#244 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 11          November 1996

Idea Energy:  The Physics of Innovation
by Stephen R. Grossman and Bryan W. Mattimore

Mr. Grossman, a scientist, inventor, and consultant on innovation is co-author of Innovation, Inc. (Wordware Publishing, Plano, TX, 1988).  He is president of Double Dominance, Inc., Maple Shade, New Jersey (phone 609-779-0702; gdoubledom@aol.com www.consultants-mall.com/grossman.htm).  Mr. Mattimore, ideation  and innovation consultant, facilitator and author of 99% Inspiration (American Management Association, New York, 1994), is president of the Mattimore Group, Stamford, Connecticut (phone 203-359-1801). 

When considering how to implement and foster a culture of innovation, most companies either turn to current gurus, or use the reported experiences of companies considered as leaders in new idea development.  Such companies as 3M, Texas Instruments and Microsoft have fascinating tales to tell about how they accomplish new product and process development.  Unfortunately, whatever the inspiration source, the translation from theory to practice is difficult.  Your business isn’t Microsoft, your people don’t “thrive on chaos,” and attempts to implement these philosophies often meet with poor results.  A reason for this implementation gap might be that these theories and best practices aren’t generic enough for a one-size-fits-all approach.  So, what works in one organization may not be applicable to yours.

In school, you may remember, the way to get good grades in the sciences was not by mere memorizing; you had to understand general principles.  We are, therefore, going explain the operative mechanisms of innovation and business creativity by using an analogy with the basic concepts of energy.  Energy is at the heart of any physical or chemical change.  It’s development and control is also central to any business change.  There are several general principles of energy that are useful to get going on the innovation bandwagon.

Laser Power and Aligned Energy

Edison’s light bulb is often used as the symbol for genius and individual creativity.  However, to successfully execute new ideas in a complex corporate setting, we need to consider laser light as a more appropriate key to success.  We’re all familiar with the properties of the laser...powerful enough to cut through metals, intense enough to reach the moon, and focused enough to use in the most sensitive surgical settings.  What makes the laser so different from ordinary light, and why are these differences important in the company?

Conventional light is a result of a constant play of electrons moving back and forth between low and high energy orbits in atoms.  As the electron moves from high to low, it emits light energy.  Conversely, movement from low to high absorbs the same kind of energy--a rather inefficient process.  Laser light is a result of a discharge of energy from electrons all moving in the same direction at the same time.  It works because there’s an intermediate staging area where the electrons “wait” until a critical amount has gathered, and they then fire down together, emitting highly focused in-phase light that doesn’t get diluted or dissipated by movement in the opposite direction.

To make new ideas a reality, corporations need to create “idea staging areas” where everyone involved in the potential execution of an idea has the opportunity to influence its ultimate shape and direction before an attempt is made to implement the idea.  In this staging area, the idea may change its shape and size many times as more and more people participate in molding it into a final form.  However, once a critical mass of people has gone through this exercise, the idea will sell itself because it has so many authors.  This notion implies two important principles:  1.  You can implement virtually any good idea as long as you’re willing to release sole ownership.  2.  The truly creative tasks are the modifications that take place in the staging area to insure that everyone involved has their “hand print” on the final form.

Everyone is now a co-creator, so when final critical mass is achieved, the idea will “fire” through the organization with the alignment and energy required for successful execution.

Activation Energy

If we consider most chemical changes, a new product is formed when reactants are brought together in close proximity.  The reaction will generally occur when the result of the change liberates energy.  In many cases, however, a small amount of energy must be put into the system in order to initiate the reaction.  This is the activation energy.

We may define innovation as a unique idea implemented profitably.  The innovation process is generally initiated by someone’s breakthrough idea.  The idea may release a tremendous amount of energy for the creator and the organization.  However, many times, for this “birth” to take place, the creator must experience an initial injection of energy--a personal activation energy.  (The literature is full of accounts of great scientists and artists who report a sense of “mental elevation” prior to the onset of a great idea.)

An organization can be an activation source by increasing the level of intrinsic motivation in their employee’s work.  To help stimulate excitement about their work, ask your staff these questions:

a.  What, at work, excites you?

b.  To what extent do the things you value appear in your daily activities?

c.  What do you dislike about work?

d.  How might you maximize your response to a and b, minimize c, and still get the work done?

e.  When, and under what conditions, do you get your best ideas?

f.  How might you translate these conditions to the work environment?

The extent to which the organization can help the employee match his or her interests with business objectives, will determine the pool of available activation energy.


The first law of thermodynamics tells us that for any system there is a direct relationship between its internal heat content and the work it can do on an external environment.  The higher the heat content, the more potential work available in the system.

This law has application for the idea-selection process.  The higher the idea’s heat content, the greater the chances of its successful execution.  Much work needs to be done to overcome all the internal problems and challenges that come with any new idea.  Aside from the technical difficulties, there’s usually emotional resistance.  If the idea is “hot” enough, all of these can be overcome.  The decision-making system should then be biased towards choosing the most exciting idea, even though it may not, on the surface, be the most practical alternative.  The attitude of key decision makers needs to be to “let’s make exciting ideas work!”  Following is a suggested process to help reach this objective.

1.  Search for all the positive aspects of the new idea by answering the following questions:
          a.  What does the idea accomplish?
          b.  Under what conditions might there be a maximum payoff?
          c.  What makes this idea more exciting than most?
          d.  What are the specific mechanisms to make the idea work?
          e.  What general principles are represented by this idea?
2.  Identify the challenges:
          a.  What are the biggest obstacles?
          b.  What are the risks?
          c.  What other parts of the business might experience a negative impact from the idea’s                execution?
3.  Close the gap:
          a.  How can we maintain the utility found in 1, and eliminate the challenges in 2?  How do                we make the idea work?

Once the decision has been made and resources provided, shift attention to implementation.  This can be a long, arduous and sometimes frustrating process.  To be successful, you must maintain the idea’s energy value.  The second law of thermodynamics tells us that this will not happen by itself!  This law states that when two bodies are in close contact, and the temperature of the first is higher than the temperature of the second, heat will spontaneously flow from the warm to the cold body.  When this happens, the warm body experiences a drop in energy that is not compensated by a corresponding increase in the cold body.  There are always net energy losses.  Over time, the whole system cools down.  You must not let this happen with new ideas.  The organization must continually inject energy into the system as the implementation process proceeds. 

One important injection device is the organizational vision, which should depict what the world will look like when the idea is successfully implemented.  Good visions communicate both the value to the marketplace and the benefit to all the internal and external customers.  The new idea now becomes a vehicle for reaching the vision.  This connection between the idea and the organization’s preferred future provides greater and greater inspiration the further along the implementation path we move.  Without the vision, and its continual reinforcement by top management, passion fades.  With the right vision, momentum is maintained, the idea is successful and everyone wins.

These fundamental scientific principles of energy development and control is one way to look at the basics of successful innovation.  Using them may put us in the shoes of a Chinese philosopher who said, “There is nothing so sublime as sitting quietly, sipping a cup of tea, in full knowledge of events that have not yet taken place.”

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