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Serendipitous Sam and the good ideas factory

By Andrew Lintott - Last updated: Monday, November 28, 2016

four-leaf-1My daughter’s interest started in the springtime, in an orchard, stemming from a seemingly inconsequential conversation about four leaf clovers. As I recall it was my wife who explained that sometimes, if you look, you can find a four leaf clover – and if you do then you are very lucky because very few people find them.

But knowing my five-year-old this was probably an unwise thing to say because she suddenly slowed down and concentrated on little else, and although we weren’t in a hurry we had probably accidentally added about half an hour to the walk.

So we went on with little Sam lagging behind, sharp eyes scanning between the grass and rotting apples. This continued for a while until she let out a gasp and came running to show us something very, very exciting. And indeed it was a four leaf clover.

So we took it home and pressed it in a flower press—see exhibit one—and explained that she is now very lucky. Sam believes firmly in Father Christmas and Fairies, and in lucky charms. I see that as a perfectly reasonable position to take when one is five.

four-leaf-2It was about two weeks later that she found another. This was in the school playground. By the time she brought it home in the bottom of her school bag it was a green ball of mush. I wasn’t able to take a photograph but I also have no reason to disbelieve her about it.

A few weeks later she found another. This one stretched the definition of four leaf clover a bit, but then again my wife and I didn’t set any criteria for her to judge by, so who are we to disqualify it?

Sam continues to look for and occasionally find four leaf clovers, although she has other preoccupations now so the frequency has dropped.

So how does she do it? I have never found one, but then again the key difference between Sam and I is that I’ve never spent any significant time actively looking for them. Sam does. The exact cause of four leaf clovers is not clear, but it is estimated that the variation occurs once in ten-thousand clover plants. The most effective way of finding them is to look at thousands. It helps to be low to the ground, have sharp little eyes, and have a little time to spare.

It seems to me that there is a parallel to be drawn with really great ideas: The sort of one-in-ten-thousand idea that results in a totally new way of solving a problem; the sort of idea that may even change the market entirely – the shipping container, the transistor, or the microwave oven. Cambridge Consultants can point to the world’s first all-digital radio transceiver, the first single-chip Bluetooth transceiver, and the round teabag.

How do you find them? You look. Often clients are interested in the incremental solution. They come to us because we can solidly combine technologies and engineer them into something that works. Best-in-class is a respectable aim and Cambridge Consultants have a history of creating those solutions too: The world’s best beer widget, for example.

But in many projects it is worthwhile spending just a little time looking for the one-in-ten-thousand solution. Yes we know there’s a conventional solution, but let’s just pause and look for the four leaf clover.

It is easy to think of innovation as a matter of luck and chance—and that happens—but the reality of most new ideas is that they are picked out from hundreds if not thousands of not-so-good ideas. The effort of generating those less glorious ideas is the hard grind that is often forgotten about and certainly never makes it into the press release. It is better to think of innovation as the combination of hard work and luck that it is and invest in it. At Cambridge Consultants we have processes for idea generation that we employ. These are systematic ways of exploring the solution space, putting together candidate solutions, and sorting the good from the bad—in a sense a good ideas factory.

Personally, I believe in the never-ending flow of new ideas, and that the world generally gets better every year (demonstrably so—despite what some in politics and the media may tell us). It’s a perfectly reasonable position to take when one is forty-seven, but—like little Sam—you need the enthusiasm and energy to do the search.


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AuthorAndrew Lintott


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