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How IBM Gets Unstuck

The tips IBMers turn to when they hit creative roadblocks.

Coming up with new ideas is a bit like coming up to the plate in baseball. Sure, it feels great when you hit one out of the park — a piece of software that attracts lots of customers, a feature that breathes new life into a tired product. But even the best hitters get stuck in demoralizing slumps. These days, when researchers at IBM feel stuck, they consult a handbook titled “Changing the World.” The handbook is filled with tips — some of which are serious, some of which are fun, but all of which are designed to help IBMers break through the mental barriers that come with the creative process. Consider, for example, tip #4: “Remember: If you don’t exceed your authority at least once a week, you probably aren’t doing your job.” Or tip #48: “Brainstorm with someone 10 years older and someone 10 years younger.”


IBM Research distributed 6,000 copies of “Changing the World” to its labs and offices around the world. The handbook contains 56 tips in all, and all of them were submitted by people from IBM Research — “who,” according to the book’s introduction, “solve mind-bogglingly complex problems for a living.” Charles Palmer — founder and head of IBM’s Global Security Analysis Lab, who is renowned in Internet circles as the leader of the company’s “ethical hackers” — submitted tip #42: “Shut the door (very important). Practice shooting rubber bands at targets in your office.” His advice is typical. One way to move forward, the handbook implies, is to stop trying so hard.

The next time you’re stuck, you might want to try tip #30: “Leave the office. Sit with just a pencil and a pad of paper. See what happens.” Or you can try tip #32: “Go for a bike ride.”