From Tweak, to Twist, to Breakthrough Idea – The Little Creative Secret That Moves the WorldShare
Rather than swing for the fences and the big idea, learn the simple little habit that actually makes those ideas more likely.
You might not believe it, but the best way to a big idea – an idea that changes how we think, and one that stands a mightier than normal chance of actually becoming real – comes from a small tweak.
It’s true. And it’s really that simple. But examples make it easier to see, so let’s consider a few.
At the end of each work day, a nightclub manager sees food being tossed out by the ton, in his establishment and countless others across town. On his way home from work each night, he also sees dozens of homeless and undoubtedly underfed souls. For a time, the parallel observations add up to little, until one day he “tweaks” the two separate thoughts so that they intersect one another: “What if all that wasted food could feed those hungry souls?” he wonders. 20 years on, Robert Egger’s simple mental tweak has spawned programs nationwide that capture and repurpose food from restaurants, grocery stores, farms, hotels, and school cafeterias. Today, dozens of programs and organizations like DC Central Kitchen and LA Kitchen are the backbone not just of successful initiatives to feed the homeless, but of thriving catering businesses, senior citizen nutrition programs, social justice education programs, and on and on – all catalyzed by a minor mental tweak.
Now consider this example. An entrepreneur, small business advisor, and journalist spends a decade helping countless adults start and grow their own business. In the same timeframe, she and her husband are raising three kids – curious kids who wonder what exactly mom does. She knows she can’t just offer them the description as she gives it to grownups. Their eyes would glaze over and they’d never make the mistake of asking such a question again. So she tweaks her grownup script and tells her children a story. A children’s story. The fictional kind they prefer, that just happens to be about kids starting a business. The characters encounter the same challenges any adult business would, but the tale is seen and the challenges solved through a kid’s mind. The mom, host of MSNBC’s Your Business JJ Ramberg, then turns the simple story into a book for kids, and the lessons of business become so simple a child can understand them. And curious children, far beyond her three, become budding entrepreneurs.
For good measure, here’s one final example. A young post-doc in psychology gets a plum job on a revolutionary new research project. The goal is to figure out what really lies behind human learning, thinking, and creativity. The dominant wisdom points to intelligence as the source and the IQ test as the best indicator. But the early research results tell Howard Gardner that something’s not quite right. Reality just doesn’t line up with the metric. “Maybe intelligence isn’t the key indicator,” he first muses. But then he tweaks that thought: “Maybe it’s because intelligence isn’t uniform. Maybe,” he ponders, “just maybe there’s more than one form of intelligence.” Five decades hence, no one has looked at intelligence, or creativity, or learning, the same way, and we continue to pursue the best ways in which to tap the range of our multiple intelligences.
Redefining a societal challenge... Making adult lessons so simple a child can understand them… Putting forth a new theory of how we humans think and do – as different as they seem, all of these examples share important commonalities. None of these big ideas happened all at once. Less obvious, none of them happened according to some prescient or pristine plan. Least obvious of all, each began with the slightest of tweaks – a blending of observations; a shift in language; a fine-tuning or flipping around of a question – something that triggered a change of view and with it, the possibilities.
To be sure, many things enhance creativity. Robert Egger knew a lot about food, food handling and preparation, food perishability and more long before he started DC Central Kitchen. Similarly, JJ Ramberg had logged countless hours advising business owners and running her own before she simplified the lessons for her kids. And Howard Gardner had the benefit of decades of research in psychology by others plus his own many years in the field before he began to question sacred thinking. But experience and all those other things that often add to creativity aren’t its true catalyst.
Robert, JJ, Howard, and their stories stand out because they didn’t let all their valuable experience, skills, or success hold them back. It’s a counterintuitive but important distinction. They didn’t passively conclude there was only one way to do what they did, or assume only certain people or resources could accomplish the feat. There was no feat in the beginning – or plan, or preconceived notion of where it would all lead. They just tweaked their thinking, their view, and the borders of what they knew a little bit to see what might happen.
And then they kept doing it. And a pattern formed. In fact, in all likelihood that pattern was long in play for all of them – tweaking here, wondering there, playing with an idea simply out of curiosity, long before their big ideas began to surface. It is a near certainty that many forays in this creative zone came to nothing – both before and after the tweak they now identify as revealing the paths they took. But that didn’t concern them. Their actions had their own purpose: play and wonder. The results were accidents – purposeful accidents.
Though the practice of tweaking one’s thinking can lead to game changing ideas, it’s important to note that in forming this creative habit the promise of revelation or success isn’t the thing. The difference maker is the willingness to purposefully explore. All successful innovators will tell you it’s true. A simple pattern of creative tweaking is what leads to the seemingly accidental (and innovative) results. One tweak, begets other tweaks, which accumulate to a “twist” on an old view, that in turn shapes a new way of thinking, being, and progressing. It’s a secret of creativity that appears little but has the power to move the world.