Honeypots and Helicopters: Creativity in Business


Product Management Team


Cubicle farms, org charts, staff meetings. Business creativity sounds like an oxymoron. However, in the 21st century businesses that stifle the creativity of their people risk irrelevance, lackluster performance and ultimately bankruptcy.

I recently had the pleasure of taking a class titled Creativity and Innovation in Business at DePaul University with Dr. Lisa Gundry and thought you might find one of the stories from class both entertaining and educational. The full text of the story is here but following is a summary and some key takeaways.

Pacific, Power and Light (PP&L) is a utility that provides power to the west coast in the United states. A major part of their infrastructure consists of miles of high-voltage lines on towers that carry electricity over long distances through remote areas. In the winter, ice storms frequently coat the lines and too much ice will snap the lines and cut off power for many homes and businesses.

Their uncreative solution to the ice problem was to send line workers into the field to climb each tower and shake the lines with a hook. There were numerous problems with this approach. The work was dangerous, the line workers hated doing it and it was expensive. So PP&L management convened a cross-functional team (always a good start for eliciting creative ideas!) and hired a creativity consultant to guide the team.

For a while the team did not get anywhere. There were a lot of entrenched patterns in their thinking. During a break, the consultant heard two line workers discussing how one of them had run into a bear while working on lines out in the field. He used this story to help the team take a detour out of their patterned thinking. The team started thinking about ways they could get bears to clear the lines instead of having workers do it: Train the bears, hang honey pots on the towers so the bears will climb up, fly a helicopter to put the honeypots on the towers, etc. The team got some good laughs out of this conversation.

Then one of the team members mentioned the powerful downwash that comes from helicopter blades. What if they simply flew helicopters over the lines and used the downwash to clear the lines? Eureka! This was the breakthrough the team was after. It was such a breakthrough that, decades later, this approach is now standard practice for most utilities in the United States.

This story illustrates some key principles of organizational creativity:

  • Cross-functional interactions are key. No one person in your organization has all the answers. The more people from different disciplines get together, the more creative ideas will arise.
  • Creativity is non-linear. Notice the solution to the problem had nothing to do with the bears but the team had to take a detour through some crazy ideas involving bears to get to a breakthrough.
  • Breaking thought patterns by applying unrelated ideas to your problem or opportunity can elicit great ideas. There are a variety of tools you and your team might explore when trying to come up with new ideas, including:
    • Mind Mapping
    • Random Word – Pick a random word, list as many attributes of it as possible and then figure out how those attributes relate to your problem or opportunity.
    • Assumption Reversal – List some assumptions about your problem or opportunity and then state the opposite of them. Pick one that sounds interesting and figure out how to make it true.
    • WIBNI – Wouldn’t It Be Nice If… Start at the end. Think of as many statements about your problem as possible.
  • The fun, creative sessions are a small part of innovation. The team probably spent at most four or five hours in the creative session described in the story. After their breakthrough, someone had to champion the idea, protect it from naysayers, test the concept, get funding for it, etc. Usually the more innovative (i.e. crazy) the idea, the harder the pushback against it. The hard work of innovation is certainly not glamorous and can often be very difficult or, in some cases, dangerous.
  • Many ideas need to be explored and most of them will not pan out. The story only mentions the one idea that was successful. In your creative sessions you have lots of interesting ideas to pursue and the PP&L team likely did too. Innovative organizations have ways to screen ideas and experiment with the most promising ones to see which succeed and which fail.

How do you manage innovation in your organization? We would love to hear about how you collect, nurture, filter and ultimately deliver ideas.

Finally, organizational creativity is an incredibly rich and interesting field. If this article piqued your curiosity then you might consider some of this material as a starting point: