When it’s up, it’s way up – lots of fresh ideas arriving and connecting, leading to new projects, articles, even books. When it’s down, it’s pretty flat. If you were to draw a chart of my generation of good ideas over a given stretch of time, it would look like a map of Montana – large stretches of vast, windswept plains, leading to a few clusters of tall peaks where the majority of good ideas occur.
I’m interested in those peaks, in part because I think this pattern is pretty common.
Take the Beatles, for instance. In a 12-month period from mid-1968 to mid-1969, they recorded three groundbreaking albums (The White Album, Let It Be, Abbey Road) plus enough material for a later triple album (Anthology 3 ), plus five singles, plus a film (Let It Be), plus the film and soundtrack to Yellow Submarine, plus five solo albums recorded or released, plus writing a number of songs that turned up in later albums. Or there’s Einstein in 1905, cranking out the three world-changing scientific papers in one year, a triple burst of world-changing insight.
I know those are quasi-insane comparisons – my scribbles are an awful long way from the theory of relativity or the genius of “Hey Jude.” But I’d like to suggest that this pattern applies to all of us more than we might suspect. We all have innovation hot zones where the majority of our good ideas happen, and their existence raises an important question. What is causing these zones? How do we create more of them?
I think we get a good insight into this question from a surprising place: Ira Glass, the host of This American Life and one of the most prolific, savvy radio producers on the planet. A while back Glass did a series of revelatory interviews about the creative process. Here’s a clip:
If you’re in the innovation business, you should check out the whole thing, but in essence it boils down to two simple steps:
- In order to get quality ideas, you have to do the long, hard, wildly inefficient work of generating a lot of non-quality ideas.
- You should ruthlessly eliminate the possibilities that don’t work.
Here’s Glass on Step One:
“To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it’s usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere…. And you can’t tell if it’s going to be good until you’re really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.”
And here’s Glass on Step Two:
“It’s time to be vicious. It’s time to kill, and enjoy the killing, so something better can live. Not enough is said about the importance of abandoning crap. All video production is trying to be crap. It’s like the laws of entropy.”
I like these steps because I think most of us do some version of this instinctively, but as Glass so eloquently points out, we don’t do them nearly aggressively enough. We generate ideas, but not intensively, and not by the dozens. We test and eliminate bad ideas, but we don’t get excited and eager about playing Terminator. And maybe we should.
If we were to diagram this process, it would look like this: a massive generation, followed by a pruning. A hundred starts, followed by 99 endings and one surviving miracle. It would be a kind of churning machine — a creative engine – that generates/prunes endlessly, and which every once in a while produces something beautiful.
The interesting thing is the innovation machine Glass describes is a precise replica of another fairly effective system: evolution. I’m not the first to point it out, but the resemblance between evolution and innovation is uncanny, as both consist of a constant churning of new life, followed by a ruthless selection where the fittest forms survive.
And here’s the other parallel: every once in a while, evolution hits one of those hot zones, producing a great burst of successful innovation. Some good examples: the rise of the dinosaurs, the explosion of life in the Cambrian period, or the changes that started around 35,000 years ago with Cro-Magnon man. These explosions of innovation are evolution’s equivalent of the 1968-69 Beatles — a lot of great ideas happening in a relatively short time.
All of which leads us to a potentially interesting point – like the Beatles, evolution isn’t “trying” any harder during those successful periods than they are during the unsuccessful periods. It’s churning away just as it always is – but then, for some mysterious reason, something hits, something changes, something connects, and suddenly there’s a magnificent run of successful innovations.
Just as with evolution, the productive explosions of the Beatles and Einstein proved to be the exception in the long run. Einstein spent much of his later career pursuing unified field theory, which turned out to be a dead end. As for McCartney and Lennon et. al., they went on to produce some really good work, but would never again approach that kind of concentrated, fertile idea explosion of 1968-69.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s this: maybe our innovation velocity is not about us as much as we think. Maybe our job is to build a good creative engine – generate and prune like crazy – so that we’re ready when the world aligns for us, when the factors come together.
So what can we do in the meantime?
When I think of my innovative zones, I find they tend to happen when I’ve put myself in a position where I have to deliver – the proverbial deadline pressure. Pressure produces clarity; it compresses time and alters your vision; it increases the velocity of the idea-generation and the ruthlessness of the idea-killing. Churn rate increases; ideas and strategies are born and die quickly, like generations of fruit flies – accelerating the series of adaptations that lead to the best work.
I take a couple lessons from this:
- 1. Generate more, in short bursts. Break a day into sections: a conscious searching for new stuff, experimenting, a kind of safe zone where things a tried without judgement. Think of this as the mutation phase – lots of random DNA colliding, creating new combinations.
- 2. Use deadlines. This accelerates the test, so that the fittest ideas can survive.
- 3. Use other people, but more for step one (the generation part) than step two (the ruthless killing part). When it comes to selecting what will live and what will die, it’s better to rely on our own sensibilities.
Also: it never hurts to listen to a lot of Beatles music.