A Flash of Insight (Part 2)

How do people develop new ideas?

Source: Wikipedia – Rainer Knäpper, Free Art License (http://artlibre.org/licence/lal/en/)

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
Phone: 603-224-1350
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