This is a story about innovation: an innovative idea from Amtrak and how that idea will improve our own innovative abilities. First, the idea.

Railroad your reality to create new realities.

Amtrak is creating an “Amtrak Residency” program where writers can apply toAmtrak for a free ride to nowhere, literally, on their trains. The idea being that the movement of the train, the solitude, the sounds, the isolation, all of it, will improve one’s creative abilities. I would suggest, as a guy who studies creativity, that there is real truth behind the anecdotal evidence.

In a previous post, “Creating Our Reality Requires Detaching From It,” I site several studies where our realities are adjusted in such a way as to release us from the anti-creative focus of the everyday. Like the noise of coffee shops, daydreaming, creating psychological distance, dim lighting, alcohol, and several others. All are proven to increase creativity.

The train, then, fires on all cylinders. It releases us from our everyday focus by having the everyday whizzing by us at high speeds. The sounds are not far from those of a coffee shop. The ease with which to daydream as another New England town goes by. The fact typically immovable distractions are duped as you move steadily away from them. Or even the natural serendipity of chance encounters with others on the train, many of whom could yield priceless inspiration. All of these things add up to what I believe is a solid foundation of truth behind this idea.

Now, the way this idea came to be is a teaching moment for all marketers.

An example of ‘listening marketing’.

Consider this chain of events:

  • Writer, Alexander Chee, was interviewed by Pen America. They asked him where he felt the most creative, to which he said, “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.”
  • Interview is published and read by New York City writer, Jessica Gross.
  • She immediately tweets, jokingly, that she wants an Amtrak residency.
  • Amtrak sees the tweet.
  • And then, to Amtrak’s massive credit, they invite Jessica to do just that. She does it, she writes about it, Amtrak gets lots of publicity, and then…
  • The railroad decides to formally institutionalize the idea with Amtrak Residency.

Voila! From a single utterance in an interview to a new program at Amtrak.

We like to think of social media as being all about engagement, recruitment, creating content, building numbers, likes, followers, and all that. But here’s an example of an idea that exists today not because Amtrak provoked it into existence, but because Amtrak was merely listening to its customers. They heard the idea, probably ran it by a few internal folks, certainly their PR group, and then went for it.

An example of an open brand.

It takes more than listening. Once a new idea for a brand is “listened to,” it must then be institutionally “listened to.” This is where most great ideas go to die. Now, to even entertain a new idea as disruptive as this one, a brand must have an open mind (institutionally) about who it is and what it can be. Amtrak is a train. It’s practical. It delivers people from one place to another.

Or is it?

Could a train also be a conduit for a very different kind of travel? Could the movement of the same trains on the same tracks actually move a customer in ways that are not physical at all? Those are pretty deep questions, far beyond the normal tracks. But Amtrak, again to their credit, was open enough to ask them all.

New application for the same old product.

As a practical marketing-matter, Amtrak now has an entirely new application for an entirely existing product. They need to change absolutely nothing about their train, their service, the routes, or the tracks. The only thing they changed – and in the process will change for us, too – is the way they thought about their product. And this is quintessential creativity.

In fact, it’s not far from a typical creative test in research called the “brick test,” where you have to think of as many uses for a brick as possible. And a train – a210 year old invention, of all things – has found a new application.

My bet is that this particular idea is just getting started. I could see creative teams from ad agencies in Portland, ME, taking the “Downeastern” route, say, to work on a new campaign for a client. Or for the next company off-site to be held not in Chicago, but between Chicago and Boston. Maybe a company in the creative field will buy trains and build their entire companies on them, full-time. It’s endless.

A seismic innovation shift.

We tend to think of innovation as tied only to the reinvention or evolution of our products and services. But this kind of innovation is not about innovating the product you see, it’s about innovating how you see the product.

So steal a page from Amtrak. Listen to your customers on social media regularly. Be open to what they suggest. Invite your employees to see your products differently. Heck, institutionalize “Brick Meetings” once a month at HQ with one topic: what else could we do with this same old product? And maybe have that meeting on an Amtrak train.

You might just uncover an entirely new market for your business.

All aboard!