On innovative thought and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

During the week I listened to the first series of The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy on CD. I have listened to the series hundreds of times before, the first time being the original radio broadcast on 2JJ when I was at school in Sydney. The radio series never fails to make me laugh or wonder at the clever storyline and characterisation.

But this week I also listened to the CD that explained how the original BBC radio series came about. Having listened to the CD a couple of times now, I can see that there are several knowledge management and strategic organisational issues that come across.

The creator, the late Douglas Adams, first had a thought about a hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy one drunken evening lying down in a field looking up at the stars in Innsbruck, Austria in 1970 or 1971. A few years later Adam’s creative, yet eccentric, writing talents and ideas were picked up by a radio show producer at the BBC who could see the innovative and creative talent of this chap Douglas Adams but wasn’t sure how it could be utilised for the best.

They met for lunch, discussed a few ideas, and the first formative writing of a series began. The initial plan was to have a series of single episodes with different stories but with the same ending. However, Adams looked to find a more satisfying and meaningful storyline that became a single series of episodes, continuing from one episode to the next.

Suffice to say, the first episodes were written (often on the fly, as Adams was renowned for his procrastination and late delivery of story content) and the first series completed. And of course, there was the whole production process working to complete a quality radio show – actor selection and voice recordings, taping and editing (using an eight-track tape machine – all pre-computer and digitisation) and the ingenious people from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who created all the sound effects. The radio series and subsequent books were an enormous success.

The point of this summation is this. An idea was born but that circumstances for that idea to become something tangible did not come into play until a few years later. Conditions and circumstances matter. Secondly, an individual with innovative thoughts and imagination is not always recognised or appreciated within the organisation where such an individual works. There needs to be awareness, recognition and vision. Fostering innovative thought needs a supporting environment, and open and attuned decsion-makers so that an idea becomes realised into something more than just a thought. Thirdly, the production of the idea into a tangible product also relies on the existing social and professional networks to bring people into the project in order to deliver a finished output – a number of actors and production people for the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy came on board due to friendships, university contacts, and having worked together on previous projects. Professional and social networks are important in the workplace.

I wonder what would have happened if Douglas Adams’ talents had gone unnoticed and unappreciated at the BBC. Imagine if the BBC hierarchy had simply said that “we don’t do that kind of thinking around here”. Would Adams’ Innsbruck idea ever have become anything more than an idea? Thinking beyond what is considered the norm or the usual is something we need to encourage if we are to fully realise innovative thoughts within organisations.

And in putting the various members of the production team together, could it have worked out as well as it did if not for all the networked connections between people and past associations?

Listening to how the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy came together has highlighted some key thinking that good knowledge management within organisations must take on board.


2 responses to “On innovative thought and the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

  1. Hi Brad, nice story. I do wonder always that it is so hard to replicate these circumstances. Seems it helps us to understand in retrospective but hard to use it upfront?

  2. Joitske,

    I don’t think we can “replicate” circumstances, but perhaps we can replicate some good starting conditions.

    I think that we need to embrace a supporting environment in which creativty and difference can emerge and where new ideas and thoughts gain visibility and consideration.

    At the same time, we need people who are attuned to recognising ideas and thoughts from which deliverable outcomes can be made possible. Enhancing “the possible” is where the power is.

    Note that I don’t say “success” – we don’t always know if we will have success. Success isn’t guaranteed in everything we do – even “clever” CEO’s are not immune from poor decision-making as we see of late!

    If I used the Cynefin framework, I would say that because we are working in the complex space then we can only sense and probe. I think that is in essence what Simon Brett (the BBC producer) and the people that managed the production of the Hitchhikers Guide were able to do. They weren’t sure beforehand what the outcome would be, but they sensed there was potential and possibilities that warranted the investment. Time well spent in my book!


    But one can

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