AnnMarie Thomas

Outside Consultant: What Is the Secret to New Ideas?

This “Outside Consultant” column by AnnMarie Thomas, professor of entrepreneurship and engineering, ran in the Star Tribune on April 19, 2021.

I tell my students and clients to consider novelists. Even if a writer memorizes the entire dictionary and every rule of grammar, that does not mean that they will write a wonderful new story. A new story, just like a new business idea, has to come from a spark of creativity. The words and grammar are merely tools to bring that spark to life.

New ideas come from new perspectives, which you are not going to get by doing the same things as everyone else. Over the past few decades I have seen that innovation often comes from individuals applying the tools of their profession to opportunities and challenges in their personal lives, particularly in the things that they do for fun. Whether I am talking to artists, chefs, musicians or entrepreneurs, one of the first questions that I ask them is what they like to do when they’re not working.

The idea for Velcro came from an engineer finding cockleburs stuck to him and his dog after a walk. He became interested in how the burs stuck to fur and fabric, and this interest led to the invention of the “hook and loop” closures we know as Velcro. Closer to home, we in Minnesota likely have heard the story of Post-it notes coming from 3M scientist Art Fry, needing a bookmark he could stick to his hymnal without damaging the paper. If Fry was not a singer in a church choir outside of work, we might not have Post-it notes.

As a business leader, I encourage you to nurture your team’s hobbies. Find out what interesting things they do when they are not in the office. In the Playful Learning Lab, we keep a spreadsheet of “unusual skills.” When it comes time to put together project teams we look to that list. You never know when an engineer’s interest in pastry or an accountant’s musical skills may lead to your company’s next product.

The secret to a new idea may be hidden in a great book, a sunset stroll or even an unusual meal. Seek out these new adventures, even when you aren’t sure how they relate to your current work. You will build a toolbox of experiences and memories that you can draw on in the future.

AnnMarie Thomas is a professor of entrepreneurship and engineering at the University of St. Thomas, where she directs the Playful Learning Lab.