The genesis of every brilliant idea is usually an inspiration drawn from life itself. In Newton’s case, it was a falling apple. In a TV commercial for the now defunct World Space radio subscription service, the Oscar award winning musician from India, A. R. Rahman says, “Once somebody asked me to define music. I didn’t really have an answer. Or, let’s say I had more than one. For me, music is like an unspoken language. It’s the sound of nature. If you listen carefully, there’s music in everything.” In the film August Rush, too, one saw the gifted Evan, played by Freddie Highmore, seeing music everywhere he turns. As he says, “It’s all around us. All you have to do is listen.”
As in music. So also in business.
The business world has a term for the search for ideas that ultimately becomes music when the cashier begins ringing. It’s called consumer insights. Of course, at times, the consumer may not give you the entire answer. To quote Steve Jobs, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Jobs was futuristic. Just like many an author of fiction. C. S. Lewis projected space travel as way back as the 1930s in his Space or Cosmic Trilogy. And I am sure I don’t need to mention George Orwell and his 1984. Nora Roberts, writing under her pseudonym J. D. Robbs, projects driverless and air borne cars as integral to life in her In Death series set in the 2060s or so. How do such creative geniuses come up with ideas that play out in real life later?
I would suggest that the ability of creative minds to project into the future is enabled by knowledge of life in the now, and in the past! And then those same minds dream of future possibilities! Leads me to wonder if briefing brilliance is really about the ability to connect the dots between the past, present and future.
Let’s take Google’s search engine as an example. At the heart of it, the genesis is based on a simple fact of life – the consumer need for easy-to-access, authoritative information to a set of specifications.
In the past, consumers turned to libraries housed in impressive structures filled with book lined shelves, arranged by genre and then alphabetically by author. Libraries also maintained a record of books stocked and checked-out through a system of cataloguing and indexing. That allowed the librarian to guide consumers of information to the right shelves and the most checked-out authors. But not to specific pages in a book containing the sought information. For that, the consumers of content had to browse through the whole book!
Cut to the present, aka the 1990s, when the Google search engine was born. The availability of digital technology had led to an explosion of information hosted on the World Wide Web creating easier accessibility, but also a problem of plenty. Google created a search engine that not only indexed all the information, but served as a knowledgeable librarian by throwing up the most relevant results and even highlighting the searched phrases.
In developing its search engine, Google was correctly predicting that the future would be about more and more people turning to the worldwide web as what else …. a worldwide library! Today, serious researchers have it even more made with online academic libraries and services such as Questia, which have made both search and research easy.
The other example that comes to mind is Apple. Steve Jobs was probably a master at connecting the dots between the past, present and future. He was most definitely a dreamer about all the possibilities life holds. He connected the dots between the consumer desire for music-on-the-go (Sony Walkman) with a growing trend for downloading music from the Internet. The result was that he created not one but two milestones in business history – the iPod and iTunes. He also created two revenue streams for Apple. And, by linking them, he threw up quite a formidable entry barrier for existing and would-be competitors. Let’s also not forget that Jobs also created a huge competitive advantage by insisting on a hard-to-beat product design. After all, the last is a huge factor in Apple achieving the cult status it enjoys today.
Google and Apple. Two companies that enjoy iconic status today by virtue of their brilliant products. So brilliant that many readers of this blog may be aghast over the manner in which I have reduced their brilliance to an over simplification. But if you really think about it, most elegant solutions stem from simple fundamentals. Leonardo da Vinci understood this very well and is reported to have said “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
In briefing brilliance, I am suggesting that a simple fundamental be followed. Look to life to understand the fulfilment evolution of consumer needs and then, given current developing trends, how the same needs could possibly be met better in the future.
Sounds simple. Difficult to do.
The much documented Google and Apple journey to finding their successful products is also testimony to the fact that the search for the simple truth is complicated. The number of dots and equations that the Google and Apple teams must have examined, discarded or retained as possible connectors must have been humongous. Till they were able to solve the jigsaw puzzle in front of them and had their eureka moment.
To match or surpass the achievements of creators ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Apple, it helps to recall that many a eureka moment is mostly inspired by life itself. Exposure to the humanities helps. The recent film The Imitation Game illustrates this in spades. Turing finally has his epiphany on how the German’s Enigma code can be cracked wide open when he listens to a female clerk talk about how she is able to identify that her German counterpart has a girlfriend. A very human emotion causes the German to begin every message with the same five letters, namely, the name of his significant other. Another set of human emotions, that of ego, nationalism and fear, leads to every German transmission ending with the words ‘Heil Hitler’. Thus, human frailty allows Turing to program his machine to decode words he knows exists in every message and thereby the entire message.
Connections are everywhere. You just have to be interested and alert to them. When attempting to make a point on briefing brilliance in this blog, my mind made, discarded, retained and reformed connections to wonder about two future possibilities.
The first was to wonder about the possibility of a product that could dry clean human beings. In J. D. Robbs’ In Death crime fiction series, she describes drying tubes in bathrooms. No need any more to towel the body and hair dry! The principle is probably the same as the one used in washing machines. With current day concern over future scarcity of water, will the dry cleaning of humans be beyond the realm of the possible? Of course, it would mean that humans forego the luxury of feeling water cascade down their tired bodies. But the primary need of cleansing would still be met. Who knows Nature itself may provide the answers. We already have fish spas to exfoliate feet. In other areas, scientists are harnessing bacteria power to produce eco-friendly plastic.
The second was to wonder if the world really needs to create more congestion on the roads or in the skies by introducing driverless cars or cars that can fly. Humankind has come a long way in the quest to wander far and further afield. From the invention of the simple wheel to drones and space travel. The need to wander and explore will continue unabated. It’s in the human DNA. But that need can be fulfilled better. By, for example, a ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ technology for instant transportation. God knows I have dreamt of this enough over the years, whenever I have been stuck in a traffic jam. It would be just wonderful if such a technology existed. We would not only save time and be able to go wherever we wished like Harry Porter and his friends, but be able to go back to living in an oxygen abundant world filled with tree lined lanes and grass banks.
The possibilities are endless. You just have to encourage people to dream. One way of doing that is to regularly hold discussions on books, movies and news within office time as people development strategy. The other is to institute a better work-life balance so that people can spend more time out, observing and exploring life. There’s a minefield of ideas out there!
Featured Image Credit: November Dawn by Attila Magyar – Flickr.com under Creative Commons license