Photograph by Lasse Kristensen—Getty Images/Moment Open

A new book offers bite-sized chunks of insight into where new ideas come from.

By Anne Fisher
November 4, 2015

If you happened to be watching NBC’s Today show on Tuesday, October 20, 1987 — the day after the biggest stock-market drop in U.S. history — you might remember George Barbee. Today’s producers asked him to come on and “calm the American people,” he recalls. He agreed, but stayed up half the night “in a near panic,” trying to decide what to say.

Then he did some research, and explained to viewers that the Dow had shot up so high in the previous 12 months that, even with its heart-stopping plunge, the market had simply gone back to the status quo ante. Think of it, he advised, as a “Rip Van Winkle Effect…. If you had gone to sleep a year ago and just woke up this morning, the market would be at the same level…. Just take a long-term, multi-year view, and don’t let fluctuations ruin your day.”

It was good advice, and it set Barbee apart from other, more excitable commentators.

The moral of that story, which is Chapter 59 in his new book, 63 Innovation Nuggets, is twofold: First, sometimes being the best, the first, or the only at anything depends on your willingness to do some clear-eyed research that your rivals haven’t bothered with. And second, if the seed of an idea has you tossing and turning at night, write it down so you don’t lose it. “When we sleep, part of our brain keeps working. It may make an unusual connection.”

It would be tough to find anyone with longer, or more varied, experience with innovation than George Barbee. In a 45-year career spanning 40 countries, he spearheaded half a dozen new products and strategies at GE, Gillette, IBM, PepsiCo, and PwC and helped launch three successful startups. He’s spent the past 15 years coaching and teaching at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

 

At 146 pages, index included, 63 Innovation Nuggets is practically weightless. You could read the whole thing on a flight from New York to Chicago, and its 63 chapters are so short that you might be tempted to gulp them down a dozen at a time.

That would be unwise. Barbee’s ideas are deceptively simple, but each one could pack a real punch. Take, for instance, his suggestion about managing your time. All kinds of elaborate systems exist to help with this, but Barbee proposes instead that you pick up a pencil and draw two pie charts. Slice one of them up to show your life now — work, family, sleep, and so on. Then, draw a second one that shows how you want to divide up your time in the future, and keep that one in front of you every day as a reminder.

“Track yourself,” Barbee writes. How similar do the two pies look after a few months? How about after a year? Don’t forget to include a slice for coming up with new ideas: “How much time do you allow for fresh, original thinking? Being creative? By yourself? With like-minded people?”

Sounds like child’s play, but the exercise led one IBM executive to realize that he was wasting one or two hours a day on pointless emails. “Two hours is 25% of an 8-hour day,” Barbee points out. When the IBMer started tackling his email only every third day, he freed up his attention for more creative work.

Opening your mind to new ideas, Barbee writes, takes stepping out of the familiar into what he calls the “yikes zone.” Again, it sounds simple: Start by deciding to do a few things that you ordinarily avoid.

“How often do you really stretch yourself, mentally?” he asks. “Are you uncomfortable with certain situations or tasks? Afraid of them? This is perfectly okay [but]…Push yourself” to venture into alien territory.

That could get discouraging, of course, but just keep at it, Barbee writes. “Innovation is close by.”

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