How to have a Good Idea

Strategic Thinking as Creativity

In the movie Working Girl, Tess, the lead character played by Melanie Griffith, comes up with a creative idea for how to accomplish a corporate merger, but as a mere “working girl” she is not in a position to get her idea heard.Katherine, the villainess of the story played by Sigourney Weaver, does have a position of influence and puts Tess’s idea forth as her own.In the pivotal scene of the movie, Tess gains access to the company CEO (through Harrison Ford’s kind assistance) and tells him how she conceived of the idea:she was reading a gossip column in a tabloid newspaper, turned to the business pages, and had an epiphany.She saw a connection of ideas that she realized would apply to the strategic situation confronting the company.

When confronted, Katherine cannot account for how the solution occurred to her.She has no “epiphanal moment” to share.She cannot point to any preparation of mind or to any trigger or stimulus that would plausibly lead to the conception of an idea.The lack of a trail of thoughts “proves” that the idea was not hers.The wise CEO recognizes this, gives Tess a desirable job, and bumps Katherine out of the company as the movie moves to a satisfying Hollywood ending.That ending is believable because the notion of a trail of thoughts as a prerequisite for an idea—a period of preparation followed by a burst of inspiration—is consistent with the way people replace old thinking with new.

Consider the remarkable mind of the nineteenth-century French mathematician Henri Poincaré.His work set the stage for many of the profound theories of the twentieth century in applied mathematics, physics, and celestial mechanics—indeed, Poincaré sketched out a preliminary version of the special theory of relativity, later fleshed out by Albert Einstein.During a period in which he was working hard on a vexing mathematical problem, circumstances led Poincaré to do some travel and to get his mind off of his mathematical work.Following a whim, he decided to board a bus, just for the ride.As Poincaré says, “I entered an omnibus to go to some place or other. At that moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformations I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with non-Euclidean geometry.”That is, Poincaré experienced a jolt from the blue, a sudden insight and answer to his intellectual questions that seemed to come out of nowhere. 

Strategy-making begins with an idea, and yet many articles and books about strategy do not address the question of how to generate ideas.The typical tome provides a new way of analyzing and understanding the strategic situation without showing ways to conceive of new and profitable directions to take.An old Steve Martin gag comes to mind.“You say to me, Steve, how can I be a millionaire and not pay taxes? It’s simple... first, get a million dollars.”Unfortunately, the little step at the beginning can be the hardest part.To understand just how to derive ideas for solutions to strategic problems, let’s look at the creative process itself.

These steps illustrate the variety of thinking modes necessary to generate and nurture useful ideas.The creative process begins as an individual immerses him or herself in a field of interest or in a problem to be solved.As Malcolm Gladwell has shown in Outliers, mastery of a field generally takes 10,000 hours of concentration in that knowledge domain. With time and practice, the individual begins learns to recognize patterns where others don’t and begin to recognize gaps in knowledge and begin to make new connections in order to solve or fill in these gaps.

Before the moment of illumination can arrive, though, the brain needs to “let go” of concentrated effort, engaging the less structured thinking of the right brain in a manner called incubation.During a relaxed theta brain state, new connections can be formed.Once illumination, such as the flash of insight as experienced by the mathematician Poincaré or the working girl Tess, has occurred, the left brain must take over to verify, or evaluate, the efficacy of the idea at hand.