The Extraordinary Power of Ordinary Creativity

5 March 2015

It is thrilling to listen to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. The creativity is amazing; how many people are capable of that? But there is another kind of creativity of which we are all capable. It’s quite ordinary, in fact, although the results can be extraordinary: it can change the world.

Let’s start with a joke I heard. “I’d like to die like my grandfather died—quietly, in his sleep. Not like those other people in the car who died yelling and screaming.” We picture grandpa in his bed, but he was actually behind the wheel. It’s just a little switch really, as is found in many jokes.

Jokes, of course, don’t change the world. (Nor did Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto for that matter, although it has produced great joy in the world—as have so many jokes.) But how about this for a little switch:

In 1928, Alexander Fleming was researching anti-bacterial agents in his London laboratory. Returning there after vacation, he noticed that mold had killed some particular bacteria in one of his petri plates. “That’s funny” he said. Standard practice was to discard such samples and carry on, which Fleming in fact did. But following a conversation with a colleague, he took that sample out of the trash, asking himself if this mold could be used to kill destructive bacteria in the human body. That was the critical moment, the key little switch. What was trash to other researchers suddenly became opportunity for him.

Fleming studied the mold and published an article about it a year later. But not much happened for a while, and then it took years of effort, by him and others, before what he initially called “penicillin” was used in the treatment of infections. Looking back on this, he said: "When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn't plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world's first antibiotic, or bacteria killer." But that is what happened, and it changed the world.

What made all this effort possible was that one little switch by one person—from the trash to the bench, and, in his mind, into the human body. It was a simple switch really, even if its consequences were monumental.

Here’s another simple switch, that changed an industry. A worker at IKEA had to take the legs off a table, to get it into his car. This switch was the realization that if this one employee had to do it, so did the IKEA customers. Consequently the company worked out a new business model: the selling of furniture unassembled so that people could take it home in their cars. And that changed the furniture industry.

By the way, this too required enormous effort, 15 years I’ve been told. But again, it all happened because of that one little switch, thanks to that one experience with a table.

Maybe you have never created a great violin concerto. But I’ll bet you have come up with your share of little jokes. Well then, by switching that talent to something more serious, you could start a process that might change an industry, even the world.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015