Where do the best ideas come from?

We are fortunate to live in a lovely village in the heart of England, close to the centre of the UK motor industry. Not so much a mass-manufacturing area these days, instead there are specialist ‘advanced engineering’ firms.  They support projects like the Formula 1 teams in nearby Silverstone.  Our neighbours in the village include several engineers, some retired.

There’s an admirable perfectionism about these people, though it makes for a very competitive environment sometimes. They also demonstrate very well the notion of transferable skills.

The annual produce exhibition allows those who have taken up gardening to show how meticulous preparation pays off.  The scarecrow day, where villagers compete to create the most original scarecrow, taps into their imagination and innovation with some awesome constructions.

I was chatting to one of our neighbours recently as he was bent over the bonnet of a sad looking TR4. This was a sports car made by the Standard Triumph motor company in the early 1960s. It sold well in the US and featured in the TV series My Favourite Martian (I am sure none of you will admit to watching that!)

The appearance was great and it contained many innovations, but the construction left something to be desired. The British car industry had started to lose its reputation for reliability.  In conversation with Frank, I began to realise some of the reasons why.

It won’t surprise you to know that poor leadership was one cause.

I was asking Frank what he was planning to do to overcome some of the known design faults. He’d already found a better engine than the original.  The footwell was a notorious rust spot, as water gathered under the carpet – and he’d got around this by drilling some holes.

But the most interesting part was when Frank started to talk about the chassis.

He had been an apprentice engineer working on this very model when he started out on his career. He’d been asked to look at the design of the chassis and realised that it had an inbuilt flaw.  It could easily buckle if the car had a relatively minor collision in just the wrong place. The design was similar to what is now used as a safety device for protecting pedestrians.

Frank went over his figures a few times, and came up with a suggested modification. Pleased with his work, he went to his supervisor. However, his ideas were immediately dismissed. His boss had been there a long time and thought he knew everything.  He wasn’t prepared to listen to this young apprentice.

The flawed chassis was used for many more years until the company folded.

How often do we make the same mistake Franks’ boss made? What kind of leadership does it take to encourage creativity? What do we need to do as leaders to let go of our need to be top dog and recognise the talent around us?

Later this month, I’ll be working with colleagues in the Engage for Success movement to look at these very questions – I’d welcome your views

2 thoughts on “Where do the best ideas come from?

  1. Sean

    Great post, Bob.

    I’ve been reading a lot about the importance of listening and it’s confirmed my own experience. I think, as a leader, to get the most creativity out of a person or team one needs to actively shut up! Let the team fill the void. When leaders do speak it should be to open up new areas of void.

    At the forefront of a leader’s mind: if I solve this creative problem how could I be getting in the way of something better or someone bolder?

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