Some years ago in the Cascade Mountains of the north-western United States, the Pacific Power and Light department were faced with a problem: Ice was building up on their power transmission lines, and the team feared they’d soon start to break.
All out of sensible solutions, one member of the group recalled a story he’d overheard the night before about a couple of bears chasing some line maintenance men all the way home. In desperation, he suggested they drop honey pots from helicopters onto the top of the poles, encouraging the bears to climb up to the honey and shake the ice to the ground. The idea was met with laughter. It was, without doubt, a ridiculous suggestion.
But it was this seemingly silly idea that reminded somebody else of the dust spread from the downwash of helicopters during the Vietnam war. Suddenly the answer became clear; the force from the downwash of a helicopter’s blades could be used to shake the ice off the lines. A comical proposal paved the way for a truly creative solution.
When first reading this anecdote, a quote from Albert Einstein came to mind: ‘If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.’ This is a mantra we fully endorse here, and one that we try to apply as much as possible to any job that comes our way.
Most of our creative meetings trigger a flood of truly daft suggestions, but each and every one of them deserves credit for playing its part in pushing us towards a creative concept we're proud of. We were once asked to explain Hawking Radiation in less than two minutes, using just pen and paper. Farcical ideas were flung around for a number of hours, but within some of them lay the answers we were looking for.
In the end, we explained the theory through the story of a pair of love-struck particles, tragically torn apart from one another by powerful forces beyond their control. It’s not the way a particle physicist would have explained it, but it proved to be a perfect way to communicate a tricky concept with approachable simplicity.
So, in our view, creating a safe space for bad ideas to fly around is essential to our business. And we’re not the only ones to subscribe to this philosophy. In a recent video for 99U, designer and creative lead at Nike, Ben Shaffer, explains why failure is such an integral part of Nike’s innovation process.
He says: ‘The innovation kitchen is one of the areas at Nike that allow us to ask really ridiculous questions and play with really unique materials and methods of making all under the pursuit of really trying to fail and learn where our boundaries are.’ And this playful approach to innovation has been part of Nike’s DNA ever since the 1970s when co-founder Bill Bowerman used the grooves from his waffle iron to revolutionise trainer soles forever.
Such a positive approach to bad ideas might sound like a luxury not every company can afford. And, sure, failures can cost time and money. But what you gain from these failures is invaluable and we're willing to bet you’ll reach your best ideas far faster if you start sharing your daftest ones first. Failure isn’t a luxury; it’s an essential part of the problem-solving process.
And this is backed up by a number of creatives, including illustrator Christoph Niemann who tells the story of his failed app in this New York Times article.
Niemann writes that when developing a creative idea, it’s important that you loosen up and ‘get your hands dirty in new territory’. Creativity and innovation are all about exploring new and unknown spaces, so don’t be afraid to throw around ideas that don’t yet make the slightest shred of sense.
But as well as embracing your childlike imagination, it’s important to critique your work with the eye of a ruthless editor. Let your ridiculous ideas take their form, but afterwards, trim away at them; strip them right back until you're able to see if there's something great at the core.
If not, that’s okay, too. Not every idea will be a triumph. In fact, we're hard pushed to think of many people who have hit the heights of success without first detouring through some pretty low lows. Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime; Steven Spielberg was rejected from film school three times before finally being accepted; and James Dyson spent 15 years creating 5,126 prototypes of his first Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner, before hitting upon the one that would make his fortune.
'We have to embrace failure and almost get a kick out of it,' says Dyson. 'Not in a perverse way, but in a problem-solving way. Life is a mountain of solvable problems and I enjoy that.'
So, whatever you're hoping to achieve, it's worth remembering that within that pile of bad ideas lies the kernel of something brilliant and, as long as you are afraid of failing, you'll never find it.