Curiosity at the Trading Post

In the early twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of people journeyed far to take part in the Canadian fur trade. Many saw how inhabitants of the northerly regions stored their food in the winter — by burying the meats and vegetables in the snow. But probably few of them entertained thoughts about how this custom might relate to other fields of endeavor. One who did was a young man named Clarence Birdseye, who spent four years on a furtrading expedition that began in 1912. He was amazed to find that freshly caught fish and duck, frozen quickly in such a fashion, retained their taste and texture. He started wondering: Why can't we sel food in the United States that operates on the same basic principle? With such thoughts, an industry was born.

Birdseye developed the means of freezing foods rapidly, and then sold his ideas and processes to General Foods in 1930. (He later developed inexpensive freezer displays that enabled a system of distribution.) His name — adapted for brand purposes as Birds Eye — is stil seen by al who open freezer doors in supermarkets.

The father of frozen foods made something extraordinary from what, for the northern folk, was the ordinary practice of preserving food in the frozen ground. We do not know exactly what went on in Birdseye's mind when he observed this means of storage, but the thinking process is described wel by Tom Peters. “Something mysterious happens to a curious, ful y engaged mind,” he writes in The Brand You 50. “Strange little sparks are set off, connections made, insights triggered. The results: an exponential y increased ability to tune up/reinvent/Wow-ize today's project at work.” In other words, curiosity is a way of adding value to what you see. Birdseye's curiosity was strong enough to lift him out of the routine way of seeing things. It set the stage for innovation and discovery, for coming up with something new.

There's an additional — and critical — facet to the frozen-foods discovery: The idea came from already existing practice. It wasn't manufactured out of thin air or spontaneously generated in the brain of a creative genius. Birdseye took the same cognitive route that countless Idea Hunters have taken: He noticed an idea in one environment and transplanted it into a different one. His curiosity added phenomenal value to what he saw, but the idea was already out there.

Sometimes ideas just need to be found and replicated. One-size-fits-al coffee lids, for example, must be universal by now. They're a simple case of reuse. People al over the world have used and reused this idea, without altering it substantial y, just as people might use a particular casserole recipe. This act, by itself, has an enormously productive impact on people's work and entire economies.

Birdseye, however, saw an idea and found a dramaticaly different purpose for it. This is the ful repurposing of an idea. And this is what Phil Schil er did when he and the team at Apple were looking for the right user interface for their music player, which was on the drawing boards at the time. Presumably his mind flashed back to the early 1980s when Hewlett Packard put out its Workstation computer, which sported a scrol wheel.

And this went on to become a pronounced feature of the first iPod. That's repurposing. The exact cost of such a discovery? Zero. That's the leveraging power of ideas.

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