Why failure is the mother of invention

On this weekend of Epiphany, we thought it might be appropriate to kick off our Friday 500 (words) post on the subject of creativity which is often characterised as a moment of ‘epiphany‘ when inspiration strikes out of the blue. In fact although often portrayed as such, inspiration rarely happens like this and celebrated ‘Eureka!’ moments such as Archimedes’ bath or Newton’s apple were in fact the final stages of a much longer process often borne out of failure.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity arose because scientists realised that Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation was an incomplete piece of work- It didn’t work for every case and so it was improved upon. Einstein was one of a number of people working in the same field most notably Henri Poincaré who published ‘The Principle of Relativity’ in 1904. Einstein’s landmark work the following year built upon that and added the missing pieces of the jigsaw.

Similarly a number of people were coming to the same conclusion as Darwin because the discovery of fossilised remains meant that the accepted creationist view of the world failed to stand up to scientific scrutiny. The others are now footnotes in history because Darwin got it down on paper first.

Creativity and innovation is an iterative process which Steve Jobs described as “Just connecting things”. This is amply demonstrated in the case of James Dyson who as an engineering graduate became frustrated by the inefficiency of the additional vacuum cleaner which was constantly clogging whilst he was hoovering the family home. It was whilst at a wood yard when he noticed a suction device with a cyclone feature which extracted sawdust without clogging. He immediately went home dismantled his Hoover and replaced the bag with a makeshift cardboard ‘cyclone’ to test whether his idea would work. It did -but it took him 20 years and 5127 prototypes before he got to market. He simply connected the existing technology of the sawdust cyclone to the domestic problem of the clogging vacuum cleaner- and persisted! His personal net worth is now £3 billion.

“People think of creativity as a mystical process. The idea is that creative insights emerge from the ether, through pure contemplation. This model conceives of innovation as something that happens to people, normally geniuses. But this could not be more wrong. Creativity is something that has to be worked at, and it has specific characteristics. Unless we understand how it happens, we will not improve our creativity, as a society or as a world” Sir James Dyson

Very few people have their best ideas at work- they are usually too busy to think! For many people inspiration occurs in the oddest of places including the 4Bs: Bed, Bath, Bar and …Bog!

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To unlock your creativity, identify where you have your best ideas. Whether this is in the shower, whilst mowing the lawn, during exercise or whilst listening to music, then try to capture your Wicked Thoughts from this stream of consciousness and replicate the process regularly to bring your creativity to the fore. Once the germ of an idea has been identified, incubate it, refine it, connect it and take it to the next level. And if you happen to be bathing when the final piece of the jigsaw falls into place, try to resist the urge to run naked down the street in triumph – it is frowned upon these days!


wt-logo-logo-01The Wicked Thinkers™ programme seeks to open up the minds of the participants to a different way of thinking, using creativity and unconventional techniques to challenge the accepted norms, defy the status quo to bring about innovative solutions to Wicked Problems. What is your Wicked Thought?

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