When people use their imagination to develop new ideas, those ideas are heavily structured in predictable ways by the properties of those existing categories and concepts. This is true for scientists, artists, inventors, politicians and business people. Consider the following accident which was reported in The American Railroad Journal in 1835:
“As a train was approaching the depot at Paterson, an axle of the leading car gave way, which overturned that and the following two cars. None of the passengers were injured, though they felt the shock by the concussion. Mr. Speer, the conductor, a very industrious and sober man, was seated on the car at the break, and unfortunately was crushed to death under the load.”
Mr. Speer was the only casualty. What factors contributed to his untimely death? Certainly there was the immediate cause — the breaking of the axle and the overturning of the cars — but there is a more subtler cause as well. Note that Mr. Speer was riding on the car, not in it, and that none of the passengers, who were inside, was hurt. Why was he not in the car? What in the world was he doing on top of the car? Speer’s death was the result of a design flaw that required conductors to ride on the outside of cars.
This flaw is an example of the phenomenon of structured imagination. Early designs for railway cars were heavily influenced by the properties of the stagecoach, the most common vehicle of the day. The first railway cars were little more than stagecoaches with wheels on tracks, with no central aisle and designed so that conductors had to ride outside on running boards. The idea of a central aisle was considered odd and even unsanitary, based on the notion that it would become one long spittoon. Finally, as was true of stagecoaches, the brakes were located on the outside and were operated by the conductor who was seated on the top front of the car.
We would not consider the developers of the railroads to be unimaginative people. On the contrary, they were visionaries who saw the railroad as the transportation of the future long before other people took the idea seriously. Yet, even after a number of conductors had been killed, there was strong resistance to designing the railway cars so conductors could ride safely inside. As late as 1866, according to the Railroad and Engineering Journal (1887), 72 trainmen were killed in falls from cars in Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan alone.
What this suggests is that even highly creative individuals and the ideas they develop are susceptible to the constraining influences of structured imagination. Their idea of a design for a railway car was heavily influenced by what they knew, understood, and were most familiar with — the stagecoach. Even Thomas Edison’s idea for an electric lighting distribution system is an example of an idea that was the result of a structured imagination. His reliance on the existing gas distribution system at the time led to his stubborn reliance on the problematic procedure of running wires underground, just as gas mains ran underground. More recently, the fact that many modern computer terminals display exactly 80 columns of text is a direct outgrowth from the era when we literally fed data into computers by way of 80-column punch cards.
The playful openness of creative geniuses is what allows them to explore “interesting” chance events. Once, Wolfgang Pauli, the discoverer of electron spin, was presenting a new theory of elementary particles before a professional audience. An extended discussion followed, which Niels Bohrs summarized to Pauli that everyone has agreed that his theory is crazy. The question which divided them is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. Bohrs said his own feeling is that it is not crazy enough.”
A logic hides in Bohrs illogic. In genius, there is a tolerance for unpredictable avenues of thought. The result of unpredictable thinking may be just what is needed to shift the context enough to lead to a new perspective. Paul Cezanne, the father of modern painting, coined a wonderful phrase that captures the whole paradoxical process of mixing unpredictable thinking and intentional tactics. He called the creator’s creative activity “making a find.”
In genius there is a patience for the odd and the unusual avenues of thought. This intellectual tolerance for the unpredictable allows geniuses to bring side by side what others had never sought to connect. In 1979, for instance, physicist Alan Guth was playing with the ideas of hypothetical chunks of magnetic north divorced from the south. He was also playing with the odd notions of false vacuums. These odd notions led him to an astounding new theory of genesis which posits that the universe began with a hyper explosion. His theory answers mysteries of cosmology which other physicists had not been able to comprehend.
The overnight package delivery service should have been developed by the U.S. Postal Service or the airlines. These organizations not only did not participate in the creation of the concept but called Fred Smith’s concept of Federal Express a “crazy” idea that had no chance of success. Incidentally, every delivery expert in the U.S. also doomed his enterprise to failure. Undaunted, Fred Smith engineered his “crazy” idea into one of the most successful delivery services in the world.
CRAZY IDEA TECHNIQUE
You can actively seek the accidental discovery by deliberately exploring the odd and unusual. It is this freedom from design or commitment that allows you to juxtapose things which would not otherwise have been arranged in this way, to construct a sequence of events which would not otherwise have been constructed. A technique to help you deliberately seek the odd and unusual is the following:
- List several absurd or crazy ideas about your problem. Try to make each one more bizarre than the last.
- A greeting card company wants new products and new markets.
- Send greeting cards to dead people.
- Send heavy stones as greeting cards.
- Send cards COD.
- Send the person money with the message to “go out and buy your own greeting card.”
- Send a spider.
- Select one of the absurd ideas.
- ABSURD IDEA:
- Send greeting cards to dead people.
- Extract the principle. What is the principle of the absurd idea?
- Communicating with the departed.
- List the features and aspects of the absurd idea.
- FEATURES, ASPECTS:
- People communicate with the dead through séances.
- People leave flowers at cemeteries.
- People leave poems, letters and other artifacts.
- People publish personal poems, messages, etc., in newspapers to the departed.
- People pray for the departed.
- Séances, Ouija boards, etc.
- Imagineering. Extract the principle or one of the features and aspects and build it into a practical idea.
- “Leaving items at the cemetery.”
IMAGINEERED IDEA: The idea the greeting card company created was to publish memoriam cards on sticks so they can be inserted in the ground at the gravesite. The “cards-on-sticks” are sold in florist shops that are located near cemeteries.