Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson
Both evolution and innovation thrive in collaborative networks where opportunities for serendipitous connections exist. Great discoveries often evolve as slow hunches, maturing and connecting to other ideas over time.
Where Good Ideas Don’t Come From
Good ideas do not – for the most part – come from inside someone’s head. Instead, they come from outside – specifically from social interaction.
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A study conducted in leading research laboratories found that scientists rarely, if ever, had a flash of inspiration or eureka moment alone in the lab. Instead, ideas happen in conversation with colleagues. So want a great idea? Then go to a coffee house and talk with someone.
Ideas Come From Stuff
Good ideas don’t come from thoughts or visions. Instead, they come from stuff.
Every great idea is a combination or mutation of an idea that has already been brought to life. Ideas brought to life in products that are already out there are the building blocks of innovation – not thoughts.
Good ideas do not come from looking forward or back; rather, they come from looking left and right, to what is adjacent to us. Tomorrow’s great innovations are built from the stuff of today—specifically, from the things around us that can be combined into something new.
The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.
Seven Questions for Finding Good Ideas
- What new possibilities are there today that didn’t exist earlier? (principle of adjacent possibilities)
- What hunches have you had for some time about what to do? (principle of slow hunches)
- What do fresh eyes think we should do? (principle of liquid networks)
- What worked that surprised us? (principle of serendipity)
- What’s the biggest learning from our biggest error? (principle of error)
- What other purpose can our product or service be used for? (principle of exaptation)
- What big success can we build on? (platform principle)
- Ideas are not created out of nothing, but are combinations and mutations of existing ideas
- Exaptation (finding new uses for existing things) and the adjacent possible (looking outward to the left and right) are important in innovation
- Great leaps beyond the adjacent possible are rare and often short-term failures
- Natural selection theory took time to mature and become fully-formed
- Tim Berners-Lee read a book as a child and was inspired to create a network where documents on different computers could be connected through hypertext links, which became the World Wide Web
Innovations from a Walk
- Platforms (like GPS) can be used as springboards for innovation and have spawned numerous innovations in various fields
- It is important to go for walks, cultivate hunches, write everything down, embrace serendipity, take on multiple hobbies, and frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks to stimulate creativity and innovation
- Let others build on your ideas and recycle, re-invent, and borrow ideas to foster innovation
Different Contexts generate Ideas
- Most creative individuals have broad social networks that extend beyond their own organization and get new ideas from different contexts
- Important ideas often arise during informal discussions in labs or other settings
- Great inventions and discoveries are often made by networks of people rather than individual inventors
- Many great discoveries, such as the World Wide Web, theory of relativity, computers, x-rays, pacemakers, and penicillin, have not been financially rewarded
- Collaboration and open networks of connections can be just as generative as competition in fostering innovation
- Liquid networks, which balance turbulence and stability, are optimal for both the evolution of life and creativity in fostering new connections and ideas
Strange Ways An Idea Takes Form
- Random connections drive serendipitous discoveries, such as dreams, which are the primordial soup of innovation
- Sleeping on a problem can help solve it, as seen with Kekulé’s discovery of the benzene molecule
- Shared interactions allow ideas to diffuse and be combined, and facilitating serendipitous connections can be achieved by introducing ideas from different disciplines into consciousness or working on multiple projects simultaneously
- Cross-referencing and networks that allow hunches to mature, scatter, and combine openly are important for innovation and inspiration
- Errors and mutations can lead to new traits and ideas, and innovation thrives on reinventing and reusing the old
- Discarded spaces and unconventional thinking in urban subcultures can lead to innovation that diffuses into the mainstream.