The sun sank low over the September sky, tingeing the clouds with its warm, peachy glow. In a cosy kitchen in Renfrewshire, a young boy and his aunt were having tea, sitting in the light of the evening sun.
As the sun arced lower, the boy became more fixated with the steam coming from his aunt’s kettle. He watched with fascination as puffs rolled from its spout, holding a silver spoon over its jet and watching as droplets of water formed and trickled down its handle.
Over and over again he studied this simple phenomenon, lifting the lid of the kettle and putting it on again until he was interrupted by the sound of his aunt’s voice.
Frustrated with his apparent laziness, the aunt barked, ‘James, I’ve never seen such a lazy boy. For the last hour, you haven’t spoken one word to me, but taken the lid off that kettle and put it on again. Aren’t you afraid of wasting your time this way?’
Fortunately, the boy remained undaunted by his aunt’s disapproval. Two decades later, in 1765, he was still fascinated by the phenomenon he discovered that night in his aunt’s kitchen. It was that year the young James Watt invented a new kind of steam engine. One that would help usher in the Industrial Revolution.
Making room for innovation.
There are many versions of this story, in some, it’s James’s aunt’s kettle, or his mother’s. In some James is an older man, and in others a young boy. But each telling of the story reminds us of the importance of giving people the space to invent, to play, and to observe.
It serves as a reminder that watching and listening to the world around us is how we come up with our greatest ideas. That something as simple as taking the lid off a kettle and looking underneath, something that seems like idle play to others, could be the start of a revolution.
That child-like curiosity in discovering how something works, in understanding why it is the way it is, and how that could be applied to something new, forms the building blocks of innovation and creative thinking. Watching his aunt’s kettle boil, and discovering the power of steam is what inspired James Watt to dramatically improve the efficiency of the existing Newcomen engine. That eureka moment in a droplet of steam was enough to spark an entire revolution.
Just like James and the kettle, we need to give ourselves, and our teams, the freedom to explore, discover, and play with ideas to see what sticks. If we truly want to innovate and create things of enduring value, we need to give ourselves the time and space to look under the lid, because we never know what great discovery we could find underneath.
Finding great ideas in unexpected places.
Our friends at Open Change often say that a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world. It is a place where day-to-day work happens, but it is also a place where true innovation rarely happens. It is a place that restricts our point of view and our experience of the world. A place that curbs our physical interaction and engagement with the world around us. A place that limits our empathy and restricts us from walking in the shoes of those we’re trying to help.
Just like James and the kettle, our greatest ideas often come from the spaces in between, the magic in unexpected moments, the glimmer in a drop of steam, and inspiration can most readily be found in the world beyond our desks.
The greatest ideas often come from the most unexpected places. From exposing ourselves to new experiences, new surroundings, new people, new stories. From absorbing new cultures, new flavours, new hobbies, new ways of thinking. From immersing ourselves in our passions and opening ourselves up to new avenues of possibility. From giving ourselves, and our teams, the time and space to play, to explore, and to wonder.
As the story of James and the kettle demonstrates, great ideas are always found through the powers of observation. Through questioning things that others take for granted. Through asking ‘what if?’, and ‘why?’. Through daring to imagine things differently from the way they’ve always been. Through refashioning what already exists. Through being curious. Through thinking differently about the world around us and looking at things through a new lens. Through bending, breaking, and blending existing ideas together to create something completely different.
Innovation isn’t always about creating something entirely new. In fact, you might go as far as to say that nothing is truly original. Some of the most valuable innovation involves reimagining something that already exists and rethinking it to make it better. Just as James Watt found the idea for improving an existing steam engine under the lid of his aunt’s kettle, no great idea is entirely original.
Inspiration is everywhere.
We’re all influenced and inspired by the world around us, the seeds of our ideas already sown in the places and spaces we occupy, ready to disperse onto us, take root, and grow. We’re influenced by the people and objects that surround us, the experiences that shape us, and the myriad of things that make us who we are. And if we look hard enough, and lift the lid under the kettle, we might just find the inspiration for our greatest idea under our very noses.
Noone encapsulates this better than Jim Jarmusch, whose ideas we’ve read and borrowed from to shape a story of our own:
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is nonexistent.”—Jim Jarmusch