How do people develop new ideas?
Insight may come from Shakespeare’s “unpath’d waters and undream’d shores,” but it has to be nurtured. Great ideas usually come from individuals who are part of a group, who work where people encourage and refine one another. People are social creatures, Aristotle says. The rare self-sufficient individual is “either a beast or a god.” So the community needs to be cultivated. What is such a community like?
A good example might be Lockheed’s “Skunk Works,” an aerospace design and engineering group set up in 1943 to respond to a rapidly growing German jet-fighter initiative. The Army Air Force met with some Lockheed engineers to express their need, and 143 days later they delivered the first prototypes of the P-80 Shooting Star.
The group went on to develop the U-2 spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, and other innovative aircraft. The group was characterized by an autonomous structure within a larger organization, having strong leadership, and an almost obsessive focus on the task at hand. Often they would start work on a project with only a request and a handshake. The formal contract and spec sheet wouldn’t arrive for months.
The group was so successful that “skunkworks” now describes any R&D group set aside to create some radical innovation, like Steve Jobs’ Macintosh team or the Google X Lab. These groups are elitist and insular, but they encourage each other and sometimes come up with truly new ideas, like web-based email.
Great ideas may strike like lightning. But lightning only comes when water droplets rub against one another in a dense cloud, allowing the charges to build up. It’s the turbulence in the cloud that facilitates the lightning flash.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer
Leave a comment if you have any questions—I read them all!