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When An Idea Has Its Moment

Chance favors only the prepared mind. - Louis Pasteur


As much as we scrutinize and study creative people, some ideas are born of a moment, not a person. When an idea has its moment, it’s the prepared who make the most from chance.


The history of invention is full of examples of simultaneous discovery – instances of separate individuals producing essentially the same idea at roughly the same time. Charles Darwin gets credit for the theory of evolution, but his friend and contemporary Alfred Wallace was on the same track at the same time. Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine for polio in America while Albert Sabin was refining a competing version in Europe at the same time. Cases of simultaneous discovery illustrate how the most creative ideas find their moment in midst of societal change. The individuals credited with discovery can thank chance as much as their own abilities.


Trends in technology, culture, and collective need occasionally conspire to ensure someone is struck with the specific answer to a specific question. It was just a matter of time, for example, before someone figured out that we needed a $200 Wi-Fi-enabled camera to spy on our dogs. The forces leading to this inevitability are described by creativity researchers as zeitgeist, a German word meaning “spirit of the times.”


The zeitgeist determines not just which ideas are deemed creative, but when they’re creative. Timing the zeitgeist is not easy. As IKEA’s Stina Holmberg and Bo Madestrand put it, “times are changing, and you can’t just cling to the past. Maintaining a balance between progress and recognition is crucial if you want to remain relevant to your audience.”


"Times are changing, and you can’t just cling to the past. Maintaining a balance between progress and recognition is crucial if you want to remain relevant to your audience."

Some ideas arrive before their time, such as the electric car or Apple’s Newton digital assistant. Some ideas that were once creative or innovative now seem irrelevant, such as Segway scooters or cable TV. And other ideas just fail to read the zeitgeist entirely, leading to embarrassment or bad publicity. Such was the case in 2017 when Pepsi apparently tried to appropriate the Black Lives Matter movement with a cringeworthy Kendall Jenner ad.


So, how should we describe the zeitgeist of today? In January, I asked my students to describe what kinds of ideas seemed to embody creative thinking in that moment. They described creative ideas as products or services promoting convenience (e.g., DoorDash), environmental sustainability (e.g., Allbirds), and the expectation that every idea be supported by a mobile app.


That was, of course, before *gestures broadly* all this happened. The last few months have brought us a global pandemic, an historic recession, and recently, growing unrest following George Floyd’s murder. The zeitgeist is usually slow to change, but 2020 has been unusually turbulent and rapidly evolving. With so much stress, sadness, and conflict, what ideas are emerging as creative in this moment?


Adaptability, comfort with uncertainty, and altruism are some of the most helpful qualities of creative organizations and leaders in a time of crisis. Just a few months ago the zeitgeist would have rewarded ideas related to wearable devices or new ways to automate our lives. Recently, the zeitgeist demands ideas that promote public health, or address the implications of COVID-19. For example, in Chicago:


  • Rob McMillan of Dearborn Denim & Apparel recognized the PPE shortage caused by the pandemic, and shifted his company’s production to cloth face masks in order to help. It wasn’t just a charitable success, it earned the small business praise and loyalty during a time of crisis.


  • Sonat Birnecker Hart of Koval Distillery saw an opportunity to fill a hand sanitizer shortage by distilling beer and wine donated from other local producers into a World Health Organization-approved recipe for hand sanitizer. Their work supported local firefighters, hospitals and foodbanks who otherwise struggled to maintain their supplies.


  • The city’s three major tech hubs, 1871, MATTER and mHUB, banded together to raise $1.55MM in funding to support tech-based solutions for battling the coronavirus.


Humans are not very good at anticipating specific trends, but we are agile and responsive.

Here are some things organizations can do to increase their chances of capitalizing on new ideas when their moments arrive:


  • Reconsider available resources: Can the talents, experiences, or capabilities of your organization be applied in ways beyond their original intent? The factory that made t-shirts for Dearborn Denim was perfectly equipped to produce masks.


  • Monitor new developments broadly: Are there opportunities to contribute in areas beyond your normal customers or suppliers? Creativity often happens at the intersection of previously disconnected industries. The leaders of Chicago’s tech incubators rapidly reconfigured their disparate networks to spur needed innovation in response to the coronavirus.


  • Embrace the unknown: Koval didn’t know whether federal regulators would be open to them making hand sanitizer, but they proceeded despite the unknown. Any creative idea involves some degree of uncertainty and risk; successful organizations are those willing to take chances.


In the last two weeks we’ve witnessed yet another rapid shift in the zeitgeist: outrage over George Floyd’s murder, police brutality, and systemic racism more broadly. It’s still very early to tell what will come of the protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, or their effects on creativity and innovation. But if any innovation epitomizes the combined zeitgeist of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement, it’s these facemasks.


Sometimes an idea finds its moment, and it seems this moment may finally belong to justice for Black lives in America. How leaders respond is not yet clear, but without question, those that fail to consider what the spirit of the time demands are unlikely to remain relevant.

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