Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

cultivate hunches, make mistakes, write everything down, have multiple hobbies, visit coffee shops, share, recycle, re-invent

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson says that collaboration rather than isolated competition is at the heart of innovation. Providing examples from different centuries and different sectors, the book outlines seven key elements of innovation and provides readers with plenty of practical suggestions that they can implement in their own lives.

The Adjacent Possible
Johnson says that innovation does not involve giant leaps into the unknown. Instead, we explore the adjacent possible, the circle of possibility that surrounds our current reality.

“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. . . . Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.”

Our personal challenge is to encourage experimentation and exploration by changing our physical environment, cultivating social networks or seeking out new information.

Liquid Networks
The “edge of chaos” is the fertile zone between conformity and anarchy. In this liquid area, new structures can emerge but there is enough stability that they do not immediately self-destruct.

There will be more good ideas in the marketplace, with its spillover between many different minds, than in the castle, with its top-down hierarchy. Similarly, more ideas emerge at a staff meeting than in isolated laboratories because the group environment provides new perspectives on a problem.

People don’t like open office buildings because there is no privacy, so you have to balance order and chaos in work environments. Microsoft carefully planned its office space to include modular offices with walls that can be easily reconfigured, write-on/wipe-off walls and mixer stations where people can visit and talk.

The Slow Hunch
Johnson says that “most great ideas come into the world half-baked, more hunch than revelation.” They need to be nurtured so that they don’t get forgotten amidst more pressing day-to-day issues.

Johnson says we need to carve out space to nourish our hunches and write them down so they don’t get lost.

Johnson explains that the “quickest path to innovation lies in making novel connections.” We need unstructured space and time (go for a walk, have a shower) when unrelated ideas can bump up against each other and create something new and unexpected.

We should actively seek out diverse and eclectic perspectives by surfing the web at random or brainstorming in order to build on each other’s ideas.

Benjamin Franklin said that “Truth is uniform and narrow. . . . But error is endlessly diversified.” Our failures challenge our assumptions and force us to adopt new strategies. One of the ground rules of web start-ups is “fail faster.” Don’t try and be perfect. Ship your product, evaluate the results, and learn from your mistakes.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, he took advantage of the screw press that was used in winemaking. Computer punch cards were first invented to weave complex silk patterns on Jacquard looms. Innovation can involve a new use rather than a completely new product.

Johnson advises fostering multiple interests, working on more than one project at a time and actively seeking out cross-disciplinary environments (a coffee shop, a large city).

Just as ideas from one domain can be adapted for use in another, we can also build on other people’s ideas. One example is open government where individual and public groups take advantage of access to government databases in order to create computer apps.

Jane Jacobs said that innovation thrived in discarded spaces. Only large, well-established organizations like banks or chain stores could afford new construction. Smaller businesses took advantage of existing resources by moving into and restoring older buildings.

Collaboration not Competition
Johnson concludes his book by emphasizing that most of history’s greatest innovations have come about through collaboration rather than competition.

“You need only survey a coral reef (or a rain forest) for a few minutes to see that competition for resources abounds in this space. . . . But that is not the source of its marvellous biodiversity. . . .What makes the reef so inventive is not the struggle between the organisms but the way they have learned to collaborate – the coral and the zooxanthellae and the parrotfish borrowing and reinventing each other’s work.”

“The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, re-invent.”

See Also:
     The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin
     Glimmer, How Design Can Transform Your Life, Your Business, and Maybe Even the World, Warren Berger

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