Anyone working in a creative or innovation role will be familiar with what the Enlightenment French philosopher Diderot termed l’esprit d’escalier (staircase wit) - the perfect thought arrives, but just too late to be useful.
In Diderot’s case, this involved thinking up a particularly amusing riposte at a dinner party - just after he’d reached the bottom of the stairs. Similarly, the most innovative ideas we have around a brand challenge can come weeks, or even years after a project has ended, when we’re working on something completely different. It’s not ideal. But, as Diderot knew, good ideas rarely arrive when we feel under pressure.
The problem is that the prevailing ideology within most creative and innovation agencies prioritises speed. Or at least, it’s one that allows speed to be prioritised. If good ideas are the currency of the knowledge economy, the impetus to mint more of them, faster, seems logical.
But the need for speed can lead us into to two slightly unhelpful approaches…
The first is to imagine that brainstorming in groups is more effective than thinking alone. As many of us suspect, and as research has confirmed, brainstorms produce few original ideas and typically just reiterate the same thoughts circulating elsewhere. Many participants effectively switch off and freeload. Those who do start a new train of thought can find it quickly derailed by other’s interjections. Brainstorms can certainly be helpful for solving urgent challenges that require little divergent thought. They are also useful as a form of office theatre - for buying in stakeholders. But the most original ideas can’t be booked to order between 2-3.30 pm.
Another route that only goes so far is to follow the lead of the big strategy consultancies and roll out the big data. More information on customers is wonderful, of course, and companies can clearly use data cleverly to devise incremental improvements, as Netflix did, in choosing to develop House of Cards after monitoring which actors, directors and themes were most popular. But looking solely at what customers are currently doing or thinking is, by definition, rather circular. Without the alchemy provided by data from completely unrelated sources, truly ground-breaking ideas are unlikely.
David Bowie was such a creative force not because he had more data than others on what fans wanted but because he explored completely unrelated areas; Japanese theatre, cinema, science fiction, art or Buddhism. Businesses can make space for Bowie-style serendipity by employing thinkers with completely unexpected perspectives. A team comprising poets, artists, anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers, for example, will undoubtedly come up with more leftfield and psychologically rich ideas than a cohort of overworked MBA consultants, all schooled in similar patterns of thinking.
But having a diverse team alone won’t help unless we also focus on slowing down. The most original ideas require long periods of solitary reflection, allowing our minds the freedom to mull over amorphous hunches and explore areas adjacent to the immediate challenge. Bill Gates, for example, champions the technique of annual, reflective retreats, bringing with him stacks of seemingly unconnected reading material. Similarly, many of David Ogilvy’s most successful campaign ideas only came to him in dreams, following weeks of wide ranging research and contemplation.
This link between slowness and creativity was also observed by the head of the German army in the early 20th century, Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, who promoted not the hardest working officers but the laziest (as long as they were equally intelligent). He noted that the time they spent loafing and chatting with others not directly connected to their work allowed them to develop more creative strategies than their more diligent peers. Admittedly, things didn’t work out terribly well for the German army at that time - but the point stands.
Most really disruptive ideas require dozens or even hundreds of iterations to get somewhere interesting. Tim Berners-Lee, for example, spent over a decade of tinkering before he developed what was to become the internet. James Dyson’s products develop equally slowly in an organic process he describes as being rather tedious.
This kind of thinking is hard for most of us to do to a tight deadline in a distracting open plan office. Counterintuitively, it’s more efficient in the long term for businesses to operate at less than 100% capacity, allowing staff a generous period of unstructured time each week to marinate their minds in unrelated topics. Reducing working hours or having a more flexible approach to home working have also been shown to improve creativity, as does the use of online collaborative platforms that allow us time to reflect individually before sharing our thoughts.
The need to slow down when it comes to generating original ideas is really quite urgent. Otherwise we’ll be doomed to regularly feel l’esprit d’escalier, caught up in the cult of busyness and only stumbling on the next new idea when it’s too late.
The tragedy when that happens is that most likely we did have the right idea - somewhere at the back of our minds - but ignored it, or forgot it, because we were too busy analysing the data, or because someone invited us to a brainstorm.
Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life.