a while, you lie awake thinking about all of the rules that you've learned — and feeling bad about having violated them. But if you're a truly creative person, you know that feeling insecure and lonely is par for the course. You can't have it both ways: You can't be creative, and conform too. You have to recognize that what makes you different also makes you creative.
Arno Penzias (email@example.com) won the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics for discovering, with Robert Wilson, staticlike radiation that provided watershed evidence of the Big Bang. He was vice president of research at Bell Labs from 1981 until 1995, when he became chief scientist at Lucent Technologies. He retired in 1998 and now mentors startup companies for New Enterprise Associates, a venture-capital firm.
New York, New York
In order to allow ourselves to be creative, we have to relinquish control and overcome fear. Why? Because real creativity is life-altering. It threatens the status quo; it make us see things differently. It brings about change, and we are terrified of change.
Human beings are born with a great deal of creativity, and by the age of 12, we've lost most of it. The world just slams it out of us. Our teachers and parents tell us that what comes from our imagination isn't true; it's just "imaginary." I think that what's imaginary is truer than what's "real." Adults prefer facts, because facts are limited. Like truth, imagination is unlimited, so many people are afraid of it.
Go outside at night in the country, where the sky is very clear. Then look up. Each one of those tiny points in the sky is a flaming sun. We're a tiny part of an enormous universe, which may be one of many universes. No one really knows for sure what's out there. So we use our imagination. Imagination allows us to ask big questions — questions that scare us, and for which we don't have easy answers.
We live in a wild universe — a universe in which the truth is frightening. My son died last December. He was only 47 years old. That's scary, and it's lousy, but it's true. Creativity comes from accepting that you're not safe, from being absolutely aware, and from letting go of control. It's a matter of seeing everything — even when you want to shut your eyes.
Madeleine L'Engle is best known for her 1963 Newbury Medal-winning children's classic, "A Wrinkle in Time," and its three sequels. A writer-in-residence and a librarian at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, she has written more than 40 works of fiction, poetry, autobiography, and theology. Her most recent book, "Mothers and Sons"
(Harold Shaw, 1999), is a collection of photographs and meditations that she worked on with her daughter Maria Rooney. L'Engle is now working on two new books.
Inventor and Founder
The Bootstrap Institute
These days, the problem isn't how to innovate; it's how to get society to adopt the good ideas that already exist. Sure, innovation is critical, but it doesn't amount to anything unless the rest of the world does something with it. I've spent years spinning my wheels, trying to get the world to act on the potential that's out there. I invented the computer mouse in 1963, and the world didn't adopt it until nearly 20 years later. When the mouse first came out, people thought that it was too hard to use! So Apple's mouse has just one button on it.
Why? Because everything has to be easy to use! That mentality has retarded our growth. Everything must be easy to use — but from whose perspective? From the perspective of a brand-new user? What about the user who has a little more experience?
The business of knowledge work can and should move ahead more quickly. Computers can help us augment the human intellect — if we let them. I'm trying to get the world to wake up and to start taking advantage of this potential.
Douglas Engelbart (firstname.lastname@example.org) debuted the first mouse — his best-known invention — at a San Francisco conference in 1968. At that same conference, he also demonstrated an array of visionary applications. The Bootstrap Institute (www.bootstrap.org), which Engelbart founded with his daughter Christina, offers colloquiums, management seminars, consulting services, and educational publications and videotapes.
Artist and Author
Englewood, New Jersey
Creativity comes from our earliest desire to play. I often hear people say that when you get older, you forget to play. I disagree. After all, if you aren't having any fun doing whatever you do, then you're probably not going to do very much of it. We adults play all the time. We have tons of "toys" to play with, and when we get involved with our toys — our computers, our cameras — we lose ourselves. Fiddling with our toys is a form of meditation: It takes us away from our physical selves and away from the reality of life, and it allows us to dream. It mesmerizes us. Our gadgets enable us to work and play at the same time. When we're using them, time zips by. That experience is a great gift, and it's why some people work all the time.
The great enemy of creativity is fear. When we're fearful, we freeze up — like a nine-year-old who won't draw pictures, for fear that everybody will laugh. Creativity has a lot to do with a willingness to take risks. Think about how children play. They run around the playground without thinking about where they're going. They trip, they fall down, and then they get up again and run some more. They have a wonderful belief: that everything will be all right. They feel capable; they let go; they play. Good businesspeople behave in a similar way: They lose $15 million, gain $20 million, lose $30 million, and earn it back. If that isn't playing, then I don't know what is!
No matter how many facts and figures you have, you can't predict the future. There will always be surprises. Things that are supposed to be successful won't be, and things that are supposed to fail will succeed. Creativity helps us realize that we don't have to understand everything. We can enjoy something — feel it and use it — without ever fully comprehending it.
Faith Ringgold (email@example.com) creates colorfully painted quilts that document the lives of African Americans by telling vivid stories of race, politics, and identity. She has turned some of her narratives into children's books, the first of which, "Tar Beach" (Crown Publishers, 1991), won a Caldecott Honor Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration. Ringgold's work can be viewed in many museums, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. Learn more about Ringgold on the Web
If you want to innovate, you have to have three things: a certain level of knowledge about your field; a great desire to do something useful, either for society or for an industry; and an objective. Your objective may be broad or narrow, but you must have one. You must be willing to try different approaches to a problem, and you must not give up until you find an answer.
There is one other necessary quality: a receptive mind. You have to be open to the unexpected, so that, if you come upon a discovery, you'll recognize it and act upon it. If I hadn't had an open mind back in 1965, I never would have discovered how to make the fiber that is used in bulletproof vests.
I was working for DuPont at the time, and I had been asked to create a fiber that would be strong enough to reinforce radial tires. Working with a group of polymers, I made an unusual-looking solution. It was liquid crystalline — meaning that it had the molecular organization of matchsticks, rather than of cooked spaghetti (as was usually the case). No one — including me — had ever seen a polymer solution like this one before. It was watery and cloudy — which led some people to believe that it had some sort of solid material in it. In order to turn a polymer solution into a fiber, you have to spin the solution in a machine called a spinneret. It took me a few weeks to convince the person who was in charge of the equipment to try spinning the solution, because he thought that doing so would clog the spinneret.
A large part of innovation is welcoming difference. You have to be open to the unusual and understand that difference is often positive, not negative. A lot of people see something unusual and assume that it's wrong. Innovation is the ability to see something unusual and to recognize that the answer may lie in its difference.
Stephanie Kwolek started working for DuPont upon graduating from college in 1946 and remained with the company until her retirement, 40 years later. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 1996 National Medal of Technology and the 1999 Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award. Kevlar, the material that resulted from Kwolek's work at DuPont, is five times stronger than steel. It is used in such items as bulletproof vests, radial tires, fiber-optic cable, suspension bridges, and spacecraft shells. Kwolek's name appears on 17 U.S. patents.
Founder and Owner
A lot of people think that I invented snowboarding, but that's not true. When I was about 14, I was exposed to a rudimentary product that embodied the concept of snowboarding, but it wasn't very functional or sophisticated. The Snurfer was marketed by Brunswick, a company that also created bowling alleys. An employee at the company had come up with the idea by putting a wooden platform on two skis. Clearly, that company's management never realized the value of what it had. I had no idea that snowboarding would become as popular as it has — but did realize that people would want the product, and I committed energy to making and marketing it.
In certain industries, "innovation" refers to something scientific, or it involves some sort of technical research. I have a completely different perspective. What I do has an element of opportunism to it: It's market-oriented. I think that's how many innovations come about. It's certainly how innovations happen at our company. We ask, "What do people want? What's missing?" There's so much technology in the world today that, whenever you identify a shortcoming, you can find the tools to address it. If the original product is a hassle for people, they'll fork over money for something that's better.
Innovation doesn't have to be complex. I think that a lot of people are intimidated by the prospect of trying to make something better, because they feel that innovation has to be a scientific process. Or they feel that they have to come up with something extraordinary for it to be seen as innovative. Yet the solution is invariably very simple; the tools are usually right there. Problems arise when people don't use their imagination, because they end up making things too complex. But everyone has the ability to make innovation happen.
Jake Burton (firstname.lastname@example.org) left Manhattan — and a potential career on Wall Street — shortly after college, and founded Burton Snowboards in Vermont in 1977. That company now dominates the snowboard industry. Burton prefers to call himself a "pioneer," rather than an inventor. (For the record, Burton did not invent the snowboard; there are snowboards that date back to the 1920s. The other major snowboard pioneer is Tom Sims, of Sims Snowboards, in Seattle.) Snowboarding has fast become a popular sport: In 1998, roughly 3.6 million snowboarders took to the slopes of the United States.
New York, New York
If you want to be creative, don't try to do something new. Doing something new means not doing what's been done before, and that's a negative impulse. Negative impulses are frustrating. They're the opposite of creativity, and they never yield good ideas — not even in business or technology. Creativity starts when you put a line on paper. Then you talk to that line. You make it a partner in conversation. You see that the line can go in different directions: You can make it go left or right, or you can add branches to it. You can think critically about it; you can decide that it is too fat or too thin. You can envision what you want the line to look like. But, whatever you do, don't think about where you can't go.
A salesman who handles my work visited me this morning. He asked me what I've done lately that's "new." Salesmen always ask that question. But that's their problem, not yours. Novelty is a commercial concept; variety is an aesthetic and creative one. If you sit down at a drafting table with the intention of making something new, you'll end up flustered. Creative people always run the risk of making something that already exists, but it's better to create something than nothing. You can throw it away or change it if you want to, but at least you've put down that first line — and started a conversation with yourself.
Eva Zeisel was born to a prosperous Budapest family in 1906. She designed and sold ceramics in Germany and in Russia, where she was charged with plotting to assassinate Stalin. (Lifelong friend Arthur Koestler borrowed from her prison experiences when writing his novel "Darkness at Noon.") In 1938, Zeisel came to the United States, where she began designing dinnerware for Castleton China Co., Hall Craft, Red Wing Pottery, and cookware for General Mills. Reproductions of her work are available from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and from many furniture and design stores. Original examples of her work can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art and at the British Museum.
Robert H. Dennard
IBM T. J. Watson Research Center
Yorktown Heights, New York
Good ideas come from asking questions. I'm constantly asking questions: Why are things the way they are? How can we do that better? Innovation comes from believing that everything has the potential to be improved.
When you ask a question, other questions inevitably follow. And there are many people who, like me, feel obligated to try to answer those questions. That feeling of obligation is very basic to innovation. So is the desire to do something new. It's important to feel that you're expected to make a difference — and that you're qualified to do so. Innovation requires a fundamental belief that individuals are important.
I think that if you want to be an inventor, you really have to know your particular field. That's a fundamental requirement. I'm rather appalled by those "creativity" summer camps, where counselors tell kids that they're going to become inventors. Even simple inventions require some basic knowledge about the laws of physics. There's nothing strange or different about people who innovate; we all start with the same basic abilities. Education is nothing more than the process of asking questions and then looking for answers. Some of us keep on asking questions, and when you spend your life seeking answers to such questions, you become very knowledgeable.
Robert H. Dennard invented DRAM in 1966, thereby making the desktop personal computer possible. Before DRAM — more commonly called RAM — computers were too large to be installed in homes, and they needed to be kept cool with air-conditioning. Dennard has worked at IBM since 1958. He received a National Medal of Technology in 1988 and was inducted into the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1997.
Taos, New Mexico
Creativity is like a water table under the earth. It's not limited to writing or to painting; it's everywhere. It's a life force: You tap it with energy and effort, and it wells up through you. No matter what you do, the first step to tapping creativity is showing up. If you're a writer, you tell yourself that you're going to write for 10 minutes, and then physically move your hand across the page for that amount of time. Maybe you'll produce only one good line, but that's a lot more than you would accomplish by just sitting there. When you're pursuing a particular objective, you have a mind like a pistol. But the harder you chase something, the faster you go — and the less you're able to let life meet life. If you're having difficulty coming up with new ideas, then slow down. For me, slowing down has been a tremendous source of creativity. It has allowed me to open up — to know that there's life under the earth and that I have to let it come through me in a new way. Creativity exists in the present moment. You can't find it anywhere else.
Natalie Goldberg roots her work in her longtime practice of Zen Buddhism. Her first book, "Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within" (Shambhala, 1986), has sold almost 1 million copies and has become something of a textbook for writers everywhere. She is also the author of "Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life" (Bantam Books, 1990) and "Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America" (Bantam Books, 1993), a chronicle of her relationship with her Japanese Zen master. She lives in northern New Mexico, and she holds Zen and creativity workshops all over the country. Learn more about Goldberg on the Web (www.nataliegoldberg.com).
A version of this article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.