As engineering professionals we are all trained to be logical and rational and rely on proven facts in making decisions. The approach with engineers is to vigorously apply the blowtorch to any concept which is rather nebulous and stick to solid engineering design practice. However as Margot Cairnes, a leadership strategist recently pointed out: ‘This often means being conventional, boring and underperforming (when creating solutions to difficult problems). In a changing world, creativity is essential, not only to keep pace with change but to be at the crest of the wave’.

I am sure you have been in numerous engineering meetings which grind on and on regarding some trivial but critical design issue. Important, perhaps in many cases. But we submerge our creativity under this overwhelming conventional but safe engineering thinking. It is staggering how many brilliant and effective products are out there which were created through creative thinking and “thinking foolishly”. These range from products as varied as the 3M Post it Note, the Kreepy Krauly pool cleaner, the iPod to the ubiquitous telephone.

Here at work, we brainstorm foolishly at times when designing new services or products. Initially my rational engineering mind is irritated and uncomfortable. However, when creative impulses intrude, the crazy content which appeared illegal, unsafe and even dangerous, can, with a more chaotic and lateral vision begin to appear quite stunningly brilliant. The trick, when the ideas are flowing, is to get other people to comment on them and to turn them around and see whether they can be made useful and productive. 

When you are engaged in another meeting examining a difficult problem; be foolish. According to the Entrepeneur magazine, the following framework is recommended:

  • Pose an initial question to get the “show on the road”
  • Identify a challenge which you want to solve
  • Suspend criticism of all ideas that are presented
  • Postpone evaluation whilst the ideas are being presented
  • Build on others’ ideas in a fast paced manner

Do not risk life and limb, but as the inimitable Steve Jobs said many years ago: ‘Stay hungry, stay foolish.’

Yours in engineering learning

Steve