Einstein said that all great original ideas at first appear absurd. This is why it is so easy to dismiss radical suggestions when they surface. We point out that they are absurd and so miss great opportunities. How would you react if an unorthodox business idea was presented to you and you could immediately see problems with it? Imagine that you are the boss in each of these situations:
Spectacles manufacturer in the 1960s
Employee: I think we should investigate a new idea I have heard about called contact lenses.
Boss: How does it work?
Employee: We make prescription lenses that people attach to their eyeballs so that they can see well without spectacles.
Boss: You mean I stick a piece of glass onto my eyeball?
Employee: It could be glass or plastic.
Boss: That is ridiculous. What if it slipped behind the eye? What if it damaged the eye? We could be sued for millions. No-one is going to want something so dangerous and inconvenient. Spectacles are safe, cheap and popular. Let’s focus on doing what we know.
Radio manufacturer in the 1980s
Employee: I read about this guy Trevor Bayliss who has invented a clockwork radio. It is an interesting idea – do you think we should look at this?
Boss: Don’t be silly. I heard about this too. It will never catch on.
Boss: Sure. Let me give you three reasons. First radios need electricity and the easiest way to get that is through the mains or batteries – that is what consumers and the trade want. Secondly the radio will have to be really big to contain the winding mechanism. Third, the radio will suddenly stop in the middle of a programme waiting to be wound up – how annoying will that be? Customers want convenience – not the bother of stopping to wind up a radio every 10 minutes.
Employee: I guess you are right.
Website entrepreneur in 2000s
Programmer: I have this idea for a new social media site.
Boss: Great. How does it work?
Programmer: People can make short broadcasts of up to 140 characters.
Boss: 140 characters! Why restrict them? Can they add pictures, music and videos?
Programmer: No – it is just a box for 140 characters of text.
Boss: Don’t be silly. Facebook and Myspace already offer far more than that. We need something more exciting than a text box. How about we copy Facebook and add more features?
See how easy it is? Every day in every organisation bosses are rejecting interesting ideas because the ideas look silly. How can you overcome this problem? You train people to ask questions rather than be judgmental. When somebody comes to you with a bizarre idea do not find fault with it; instead ask questions. How could we make it work? What are the benefits for customers if this happened? Is there a better way to do this?
If you want innovation in your organisation then you must encourage people at all levels to welcome, entertain and explore crazy ideas – they are the ones that can lead to breakthroughs.
Paul Sloane is the author of How to be a Brilliant Thinker. He speaks and writes on innovation and creativity.