Idea-icide

Why be creative? Why try? Sure, if we’re in the arts-world it’s maybe purely expressive, or to summon feeling in us, the audience / reader / gazer.

The rest is about Improvement. Making stuff better. Insight to Ideation to Innovation. Oh, and with Imagination.

Here’s another ‘I’: Iteration. And one I just made-up: Idea-icide.

Professor Steve Jones, the evolutionary biologist, gave a talk a few years ago at The Hay Festival. [I’ve looked hard for an online link, can’t find one, so I’ll try and describe.]

A bunch of scientists in the Unilever labs at Port Sunlight were searching for an improvement. To a depositor which sprayed something onto something. It was a nozzle. They were looking for a Nozzle Solution. [sorry.]

Their start point was a conical nozzle. It was nozzle-shaped. But for some reason it was sub-optimal. So, they applied a logical process of adaptation, changing the bore-diameter, using their knowledge of physics and flows – that kind of thing. Not much change.

Then, someone proposed an alternative approach. A dozen nozzles were tooled, randomly, disruptively – these things looked like a collection of Queen Anne chair legs. And they were tested. The best performing were kept, the others discarded – killed.

The ‘winners’ were then ‘bred’ to generate a new generation – and the testing and killing was repeated.

After a few generations, a nozzle had ‘evolved’ which outperformed anything else they had reached through the application of physics. It looked baroque, ornate. You would never have thought it would work at all. But it was the best.

I don’t get asked to fix too many nozzles. But I do keep coming back to this story every time I am given a problem to solve, creatively.

Our world is incredibly complex. There are a lot of moving parts, variables.

In the intro to is latest book “Adapt: Why Success always Starts With Failure”, Tim Harford tells us of Thomas Thwaites’ attempt to build a toaster from scratch. Not assembling the parts. Making the parts. Like mining iron-ore, smelting, that sort of ‘from scratch’. Along the way, Thwaites learned how complex our world is. That one of the most taken-for-granted appliances – one that a child could quickly grasp the workings-of – is made of over four hundred components. Minerals and metals are extracted from around the world, dragged from the ocean-floor, to help us make bread crispy.

Most of the problems I work-on aren’t toaster-related. Or nozzle-like either. But they are complex. They require all the ‘I’s mentioned, above. Especially Idea-icide.

When I was a client and brand-owner, I used to hate it when agencies would present me with three concepts. Why three? It’s not like it’s a Magic Number or anything, is it? Mostly, if they were honest, this was a bracketing-exercise. Sandwiching the concept they liked between two less-liked ones. Like an amateur Derren Brown trying-out a suggestion-technique.

What I wanted to see / smell / sense, were dead-ideas. Idea-icide. Little-Darlings – killed through testing. And one idea, left standing.

Let’s apply our creativity not just to generating ideas, but to testing our ideas, and to killing them. Randomised Trials. Prototyping. Design-thinking of the sort IDEO practise. Harness the crowd.

Stand them in the wind-tunnel and let the failures fall.

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