“A series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. I have distilled them down into seven patterns. The more we embrace these patterns – in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools – the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.” (Where Good Ideas Come From – p17)
Author: Steven Johnson
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: 2010
Origin: I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed another Steven Johnson book, How We Got to Now. I was chatting about it with a colleague, and remarked how I was interested in more from the same author, and I came to work the next day to find a copy of Where Good Ideas Come From sitting on my desk.
Summary: Where Good Ideas Come From is the result of Steven Johnson asking, “What are the environments that lead to an unusual level of innovation?”
In the book, he explores, the environments, characteristics, patterns, factors, etc. that lead to innovation. Johnson believes that there are seven such properties:
- The Adjacent Possible: discoveries and new ideas are, much more often than not, incremental and built upon what’s already known
- Liquid Networks: information flow encourages and enables new ideas
- The Slow Hunch: ideas can take a long time to develop, and should be visited and revisited
- Serendipity: environments and habits that facilitate surprising new realizations can move ideas forward
- Error: think of the classic Isaac Asimov quote, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny…'”
- Exaptation: taking an invention, technology, breakthrough, etc. from one field and applying it to another
- Platforms: physical spaces, knowledge bases, and technologies that foster advancement and extension
Each property gets its own chapter, each of which includes a detailed explanation supported by illustrative historical anecdotes and comprehensive aggregated research. If you’ve read any of Johnson’s material before, then you’ll recognize the story-telling style.
In exploring the seven properties, Johnson takes us on a far-reaching journey – from prehistory to the modern Twitterverse, from private enterprise to open-source, from conversations in coffee houses of centuries past to the forums and communities of the Internet – and shows us that much of what we (or most people, at least) think about innovation and breakthroughs is wrong.
If you’d like a condensed version, then you can check out Steven Johnson’s TED talk.
My Take: Let’s get it out of the way: I enjoyed Where Good Ideas Come From. While reading it, I kept having some recurring thought themes.
First, I found myself asking how I can, in my professional role, encourage and foster ideas within my team, department, and larger organization. I’ve always been one to smash down barriers and naturally explore adjacencies, so these concepts are right up my alley.
Second, while reading through the concepts and supporting anecdotes, I was frequently drawn to thoughts about the Kitchener-Waterloo (and greater region) technology/innovation hub, and the foresight that the region’s business, technology, political, and community leaders have shown in creating an environment that comes very close to capturing Johnson’s concepts.
I actually came away inspired to participate even more in the local community, through Communitech and other similar initiatives.
Read This Book If: You have a passion for innovation.
Notes and Quotes:
- p13: “If you look at the entirety of the twentieth century, the most important developments in mass, one-to-many communications clock in at the same social innovation rate with an eerie regularity. Call it the 10/10 rule: a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience.”
- p17: “A series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. I have distilled them down into seven patterns. The more we embrace these patterns – in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools – the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.”
- p28: “Good ideas are like the NeoNurture device. They are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”
- p31 introduces the wonderful concept of the adjacent possible, a term coined by the scientist Stuart Kauffman, in reference to the set of things that can happen now based on what has happened previously
- p33: “The history of life and human culture, then, can be told as the story of a gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore.”
“Good ideas are inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. The history of life and human culture, then, can be told as the story of a gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore.”
- p41 made me think of Kitchener-Waterloo, and the wonderfully cooperative and innovative environment that thrives here: “Recall the question we began with: What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts – mechanical or conceptual – and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. Environments that block or limit these new combinations – by punishing experimentation, by obscuring certain branches of possibility, by making the current state so satisfying that no one bothers to explore the edges – will, on average, generate and circulate fewer innovations than environments that encourage exploration.”
- p58 makes an important distinction: “When the first market towns emerged in Italy, they didn’t magically create some higher-level group consciousness. They simply widened the pool of minds that could come up with and share good ideas. This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.”
“It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.”
- p64…this is about the fifth or sixth book that I’ve read that talks about psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s research and the concept of ‘flow‘: the internal state of energized focus that characterizes the mind at its most productive.
- p75: “Most great ideas come into the world half-baked, more hunch than revelation. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And more often than not, that missing element is somewhere else, living as another hunch in another person’s head. Liquid networks create an environment where those partial ideas can connect; they provide a kind of dating service for promising hunches. They make it easier to disseminate good ideas, of course, but they also do something more sublime: they help complete ideas.”
- p76 continues the idea from the previous page: “Hunches that don’t connect are doomed to stay hunches.”
- p83: “Part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down.”
- p101: “There is nothing mystical about the role of dreams in scientific discovery. While dream activity remains a fertile domain for research, we know that during REM sleep acetylcholine-releasing cells in the brainstem fire indiscriminately, sending surges of electricity billowing out across the brain. Memories and associations are triggered in a chaotic, semirandom fashion, creating the hallucinatory quality of dreams. Most of these new neuronal connections are meaningless, but every now and then the dreaming brain stumbles across a valuable link that has escaped waking consciousness. In this sense, Freud had it backwards with his notion of dreamwork: the dream is not somehow unveiling a repressed truth. Instead, it is exploring, trying to find new truths by experimenting with novel combinations of neurons.”
- p102: “The work of dreams turns out to a particularly chaotic, yet productive, way of exploring the adjacent possible.”
- p110, after a section on spontaneous realizations and serendipitous discoveries: “But how do you get those particular clusters of neurons to fire at the right time? One trick is to go for a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub) The shower or stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life – paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework – and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity: Why didn’t I think of that before?”
- At some point (I didn’t mark the page), Johnson talks about the old tradition of maintaining a commonplace book. I guess that’s what this blog is.
- p134: “The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again. And not just wrong, but messy. A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory environments.”
“The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again.”
- p136, quoting the British economist William Stanley Jevons: “In all probability the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one.”
- p138, quoting the American philosopher and psychologist William James: “The error is needed to set off the truth, much as a dark background is required for exhibiting the brightness of a picture.”
- p142: “Great ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.”
- p142…Evolution, ftw! “From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not enough to say ‘to err is human.’ Error is what made humans possible in the first place.”
“From an evolutionary perspective, it’s not enough to say ‘to err is human.’ Error is what made humans possible in the first place.”
- p148: “Benjamin Franklin, who knew a few things about innovation himself, said it best: ‘Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified.'”
- p209…take that, all you overbearing managers! “When you don’t have to ask for permission, innovation thrives.”
“When you don’t have to ask for permission, innovation thrives.”
- p225…an exercise that applies in many circumstances: “When you view the history of innovation from a distance, what you lose in detail you gain in perspective.”
- p230, warning against an oversimplification that is somewhat reminiscent of the Great Man Theory: “The history books like to condense these slower, evolutionary processes into eureka moments dominated by a single inventor, but most of the key technologies that powered the Industrial Revolution were instances of what scholars call ‘collective invention.’ Textbooks casually refer to James Watt as the inventor of the steam engine, but in truth Watt was one of dozens of innovators who refined the device over the course of the eighteenth century.” For those of you scoring at home, this oversimplification and singular doling out of credit also applies to that lightbulb guy, Edison.
- p231…and this is why outdated and terrible patent systems are a bad idea: “Why have so many good ideas flourished in the fourth quadrant (non-market, networked), despite the lack of economic incentives? One answer is that economic incentives have a much more complicated relationship to the development and adoption of good ideas than we usually imagine. The promise of an immense payday encourages people to come up with useful innovations, but at the same time it forces people to protect those innovations. Economists define ‘efficient markets’ as markets where information is evenly distributed among all the buyers and sellers in the space. Efficiency is generally held to be a universal goal for any economy – unless the economy happens to traffic in ideas. If ideas were fully liberated, then entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to profit from their innovations, because their competitors would immediately adopt them. And so where innovation is concerned, we have deliberately build inefficient markets: environments that protect copyrights and patents and trade secrets and a thousand other barricades we’ve erected to keep promising ideas out of the minds of others.”
- p241, somewhat paraphrasing one Thomas Jefferson: “The natural state of ideas is flow and spillover and connection. It is society that keeps them in chains.”
“The natural state of ideas is flow and spillover and connection. It is society that keeps them in chains.”
- p261 closes with some practical advice: “Most of us, I realize, don’t have a direct say in what macro forms of information and economic organization prevail in the wider society, though we do influence that outcome indirectly, in the basic act of choosing between employment in the private or the public sector. But this is the beauty of the long-zoom perspective: the patterns recur at other scales. You may not be able to turn your government into a coral reef, but you can create comparable environments on the scale of everyday life: in the workplaces you inhabit; in the way you consume media; in the way you augment your memory. 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. Build a tangled bank.”
“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.”