For a moment, forget the hackneyed stereotype of creative inspiration -- a new idea -- as the light that comes from a lightbulb. Instead, think of a new idea as the light that comes from a flashlight.
If you place a new idea's essential components -- or batteries -- haphazardly into a flashlight so that the positive and negative ends aren't connecting, nothing will happen when you turn the flashlight on. It makes little difference that the batteries are fresh or that the flashlight is in perfect working order.
So it is, too, with new ideas.
"A new idea, however good, isn't enough," declares Robert Rosenfeld, head of Kodak Research Laboratories' Office of Innovation. "Ideas have to connect."
Rosenfeld is an expert in "the idea connection business," matching those creators who generate new ideas with "others who possess the knowledge, money, or clout necessary to help transform a new idea into a tangible process or product."
Although creativity and innovation go hand in hand, Rosenfeld makes a distinction between the two concepts, which he says are often misused terms: "Creativity refers to the generating of new and novel ideas usually by an individual, whereas innovation refers to the application of an idea and is generally a collective process."
Five years ago Rosenfeld, 38, a senior research chemist (and an inventor who holds several patents in the field of photographic technology) as well as the designer of group workshops, was asked by his lab chief to go beyond the employe suggestion box and "design a system to handle ideas."
The result was the Office of Innovation, an independent facility devoted to the pursuit of new ideas at Kodak.
At the Office of Innovation, anyone in the company -- from mail clerk to research chemist -- can bring in a new idea for management to consider. Rosenfeld believes that what makes the Office of Innovation not only unique but successful is that, first, "We believe all ideas have value. What we're looking for is the germ of truth in each idea."
Second: "We're looking for ideas outside a person's assigned work. Most people will generate ideas in their areas of expertise, because that's what they're paid to do, but what we're searching for are the ideas outside their assigned areas. It might be an outside interest, or someone might attend a lecture and a thought is triggered, 'Hey, why doesn't the company do this and thus?' and so they bring the idea to us."
There is a calculated reason for this "outside" search. According to Stanley Gryskiewicz of the Center for Creative Leadership, a nonprofit educational institute in Greensboro, N.C., data from creative research labs support the theory that individuals increase their creativity potential when encouraged to pursue outside interests, be it hobbies, reading outside their field or attending conferences only tangentially related to their work.
"The assumption is that you're an expert in your own field, but what people need to do is pick up some new data in order to rearrange thought patterns and make novel associations. From those rearrangements come new energy and creativity."
American corporations are "really paying attention to creativity and innovation now," says Gryskiewicz. "We're going to see more and more things like Kodak's Office of Innovation. People are more aware of culture and environment in business than they ever have been before.
"If companies want to attract good people, they realize they must consider the culture those people are plugging into. If you put good people in an environment that's sterile, narrow, cold and dark they are just not going to perform, which is why companies are listening more and more to people like Bob Rosenfeld."
While American companies are currently seeking new ways to increase employe innovation, Gryskiewicz says that Kodak is the only one to have "formalized a structure to generate new ideas."
The first step in the process is that a new idea's originator or "ideator" -- as they call him/her at Kodak -- will sit down with an "innovative facilitator" who acts as the nascent idea's non-judgmental advocate. It is the facilitator's responsibility to make sure the new idea is brought to the attention of the right people in management.
"We're a very large company, and like other large corporations, people in one location of the company don't know who to speak to in the other offices," explains Rosenfeld. "Very often ideas can fall through the cracks in between different divisions because of a lack of communication.
"A scarcity of ideas is not a problem with American industry. The failure of large organizations to innovate is primarily a communications gap."
It's the job, he says, of the facilitator (who is free to cut across organizational boundaries) to rescue those ideas.
The facilitator also helps the ideator expand his or her thinking: "What does the idea need in order to best be heard? For example, not only do you have technical considerations, but you need to take into consideration marketing aspects. We broaden, converge and diverge on the idea and enhance it."
Anonymity is available if the ideator wishes it, in order to avoid the conflict of corporate politics. "We're interested in new ideas," says Rosenfeld, "not who originated them."
Once the idea is fleshed out by the originator and facilitator it is documented. Then it is sent out to a small screening group of experts throughout the company, who volunteer their time and expertise to act as consultants.
"The point is now to expand the idea even further, but critically," says Rosenfeld. "We're asking people to look at the idea with an open mind and to check to see what its flaws are."
Usually it is at this point in the process that an idea whose time has come will find a "sponsor" or "champion," an individual (though sometimes a group) who "becomes devoted to the concept and pursues it relentlessly against all odds" until the idea reaches fruition.
Although Kodak won't say how many ideas have passed through the Office of Innovation since its inception (Rosenfeld estimates that approximately 20 percent eventually find champions), the company is relatively open about sharing their process. Rosenfeld has presented the concept of the Office of Innovation at many corporate conferences.
"It's an issue of sharing," he says. "American business is facing the challenge of change. Our product life cycles are being compressed. We need to improve our quality and productivity and innovative ideas have to not only flow, but connect."
But before a business can exploit the untapped creativity of their employes, "Corporations and institutions need to be willing to invest in people," he says, "not just their ideas. Invest in people by allowing them to be cultivated. Teach people how to evaluate their ideas and allow them to have ideas that don't work.
"Eventually you'll get good ideas."