Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, may be filled with obvious truths – cities breed creativity, ideas are just networks of other ideas, work environments play an important role in stimulating breakthroughs – but the way he explains them and the examples he offers – a neonatal incubator assembled from readily available car parts so it can be repaired in resource deprived third world countries, or how GPS, initially designed to guide submarine missiles toward Soviet targets, became ubiquitous when President Reagan made the technology open and accessible to all – illuminate those truths in ways that get you both inspired and determined to improve the way you generate your own good ideas.
If you haven’t read the book, do the next best thing and watch his Ted talk.
In the meantime, here are four observations you can put to work right away.
Forget about Eureka
Ironically, the words and expressions we associate with having an idea – eureka moment, stroke of genius, flash of brilliance – all distort the truth. Good ideas rarely just pop into our heads. They develop over time. They tend to be combinations of other ideas. They emerge from a network of thoughts and inputs and observations that eventually produce something new rather than appear in the form of a single epiphany. Johnson cites Darwin’s theory of evolution, Timothy Prestero’s NeoNurture and a host of other examples.
Lesson: Introduce your early, half-assed ideas to other ideas. Look in unexpected places for the spare parts you might need to make them work.
Creativity needs the right space
Johnson has spent years answering the question, “What is the space of creativity.” He tells how the coffee houses of England played a role in the Enlightenment. He shares research from physicist Geoffrey West proving that cities breed innovation in relationship to how big they are. (It turns out that individuals, too, become more creative if they live in large cities.) He even relates how rich natural environments like coral reefs yield biological creativity. Again, old conventions — closed laboratories, secured R&D departments, creative departments – restrict ideas from flourishing. We need collisions between and among people along with spaces that let ideas “flow” so they can breed with other ideas.
Lesson: Force collisions. Get rid of offices and walls. Mix up the kind of people who work together. And make both the space and way of working liquid, so that ideas can breed with other ideas in the stream.
Support the slow hunch
One of my favorite chapters in the book is called The Slow Hunch. The best example cites Tim Berners-Lee’s development of the World Wide Web. It began when Tim, still a child, explored an encyclopedia titled Enquire Within Upon Everything: a Portal to the World of Information, continued years later with a freelance project to stay in touch with colleagues, and eventually ended with a deliberate attempt to connect the planet’s computers.
Lesson: We sometimes have partial ideas, or hazy hunches. It’s important to keep them alive rather than kill them because there’s not an immediate ROI. Give them time. Let them develop.
Connect rather than protect your early ideas
In a great passage, the author reminds us that while every economics textbook argues that competition between rivals breeds innovation, their argument may be flawed. If you look at innovation from what Johnson calls the long-zoom — a perspective that looks at creativity form multiple, rather than single scale observations — you conclude that openness and connectivity are far more valuable to innovation. The GPS example in his Ted talk is a perfect example.
Lesson: Share. Connect. Build on other people’s ideas and welcome their contribution to yours.
There’s more, of course. Johnson suggests that seven patterns reveal themselves anytime you study innovation — The Adjacent Possible; Liquid Networks; The Slow Hunch; Serendipity; Error; Exaptation; and Platforms — and dedicates a chapter to each. But perhaps the single most important lesson from all of this can be found in the closing line of his Ted talk. “Chance favors the connected mind.” I think those five words say it all.