If at first a new idea is not absurd, there is no hope for it: Albert Einstein
Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is a fascinating ramble through the intellectual history of discovery. A few quick points from it:
- There is very little under the sun that is totally new. Most new ideas come from rearranging and reconnecting some of the bits and pieces you have lying around anyway.
- New ideas that take off come from “just next door” or “the adjacent possible”. If the idea is too new, with too many unfamiliar components, then the world isn’t ready for it: the timing isn’t right and the idea has to wait decades or even centuries before it becomes accepted.
- “Eureka!” moments, when the light bulb supposedly goes on instantly and the idea sparks into life in the mind of the discoverer, are mostly fictional. A careful review of supposed “Eureka!” moments indicates that these accounts are ex post inventions of the author: instead, the discovery usually comes at the end of a long series of near-discoveries. Creativity usually has a long gestation. It is not willful lying: it is rather that the discover has forgotten the long gestation process.
- The “sole inventor working alone” is almost total myth: most new ideas occur in networks of thinkers who are mulling over similar issues. If you want to be creative, be in a network.
- Private sector invention with the hoarding of knowledge is doing less well these days than open networks where sharing of ideas occurs without profit or hoarding.
Does it matter for management?
Does it matter for management where new ideas come from? For most organizations, in the overall scheme of things, innovation is a much bigger issue than creativity. Most organizations are teeming with new ideas: the problem is getting traditional management to take the new ideas seriously. Traditional management is so focused on disciplined execution of existing ideas, that new ideas have a hard time getting accepted.
My own experience of this occurred at the World Bank in 1985 when I asked to head a task force to streamline procedures at that august and stately institution.
When the senior manager appointed me to head the task force, he told me that he didn’t know of any good ideas to improve the procedures. After consulting with staff for a few days, our task force had taken note of over a hundred reasonable proposals for change. The ideas could not be implemented easily, because they were incompatible with the existing procedures, but they were all reasonable ideas. To make them implementable, the task force had to rethink the existing procedures and the new ideas and see how they could be combined together in a new and more productive way. The eventual success of the task force was more dependent on figuring out how to recombine the whole array of ideas than it was in the existence of individual new ideas. Innovation was more important than creativity.
The widespread phenomenon of disruptive innovation thus occurs because traditional management may be staring at a blockbuster new idea; but it rejects the new idea because it doesn’t fit the existing way of doing things. Implementing the new idea would cannibalize existing profits or because it runs too great a risk. The new idea doesn't fit.
Nokia is a recent flagrant example. In 2004, researchers at Nokia, the world’s leading mobile phone company, presented a prototype of a new kind of mobile phone to the senior management. The phone, which connected to the Internet, had a large bright screen and was operated by fingers on a touch-screen. The researchers believed that the device would be a winner in the fast-growing Smartphone market. Senior management evaluated the proposal and decided that the risks of failure did not warrant the costs: Nokia did not pursue development of the phone. In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone with precisely the features that Nokia’s management had opted not to pursue. By 2010, Nokia’s market share in Smartphones has been devastated. Not surprisingly, Nokia’s CEO has recently been replaced—yet another CEO victim of disruptive innovation.
The big lesson for managers of Johnon’s book is the warning signals that it gives to managerial efforts to put up barriers and hoard knowledge. In a world of dynamic knowledge evolution, plugging into flows of knowledge beyond the firm is likely to be more important than hoarding the static stock of knowledge that the firm already has.
Continuous innovation is going to require radically more open management than traditional management has been used to.
More important: does it matter for personal learning?
Perhaps more interesting are the implications for personal learning, e.g. for people who want to write a books. Some pointers that Johnson suggests are:
- Keep a commonplace book, jotting down everything that is of interest: these are the seeds of future discovery.
- Organize it in a computer so that these seeds can be easily found. Johnson uses DEVONThink (Mac only). There doesn’t seem to be a real equivalent for PCs, the closest being MyInfo or Ask Sam or Nota Bene. As a PC user, I make do with “X1 Search” which is blazingly fast and enables me to find anything I have ever written or saved, no matter which program the writing occurred in; moreover, it doesn’t involve any re-filing or indexing or identifying keywords, because it works with the raw material in whatever format it is in.
- Re-read your old stuff: one of the most interesting points in the book is that the great discoveries were staring their discoverers in the face in their own journals for years, before the penny dropped. Thus before Darwin finally grasped the full meaning of evolution, there were many “near discoveries” in his journals; in retrospect, it’s hard to understand: why didn’t he get it earlier? He almost had it, but somehow he hadn’t quite connected the pieces. Johnson’s conclusion: if he had re-read his journals more, he would have got it earlier. The most striking and counter-intuitive lesson is that the seeds of our future discoveries may lie in an almost-ready form in our existing writings: re-reading them may hasten our learning and discovery.
- Get into relevant networks: most new ideas flow from networks. The more relevant and lively the networks you are in and the more exposed that you are to new stuff, the more likely you are to be able to recombine some of it into one or more new ideas.
- Recognize other creative people: Creativity is a reflexive activity. By searching for and recognizing creativity in others, you are actually helping foster creativity in yourself.
Recognize a creative person in your life now at http://www.recognizealeader.com/