Innovation Wednesday: Where Do Ideas Come From?

That's a core question here at Fast Company. I'm always interested to learn where creative people find inspiration. For Sir James Dyson, it's annoyances from everyday life; hand dryers that left his hands moist sent him off to the lab to create a better solution. For Brian Hassemer, a senior engineer at Motorola, the magnetic catch on his kitchen cabinets was the inspiration for closing a flip phone. Ayse Birsel found patterns in nature that suggested an organic angle (120 degrees) to incorporate in an office furniture system.

Last week I read a piece in the New York Times about Hollywood producer Brian Grazer. Imagine Entertainment, which he runs with director Ron Howard, is the production company behind hit movies such as A Beautiful Mind and American Gangster, as well as three of my favorite TV shows, Arrested Development, Sports Night, and Friday Night Lights. Grazer takes a remarkably disciplined approach to feeding his own eclectic mind.

"For the last 20 years," Allison Hope Weiner wrote in the Times, "Mr. Grazer has met each week with a person who is an expert in science, medicine, politics, fashion, religion - anything other than entertainment." A get-together with trial lawyers inspired Liar, Liar, a comedy about a lawyer afflicted with truth-telling. An encounter with a former F.B.I. agent led to the new Fox series The F.B.I.

"I want to do things that have a better chance of being thought of as original," Grazer said. "I do everything I can to disrupt my comfort zone."

Walter Sullivan, my wise and patient creative-writing teacher in college, used to advise the class, "Write what you know." It's great advice. But Grazer's weekly habit underscores an equally important principle: Keep learning.

So, my fellow InnoWedders, what do you do to get out of your comfort zone?

Add New Comment

24 Comments

  • Tom Gourley

    For years I have encouraged my staff, when attending training and conferences, to sit with someone they do not know and to engage them in conversation. Learn something new, meet and converse with someone who might have a different way of learning or even insights to things you knew nothing about. Shared stories have been the catalist of many innovations as one responded above. Still, one of the theories of change is: change happens when the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of remaining the same. Irritation and aggravation can be wonderful stimuli for innovation. Sometimes things I have seen years ago become solutions for today because of some irritating observation bringing them back into conscious memory.

  • roger jolley

    I work at letting go of what I know 24/7. This irritates many of my more traditional colleagues who hold on desperately to what they know and defend at the drop of a hat.

    As I lay claim to territory (what I know) I automatically engage in territory conflict, the most intractable of all conflicts. By dropping my claims against others I get to pick up ideas from others and change my thinking patterns without a feeling of threat from others.

    This is not living without principles as an extremists' attack on "my" territory might claim, it is a mature understanding of the dynamic versus static nature of being. Principles evolve and should not prevent growth or creativity. Maintaining static principles in the face of a dynamic world is an expense to creativity while the dynamo roars on by leaving you behind.

  • emerson

    I conduct seminars in and coach creativity for business people. The single most important part of creativity in my opinion is to dislodge the right brain from whatever atrophic state it is in. I lean heavily upon the arts and upon asking questions that appear to be either contradictory or unanswerable. There is something about the mind that will try to resolve the irresolvable and by doing so create remarkable ideas that ultimately come to some practical use. A former boss of mine gave me a pin reading "Only by attempting the ridiculous can we achieve the impossible." How true.

  • Mike Swenson

    Our company's core philosophy is "Every idea has an expiration date." Everyone sees that on a sign when they walk through our front door. Right now, that sign is hanging next to a real telephone booth - an idea whose time has expired. We believe if everyone at Barkley comes to work with that in mind each day, it makes you focus on what is next and keeping our ideas fresh through any means possible.

  • Subra

    The Japanese have a term for this kind of thing - mom-pop theory. The mom is the problem, the pop is the inspiration...

    One of the Toyota family saw an American supermarket shelf being restocked in the 1950s - this was one of the many inspirations for the famous Toyota production system.

  • Nancy A. Shenker

    One habit I incorporate into my business life to foster innovation is attending trade shows in varied industries. Just walking the floor and looking for what's new in a particular business can prompt ideas. I sometimes bring team members with me because the discussion of applications to our clients' businesses can also give rise to innovative uses for products/services/technology and expand our thinking.
    Every business owner should research/write a short article at least once a year (for a blog,e-newsletter, business or consumer media, or presentation). Like a school term paper, this "exercise" forces the writer to dive deeply into a particular topic and think about a challenge from different angles. (Even if it never gets published, it's a great brain expansion exercise!)

  • Joan Harrison

    Take the time to dream, to play, to make mistakes, to be curious - skills that are with us in childhood and often spring to life again in old age. Give a box to a child and it will have lots of fun with it!

  • Brent Quebman

    I find that you have to be a great listener and be able to store data even though it seems irrelevant at the time. You have to be able to truly imagine yourself there and then step back, and imagine from many different perspectives. Once your able to put yourself there, you can imagine scrolling through a selection of solutions. Bits an pieces of what seemed like useless information until something fits. It might be multiple things coming together for the solution.

  • Bob Filipczak

    I wrote about creativity for a magazine many years ago and came across a story I've always wanted to verify.

    The story goes that a geologist at Harvard sat next to a chemistry professor on a bench in Harvard square. He bemoaned the difficulties of finding out how old rocks were, and the chemistry professor told him about Carbon 14. That's apparently how we got Carbon dating.

    Wish I knew if that was true.

  • Walt Kania

    I've noticed that when I'm called on to write for an industry or business I know little about, the work is always a little fresher. You can hit the task without pre-conceived notions, or lists of 'the way we always do it.'

    It's surprising what you can see when you don't know exactly what you're looking at.

  • Alexa Ronngren

    I am a global marketing consultant, and I was just discussing this very topic with one of my clients! What synchronicity! My client, Harald Walter Azmann, wrote an inspirational re-telling of the Grimm Brother's Snow White. In his rendition, The True Snow White, he expands upon the tale by showing the Seven Dwarfs as mentors who help the fairy tale princess grow into a strong and confident young women. So, I wanted to know where he got the inspiration for the dwarf's wisdom. His mother had deeply inspired the book.

    Of course, this got me thinking about my own mother. She has been an inspiration for many of my ideas. She is Brazilian, and growing up in a developing country forced her to use her creativity and imagination. She still inspires and challenges me to look at thinks in a different way - to "think out of the box". As I travel around the world, I am inspired by many people, who like my mom, are doing things in ways that are different than what we are used to in the US.

    Alexa Ronngren

  • SoftwareSweatshop

    Innovators can be married to a single idea, a single problem to be solved; but not to a single approach. If you have an itch to scratch, you have to figure out the best way to do it.

    Your post highlights analogy as a great tool for innovation. Look for a similar problem in a completely different industry and modify the application of the solution to fit your problem.

    Did you know that the same procedure that's used to crush diamonds is used to remove the stems and cores from commercially processed green peppers? Step out of your comfort zone and look for similar problems... chances are the solution is right under your nose.

    Raza Imam

  • Joseph Allan

    For years I have encouraged my staff, when attending training and conferences, to sit with someone they do not know and to engage them in conversation. Learn something new, meet and converse with someone who might have a different way of learning or even insights to things you knew nothing about. Shared stories have been the catalist of many innovations as one responded above. Still, one of the theories of change is: change happens when the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of remaining the same. Irritation and aggravation can be wonderful stimuli for innovation. Sometimes things I have seen years ago become solutions for today because of some irritating observation bringing them back into conscious memory.

  • Joseph Allan

    I work at letting go of what I know 24/7. This irritates many of my more traditional colleagues who hold on desperately to what they know and defend at the drop of a hat.

    As I lay claim to territory (what I know) I automatically engage in territory conflict, the most intractable of all conflicts. By dropping my claims against others I get to pick up ideas from others and change my thinking patterns without a feeling of threat from others.

    This is not living without principles as an extremists' attack on "my" territory might claim, it is a mature understanding of the dynamic versus static nature of being. Principles evolve and should not prevent growth or creativity. Maintaining static principles in the face of a dynamic world is an expense to creativity while the dynamo roars on by leaving you behind.

  • Joseph Allan

    I conduct seminars in and coach creativity for business people. The single most important part of creativity in my opinion is to dislodge the right brain from whatever atrophic state it is in. I lean heavily upon the arts and upon asking questions that appear to be either contradictory or unanswerable. There is something about the mind that will try to resolve the irresolvable and by doing so create remarkable ideas that ultimately come to some practical use. A former boss of mine gave me a pin reading "Only by attempting the ridiculous can we achieve the impossible." How true.

  • Joseph Allan

    Our company's core philosophy is "Every idea has an expiration date." Everyone sees that on a sign when they walk through our front door. Right now, that sign is hanging next to a real telephone booth - an idea whose time has expired. We believe if everyone at Barkley comes to work with that in mind each day, it makes you focus on what is next and keeping our ideas fresh through any means possible.

  • Joseph Allan

    The Japanese have a term for this kind of thing - mom-pop theory. The mom is the problem, the pop is the inspiration...

    One of the Toyota family saw an American supermarket shelf being restocked in the 1950s - this was one of the many inspirations for the famous Toyota production system.

  • Joseph Allan

    One habit I incorporate into my business life to foster innovation is attending trade shows in varied industries. Just walking the floor and looking for what's new in a particular business can prompt ideas. I sometimes bring team members with me because the discussion of applications to our clients' businesses can also give rise to innovative uses for products/services/technology and expand our thinking.
    Every business owner should research/write a short article at least once a year (for a blog,e-newsletter, business or consumer media, or presentation). Like a school term paper, this "exercise" forces the writer to dive deeply into a particular topic and think about a challenge from different angles. (Even if it never gets published, it's a great brain expansion exercise!)

  • Joseph Allan

    Take the time to dream, to play, to make mistakes, to be curious - skills that are with us in childhood and often spring to life again in old age. Give a box to a child and it will have lots of fun with it!

  • Joseph Allan

    I find that you have to be a great listener and be able to store data even though it seems irrelevant at the time. You have to be able to truly imagine yourself there and then step back, and imagine from many different perspectives. Once your able to put yourself there, you can imagine scrolling through a selection of solutions. Bits an pieces of what seemed like useless information until something fits. It might be multiple things coming together for the solution.