Searching for gold in the sock drawer

Searching for gold in the sock drawer

Imagine you’re an electrical engineer in a team of eight electrical engineers. One day the head engineer calls you together for an unexpected meeting. He’s pacing the room anxiously, waiting for the whole team to assemble. Johnson is the last to shuffle in. Johnson is always the last.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem.

The meeting isn’t off to a good start.

As you know, sales are down. We’re losing money. I don’t need to tell you that if we go on losing money, I’ll have no option but to cut overheads.

Overheads is the head’s euphemism for staff.

I have called you here because we need ideas urgently. Ideas for new uses for our circuits. New markets for us. New product ideas. We’re not leaving here without a dozen ideas that’ll get us out of this mess. So, what have you got? Johnson?

He turns to face Johnson. He always turns to Johnson.

What happens next?

Every one of you goes into panic mode. None of you can afford to lose your job. Without a job you can’t pay the mortgage. You can’t pay for the kids’ schooling. Your mind floods with negativity. Negativity kills ideas. You’re trying desperately to think of ideas, but all you see are bills, impoverishment, embarrassment.

If you’re stuck in that room until you’ve come up with the necessary ideas, you could be here forever. It’s 3pm. Now you’re worrying about how you’ll pick up the youngster from kindergarten at 6.

These thoughts alone will prevent you from coming up with the fresh ideas you need.

However, there’s another reason none of you in the room will come up with the necessary ideas. You’re searching for treasures where none exists.

Here’s what happens in circumstances such as this.

If electrical engineers, we will automatically open the drawer in our minds in which we have filed our accumulated electrical engineering knowledge. We now rifle furiously through decades of scientific facts, accepted wisdoms, ingrained practices and certainties.

We examine these – in an orderly fashion at first, but with increasing anxiety. We are rummaging through our drawer of knowledge but there’s no sign of the elusive big idea. We grab a fact, examine it briefly, find no inspiration, and toss it over our shoulder. The room is strewn with things we know – things that once seemed important, but are now useless. We seem to get to the bottom of the drawer in no time. It now lies empty.

So why can’t we get ideas when we need them most?

Here’s why. New ideas come about when you combine two existing unconnected ideas. That’s the key. They must be unconnected.

You won’t get a new idea by trying to find a connection between two existing electrical engineering ideas. For a new idea, a big idea, you need random inspiration. That inspiration might come from something as obscure as a doormat.

A doormat? Well yes. Here are two electrical engineering ideas I can think of that are inspired by a doormat. The first is a flexible circuit board, one that can be curved and twisted to fit an awkward shape. A second is an idea to harness the kinetic energy of shoes on a mat and convert it to electricity. Can these be done? Have they already been done? I don’t know. I just thought of them.

New ideas might come from an albatross, spinning top, chalk, sprinkler, zipper or millions of other objects.

If the head engineer wanted his team to come up with ideas, he should have done these things:

  • Create a positive environment
  • Set aside a finite time
  • Introduce a creative thinking tool (such as Random Word)

No matter how frantically we search, we won’t find gold in the sock drawer.

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