Would you be surprised to learn that many of history’s most accomplished innovators got their breakthrough idea from something surprisingly ordinary?
Something they looked at triggered their new idea, and that something had been right in front of them for a long time.
I call these initial objects ‘idea triggers,’ and if you keep an open mind, you’ll find yourself looking at the things around you with a new curiosity – and a new ability to generate good ideas.
Here are a few favorite examples. The oldest, of course, is how Archimedes discovered how to measure volume. He was sitting in his bathtub and noticed how his own body displaced the water when he stepped into it. This triggered an idea: could there be a way here to measure the volume of something by measuring how much water it displaces? The answer of course is yes, and it led to his inventing a way to measure the volume of countless objects.
In 1941, the inventor George de Mestral found his own idea trigger when he returned from a hunting trip with his dog. After the trip, there were burrs on his pants and on his dog. He was initially annoyed, and pulled off the little annoyances, but then noticed that the burrs stuck only to his pants and the dog’s hair, not to other surfaces. He wondered why, and so he investigated.
His curiosity led him to discover the burr’s natural hooking mechanism, which he modelled in order to create the product we all use today: velcro.
Do you use an ink jet printer? Can you guess the idea trigger for that one? In 1979, John Vaught at Hewlett Packard was getting his morning coffee, and looked closely at how the coffee percolated. He watched how quickly the water was heated before being sent through the coned filter of black coffee grounds. Then he had an idea: could the ink in a printer similarly be instantly heated before being fired onto the paper? The new idea was born, and within a few years (of hard work, of course), the ink jet printer was a new product that revolutionized both printing and office life.
There are dozens of stories like these. They remind us that new ideas are not necessarily the result of long cogitation. Often they are the result of just looking at something and thinking about it in a new way.
Try this for yourself. When you’re looking for new ideas, just take a look around you – and reflect. There just might be something there that triggers the brand new idea you’re looking for.
(Next post on Wednesday. Till then … DG)