My former boss loved to challenge our ad agency's staffers with the wheelbarrow test.
Developed by Professor Edward de Bono of Cambridge University and published in David Campbell's book, "Take the Road to Creativity and Get off Your Dead End," the instructions read: "Below is a side view of a proposed design for a new wheelbarrow. Write down five comments about the design."
If you're like most adults, you'll say the wheel's too small or the handle too short. That the wheelbarrow's poorly balanced or it won't hold much. That the design is stupid or ridiculous. Asked merely to comment, virtually every adult finds fault. Given the same test, however, children see possibilities: "With the wheel at the rear," they say, "you could easily kick off mud." "You could roll it up to the edge of a hole and empty it." "You could put a trapdoor in the bottom with a remote control."
Professor de Bono says there's a secret to overcoming negativity.
"When you first meet with a new idea," he says, "ask yourself at least three questions: First, what are the positives of this idea? Second, what are the negatives? And third-and FAR MORE IMPORTANT-what are the interesting things about this idea? Don't feel the need to either support or criticize the new idea-just sit there and ponder ... 'Hmmm ... that's an interesting idea that I have never thought about before. What can I do with it?"
Every month at my company, we give away "The Big Idea Award." My colleagues nominate one another for some novel notion. The winner gets a traveling trophy-a glass head with a light bulb inside.
And why obsess over originality?
For nearly 30 years, I've saved a poem a friend gave me in high school. It says a lot about ideas and how we often react to them. I'll leave you this week with its wisdom:
He always wanted to explain things, but no one cared.
So he drew.
Sometimes he would draw and it wasn't anything.
He wanted to carve it in stone or write it in the sky.
He would lie out on the grass and look up at the sky And it would only be him and the sky And the things inside him that needed saying. And it was after that he drew the picture. He kept it under his pillow and would let no one see it. And he would look at it every night and think about it. And when it was dark, and his eyes were closed, he could still see it. And it was all of him. And he loved it.
When he started school, he brought it with him. Not to show to anyone, but just to have it with him like a friend. It was funny about school. He sat in a square, brown desk like all other square, brown desks. And he thought it should be red. And his room was a square, brown room like all the other rooms. And it was tight and close, and stiff. He hated to hold the pencil and chalk. With his arm stiff and his feet flat on the floor, stiff. With the teacher watching and watching. The teacher came and spoke to him. She told him to wear a tie like all the other boys. He said he didn't like them. And she said it didn't matter. After that they drew. And he drew all yellow and it was the way he felt about morning. And it was beautiful. The teacher came and smiled at him. "What's this?" she said. "Why don't you draw like Ken's drawing? Isn't that beautiful?"
After that his mother bought him a tie. And he always drew airplanes and rocket ships like everyone else. And he threw the old picture away. And when he lay alone looking at the sky, It was big and blue and all of everything. But he wasn't anymore. He was square inside, and brown. And his hands were stiff. And he was like everyone else. And the things inside him that needed saying didn't need it anymore. It had stopped pushing. It was crushed. Stiff. Like everything else.
At the bottom of the page, my friend typed, "This poem was given to a teacher by a 12th- grader. Although it is not known if he wrote the poem, it is known that he committed suicide a few weeks later."
Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to email@example.com.