Last week I went to a conference with an emphasis on creativity. There were exercises and methods to come up with new ideas. I’ve always found that ideas were easy. It’s putting them into practice that’s hard. Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. If anything, he overestimated the role of inspiration.
I have this argument all the time with my husband who graduated from art school. It seems that in art school, the idea was valued more than its execution. It always seemed strange to me. In real life, it doesn’t work that way. Don’t you watch TV or a movie and come up with a plot line that you’d like to see? We do. But neither of us has ever written a script, shopped it around and or in any way tried to get it made. All by itself, our idea was worthless.
In science, a valuable idea or insight is one that no one else has put into practice. Those are hard to find. A couple of years ago, I found a problem on a website that a company wanted solved. They’d pay for a solution. Fortunately, all the company wanted was an idea on paper along with the rationale that showed it was likely to work and the strategy to put it into practice. I had an idea about how to solve it. I spent several weeks researching my idea and finally found an obscure report that had tried my strategy on that problem. So my idea wasn’t novel after all, it had already been reduced to practice and it hadn’t worked for the problem. So it took several weeks of intensive library work just to vet my idea, much less to put it into practice. Better to find out beforehand that it wouldn’t work, I suppose, but the prize money would have been nice.
In business, perhaps creativity isn’t quite as important. You can be quite successful by doing the same things as someone else, just more efficiently. (I suppose that you can argue that creative ideas are involved in streamlining an operation so that it produces more at lower cost.) But still, the barriers to putting your ideas into practice are even larger than in science. After all, you have to persuade someone to put money into your idea. People are very careful with money-you have to make an extremely good case that your idea will be profitable. The more novel the idea, the better the case you need to make.
So what’s more important-the big ideas or the drive and savvy to use them? I suspect that people who have big ideas will always have them. think we should move our focus to the hard work of vetting ideas and putting them into practice. Power to the practical! Oh wait, I think it already works that way.