Skip to main content
the creativity gap

Cathy Waters joined her passion for books with her interest in IT to co-found the former Abebooks used-book database, later acquired by Amazon.ARNOLD LIM/The Globe and Mail

The year was 1500, and Bayezid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, had a problem. He wanted to build a bridge connecting old Istanbul with the fast growing Karaköy neighbourhood, which lay across a wide inlet of the Bosphorus called the Golden Horn. Even the Romans, with their bridge-building prowess, hadn't attempted to span the Golden Horn.

A design was solicited from Leonardo da Vinci, an unlikely source both because of the war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire and because he was better known as a painter than an engineer at the time. The endlessly curious da Vinci had been playing with an idea for a self-supported bridge design for nearly two decades. He proposed an elegant and novel solution: a 240-metre single-span bridge, which would have been the longest in the world, made possible by combining geometric concepts to alter a classic keystone arch design.

Sultan Bayezid rejected the design, believing it couldn't possibly work. It would be 300 years before the engineering principals behind da Vinci's bridge were widely accepted. Finally, in 2001, his idea was shown to be feasible when a bridge based on his design was constructed in Norway.

Da Vinci was, the classic polymath, with incredible achievements in fields as varied as mathematics and music, botany and sculpting. Yet, the tale of his impossible bridge is an important lesson in the value of an outsider's perspective. Da Vinci was able to conceptualize how the world's longest bridge could span the Golden Horn, a problem that stumped expert bridge builders for centuries, because his creativity wasn't held back by a familiarity with the typical barriers of bridge building. He needed a great deal of knowledge about engineering to be able to understand the problem, of course, but his expertise in other fields allowed him to think differently and more creatively than others.

This is the power of a fresh set of eyes in problem solving. "Radical innovations often happen at the intersections of disciplines," write Dr. Karim Lakhani and Dr. Lars Bo Jeppesen, of Harvard Business School and Copenhagen Business School respectively, in the Harvard Business Review. "The more diverse the problem-solving population, the more likely a problem is to be solved. People tend to link problems that are distant from their fields with solutions that they've encountered in their own work."

Dr. Lakhani's and Dr. Jeppesen's ideas about how to tap the unique creativity of amateur strangers come from their study of the company InnoCentive, Inc., which posts tough R&D problems online for anyone to solve. InnoCentive was pioneered by executives at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly who were unhappy with their R&D department's creative output. Instead of throwing more money at the same organic chemistry problems only to be studied by the same experts, they thought, why not offer a reward to anyone who could produce a solution?

Within months, Eli Lilly received many inventive solutions that had eluded its highly qualified staff researchers, and since then other Fortune 500 companies like General Electric and Kraft Foods have used InnoCentive to broadcast stubborn problems on the Internet. Dr. Lakhani's and Dr. Jeppesen's study of InnoCentive found that 30 per cent of these challenges that confounded experienced corporate researchers were solved by non-employees. Dr. Lakhani's and Dr. Jeppesen's most interesting finding? The solvers weren't experts in relevant fields. In one case, a molecular biology problem was solved by an aerospace physicist and a small agriculture business owner.

"We assume that technical problems can be solved only by people with technical expertise," writes Jonah Lehrer, who discusses InnoCentive in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. "But that assumption is wrong. The people deep inside a domain – the chemists trying to solve a chemistry problem – often suffer from a type of intellectual handicap. It's not until the challenge is shared with motivated outsiders that the solution can be found."


Cathy Waters, the computer savvy bookseller

The Problem

It was 1994 when Cathy Waters, a consultant for the B.C. government, decided to make a career change. On an impulse, she picked up a book from the library about running a bookstore. "I can do that," she thought. Within months of purchasing Victoria's Timeless Books, Waters encountered an irritating problem. When she wanted to seek out rare used books for customers, her only option was to post an advertisement in the industry publication AB Bookman's Weekly. In response, she received daily stacks of mail for weeks, on recipe cards, foolscap, postcards, you name it. Deciphering handwriting and compiling book information became a daunting chore.

The Idea

One evening, Ms. Waters complained about her problem during dinner with her husband Keith and friends Rick and Vivian Pura, who were computer consultants. The light bulb of an idea flickered. Why not build an online database of used books, like the databases Keith was in the midst of building for the government? During lunch breaks, boring meetings and evenings, the two couples poured their energy into the task of creating a website that would connect customers looking for hard-to-find titles with booksellers. In 1996, they launched Advanced Book Exchange, which later came to be called Abebooks.

Thinking Like a Newcomer

Like most good ideas, listing books online now seems painfully obvious (Amazon, ahem). Nevertheless, Ms. Waters and her partners initially faced an uphill battle in convincing bookstores to sign on to Abebooks. "Booksellers are a different breed," she says, laughing. "They are highly intelligent people but many are resistant to technology and change. I got into IT in the early '80s and Keith had a computer science degree. So we knew there was a technological solution."

Abebooks initially signed up five booksellers with inventories totalling 5000 books, but after a year of travelling from book fair to book fair, their inventory grew to one million books. Soon they had 1,000 booksellers and 12 million books. Abebooks was acquired by Amazon in 2008 for an undisclosed amount.

What makes Abebooks remarkable isn't that it solved the irritating problem of relying on print advertising and snail mail to connect buyers and sellers. Ms. Waters' more valuable revelation – only possible at the intersection of her interests – was to anticipate the huge challenges the Internet was about to pose to independent book stores. Abebooks made it possible for used bookstores to find their own small corner of the book market dominated by ebooks and Indigo. Why was Ms. Waters able to identify a solution other booksellers didn't see? "We were newcomers," she says. "We had a totally different perspective."

Brian Scudamore, the entrepreneurial dropout

The Problem

After disappointing his parents by dropping out of high school, Vancouver native Brian Scudamore needed to earn some cash while he sorted his life out. One afternoon in 1989, while eating at a McDonald's, he spotted an old beat-up truck in the drive-through, "Mark's Hauling" written on its side. He then spent his remaining savings on a truck.

The truck generated income and he soon started college, but Mr. Scudamore quickly became bored. Perhaps because of his attention deficit disorder he wasn't satisfied with a simple junk removal business. He looked into franchising. "Eleven different franchise experts I talked to said, 'Don't franchise this business; it won't work,' " Mr. Scudamore says. "There are too few barriers to entry in the business, they said. Anyone can go out and buy a truck and start hauling junk." Mr. Scudamore knew the experts were right: His business in its current state offered nothing unique that would justify franchising.

The Idea

After long contemplation, Mr. Scudamore hit upon an idea. The problem with home services like junk hauling, he thought, was a lack of professionalism. "Nobody ever shows up on time. You've got to call ten times to get your plumber back. It's ridiculous," he says. Despite the experts' advice that his area of business wasn't a good candidate for franchising, he realized that the goal would be within reach if he brought a whole new level of competency. He started by developing a central call centre, where customers could book appointments and discuss jobs in detail rather than having to call a hurried truck driver on his cell. Then he set his sights on building a national brand: 1-800-GOT-JUNK.

The Benefit of Not Fitting In

Because Mr. Scudamore was able to imagine how to franchise a business that everyone thought was impossible, 1-800-GOT-JUNK now has 200 locations in three countries. "The key to being creative is taking the road less travelled," he says. "All my life, I've been an outsider. I didn't fit into the school system. I didn't finish college. The fact that I lack business training meant I had to find new ways to do things."

Mr. Scudamore has incorporated his philosophy about creativity into how he does business. When bringing on new franchisees, he avoids people with previous industry experience because he prefers those with no prior assumptions. 1-800-GOT-JUNK's headquarters is an open space and employees are encouraged to have meetings where other departments can overhear and throw in ideas. Then there is the "Can You Imagine?" wall where employees post crazy ideas and ambitious goals.

Mr. Scudamore recently expanded his vision of home services by partnering with a Vancouver-based house painter to launch 1-888-WOW-1DAY! Painting. The company, which promises to complete any job in one day, has five franchises across North America and a Toronto location is about to open.

Stephan Ouaknine, the naive telecom tycoon

The Problem

Between 1994 and 2010, Stephan Ouaknine started three telecom companies and made three successful exits, amassing considerable wealth as he went. "I could have pretty much done anything I wanted to in telecom," the Montrealer says. But instead of sticking to what he knew, he decided to tackle the most difficult problem of his career: climate change.

"I've been an earth lover my whole life," Mr. Ouaknine explains. "I love David Suzuki but all of his rallies and books and documentaries aren't going to put the dent in climate change that a really profitable idea can make. Profitable ideas tend to get a wider deployment than the stuff that's just about loving Mother Earth."

Examining the green technology sector, Mr. Ouaknine identified problems he recognized from the early days of telecom: The companies driving innovation, mostly young firms, relied on the crutch of government subsidies. Meanwhile, companies that secured significant venture capital lost their urgency. With the associated risks, banks were often allergic to innovation. And while these companies focused on creating the next technology, they often neglected to secure revenues.

Mr. Ouaknine realized that the way the clean energy sector financed innovation needed to be turned on its head.

The Idea

A couple of months after selling his last telecom company, Blueslice, he launched two companies: a $1-billion fund called Inerjys Ventures, which raises capital to invest in wind, solar and biofuel innovation, and Inerjys Renewables, a global utility that sells clean power. The genius of the idea is how the two entities interact. Not only does Inerjys provide capital while companies develop new technology, but it would also act as the companies' first customer, providing important revenues.

The Value of Naivety

So far, Inerjys has secured approximately $700-million in soft capital commitments prior to a first close, and the utility has projects in the works in seven countries. Mr. Ouaknine says that being an outsider is key to his ability to imagine a whole new way of financing green energy. "People who have been in a sector for 20 years sometimes only see the barriers, the reasons something is going to fail," he says. "When you don't know what you don't know – when you're a little bit naive – you can come with a fresh approach. You can get stuff done if you're a mixture of naive and tenacious." "Creativity comes hand in hand with challenging the status quo."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct

Tickers mentioned in this story