Edison had an idea that he could light the world. He engineered his idea into electric light bulbs. Fulton had an idea that steam could be used to power ships. He engineered his idea into steamships. Marconi had an idea that messages could be sent through space without using wires. He engineered his idea into the wireless telegraph. Gates had an idea that computers could drive commerce. He engineered his idea into an industry standard for computer operating systems. The most dynamic, powerful, revolutionary thing in the world is a new idea. Skyscrapers, bridges, machines, religions, philosophies, governments, musical compositions, poems -- all possibilities soaring in someone's "What if?" stratosphere before they were engineered into down-to-earth realities. As a chief executive, I cherished people with ideas. It didn't matter that they were sometimes mavericks. I loved people who were impossible, incorrigible, and insatiable. I was a jealous defender of an employee's right to be enthusiastic, different, artfully rebellious, limitlessly inventive, or notoriously gutsy. But I insisted that ideas had to hold the potential of being engineered. Thinking great thoughts is the beginning. Doing great deeds is the objective. Managing to do both is success. The power of thought is the most valuable power on earth, yet it is wasted on 99 people out of 100. One never knows what can result when a person puts his mind to work. A story comes to mind of a wealthy American tourist who was traveling in Afghanistan when his car broke down in the back country. The locals couldn't help him. Then someone recalled that a blacksmith fifty miles away knew about engines. So they sent someone to fetch him. Three days later the old man appeared astride his mule. He took one look at the engine and asked for a hammer. He tapped a spot on the engine block twice very gently, then turned to the American and said "Start 'er up." To everyone's complete surprise, the engine started and purred as smoothly as it did the day it left the factory. "That's wonderful," exclaimed the tourist. "How much do I owe you?" "Three hundred dollars, " said the blacksmith. "What?" shouted the tourist. "Three hundred dollars for two taps with a hammer?" "I can itemize it for you if you like," said the old man slowly. "For two taps with the hammer, 10 cents. For knowing exactly where to tap, $299.90." Getting ideas is basically a three-step process: (1) perception, during which we store up impressions in our brain cells, (2) apperception, during which we combine two or more of these impressions, and (3) association, during which we allow impressions of a feather to flock together. When the driving need for an idea occurs, we review our storehouse of impressions like swift fingers skipping through a mental card catalog. We sort and sift the information, cutting here, fitting there, patching one impression into another searching for meaningful relationships. Different combinations spawn different possibilities. It is common, after trying adventurous alternatives and countless combinations, that the thinker will become confused to the point of despondency. This is the agonizing frustration phase when you pace the floor, wrack your brain, or head for the local bar. Paradoxically, the answer to frustration is relaxation. Experienced thinkers have learned to turn off their subjectiveness and turn on their subconsciousness. While they rest, their subconscious doesn't. In time, a fateful hand throws a switch across our impressions and the eclectic becomes electric. That's when soaring possibilities become engineered realities.
Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc., author of the recently published Management Rhymes and Reason, and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected]