My key for inspiration when I write: I wear a blue Star Trek science officer bathrobe.
I should explain that this choice of garb is not due to a fanatical appreciation of intergalactic hijinks. I like Star Trek well enough, but I’ve never been to a convention, I can’t speak Klingon, and I don’t have a strong opinion on the Kirk versus Picard debate.
The truth is, my house can get a little chilly at 5 a.m., which is when I do most of my writing, and the robe is a good way to keep warm. Yes, I admit it touches my geeky little heart to start the day wearing the Starfleet logo. But the bathrobe is more than a blend of practicality and whimsy. There is a philosophical dimension as well, which is why I bring it up in the first place.
Donning that robe each morning as I sit down to write serves as a deliberate reminder “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and not take myself too seriously. That’s pretty good advice for a writer, and even better advice for an innovator. I highly recommend wearing a similar outfit any time you are exploring strange new worlds or seeking out new innovations.
Now, wearing a goofy outfit doesn’t automatically mean you are innovative. It might just mean you’re goofy. But the surest way to prevent innovation is to timidly go where everyone else has gone before; to play it safe; and to think, act, and dress like the crowd.
On cold, dark winter mornings when I’d rather stay in bed, timid conformity sounds pretty appealing. The robe reminds me of a higher calling, a new frontier. Plus, like I said, it’s pretty warm.
The other way to stifle innovation is to get super serious about it.
Without a healthy sense of humor and a willingness to play, laugh, and smile, our explorations will be merely logical rather than magical, formal rather than adventurous.
When our decisions–technical, organizational or procedural–are based solely on solemn calculations and logical predictions, we follow risk adverse paths that lead nowhere interesting. But a strategy of bold play unleashes the imagination and leads us to new and exciting places where we not only have more fun, but we also learn more, grow more, and change the world more.
That’s where the goofy outfit comes in. Every day my writing getup provides a funny little reminder to play boldly.
The best strategy for achieving technical breakthroughs is to assemble small teams of talented people equipped with tight budgets and short schedules. Not only does this strategy correlate strongly with the most impactful innovations in the military, NASA, and industry, it reduces the barriers to entry for innovation and shows that you don’t have to be the biggest, richest, or most advanced to come up with best-in-class, first-in-class breakthroughs.
What’s the connection between a Star Trek bathrobe and a small, agile team? Simply this: bold play comes more naturally to small teams than big ones.
When we invest a small amount of time and money, we are more likely to try the untried because our exposure to loss is minimized. It’s much easier to play around a bit when we’re spending a few weeks and a couple hundred bucks.
In contrast, huge teams working on billion-dollar projects tend to play it safe by adopting high levels of serious formality and trying to control every variable. Ironically, that fear-based approach undermines their outcomes and sets them up for failure by forbidding bold play.
As for me, I’ve got three engineering degrees and 20 years of military experience. The default position for someone in my situation is to be serious and conform to the standard model of business professionalism.
That is exactly why I have to wear this Star Trek bathrobe. I know it’s goofy. That’s the point. Wearing it helps broaden the narrow mode of thinking that my training and experience might otherwise lead me towards. I know that if I want to live long and prosper, I need to make a continuing effort to boldly play. My warm little bathrobe is a perfect daily reminder to do just that.
—This article is excerpted from FIRE: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation (HarperBusiness). Author Dan Ward is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, currently stationed at Hanscom Air Force Base. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.