How to be a serial innovator

Serial nnovator - image for article by Greg Alder

Late in the 19th century, Dr Henry Holmes built a 3-storey hotel in the Englewood neighbourhood of Chicago. The building was so large that locals dubbed it The Castle.

The ground floor of the building housed his pharmacy and other shops. The upper floors housed the World’s Fair Hotel, a hostelry for the nearby World’s Columbian Exposition.

What guests didn’t know – until it was too late – is that the Wold’s Fair Hotel wasn’t created to be a hotel, and Dr Henry Holmes had no interest in being a hotelier.

His intentions were much more sinister.

If hotel guests (and even staff) struggled to find their way through the maze of upper floor rooms, it wasn’t by accident. The hotel had been deliberately designed by Dr Holmes to disorient. The top two floors were a labyrinth of stairways that led nowhere, doorways that opened on to brick walls and oddly-angled hallways.

There were around a hundred rooms, but few of them were normal. Some of the rooms had doors that could only be opened from the outside. Others were airtight and pitch black. Soundproof rooms had gas pipes in the ceiling. One brick room could only be entered via a trapdoor in the roof. In another room, the walls were made from iron plates with blowtorches built into them. A secret chute ran from the top floor to the basement where there were pits of corrosive acid, bottles of poison, a furnace and a rack for stretching bodies.

As you’ve probable guessed, Dr Henry Holmes was a killer. The Castle was purpose built for murder.

Dr H. H. Holmes (real name Herman Mudgett) is generally regarded as America’s first serial killer. Like all serial killers, he behaved in a way that most common murderers don’t. He carefully planned his murders. He made a career of it.

Crimes of passion are committed with little premeditation and using weapons of convenience (kitchen knives in most countries, guns in the USA). Serial killers and mass murderers aren’t generally impulsive. In the case of Dr Holmes, he went to extraordinary lengths to create the perfect environment for the murders he planned to commit.

So why am I writing about a serial killer in a blog post about innovation? Because Dr Holmes did something that most of us with ambitions of innovation fail to do. He created the perfect environment.

In creative thinking workshops I show a cartoon where a boss orders an employee: “You get back to that damn cubicle and start thinking outside the box!”

Innovations stem from ideas. To incubate ideas, you need three things – the right environment, the right attitude and creative thinking tools.

Too often we organise brainstorming sessions in formal boardrooms. We desperately seek ideas sitting at our desks staring at a blank screen. If big ideas come, it won’t be thanks to the environment. They’ll come painfully and slowly.

If Dr Holmes were to design the perfect space for innovation, here’s what it would include:

  • Writing space – blackboards and chalk rather than whiteboards and squeakers, butchers paper, tablets, PostIt notes.
  • Monitors – showing video clips, optical illusions, travel scenery, Leonardo da Vinci drawings, advertising award winners and light bulbs (they’ve been proven to trigger creative thinking).
  • Games & props – Lego, Meccano, unusual hats, Pictionary, skittles, The Storymatic, masks, musical instruments.
  • Seating – beanbags, lounges, Swiss balls, a bed, a car, hay bales.
  • Décor – wallpaper murals of exotic places, colour & patterns, maybe a sandpit or fake grass, M C Escher puzzles, Magritte paintings.

Dr Holmes created the perfect space for crime. His design was extraordinarily successful. When caught, he confessed to killing 30, but the actual number could have been 200.

When looking for creative inspiration, we generally turn to the great innovators. However, I do a presentation called The Mass Murderer’s Guide To Killing Innovation. I use it to demonstrate that history’s most evil criminals can teach us a thing or two about creativity and innovation.

To become a serial innovator, you need to create the right environment.

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