Looking for the right idea will cause you to overlook the creative ones

If you intend to come up with the right idea or find the right solution to a creative problem, you’re unlikely to do so.

The reason is simple: thinking there is a right or perfect idea in the first place means you already have some concept of what that idea is or is not, which means you already have some initial idea in your mind.

How can you expect to think creatively if you are already thinking of ideas in the context of what you already know? To be creative is to think of novel and valuable ideas, not tried-and-true ones.

You can’t stumble to somewhere new if you’re only looking where you’ve already been.

I read a great story of this point in-action, told by a man named Terrence O'Hanlon. It goes something like this:

A toothpaste factory had a problem.

Occasionally the factory would ship empty boxes without the tube of toothpaste inside, which would result in unhappy customers who would complain and stop buying the toothpaste from that factory. The problem stemmed from the complexities of the production line, which anyone who has worked in the product line industry will tell you are extremely complicated.

So the factory gathered top minds in the business to come up with a solution to the empty toothpaste box problem. After six months and $8,000,000 invested in research, they came up with the idea to add weight scales to the existing manufacturing line that could detect when an empty box was moving along it. The line would stop, a loud buzzer would sound, and someone could walk over and remove the empty box from the line.

Some time after the new system was put in place, the factory owner was looking over reports and noted how well the scale system was working. Not a single empty box had shipped out of the factory since the system was established.

However, there was something wrong with the system: the scales were reporting zero empty boxes. This simply couldn’t be, the scales would have to be stopping empty boxes in order for the factory to not ship them, but instead the scales were not reporting any boxes as being empty. So the factory owner travelled down to the factory to see what was going on.

Near the supply line, a short way before the scale, someone had placed an inexpensive desk fan that would blow empty boxes off of the supply belt and into a box. Undoubtedly an ingenious solution to the original problem.

When asked about the fan, an employee simply said: “Oh that? One of the guys put it there because he was tired of hearing the buzzer ring.”

This story emphasizes the point: sometimes the most creative solution to a problem is obvious, we’re simply too wrapped up in the way things should be to notice it.

How often do you approach a problem or project seeking the right solution or idea? How many times do you think you’ve overlooked a simpler, more powerful, or more creative idea because of that fact?

Instead of trying to find the right idea, be curious and unafraid of experimenting. You might be surprised at what you find as a result.

Photo by Niels Epting.